Sunday, January 4, 2015

RKO Bushwick Theatre - Broadway at Howard Avenue

Historic 1911 Photo of Bushwick Theatre
Bushwick Theatre circa 1911
Present Day Photo of RKO Bushwick Theatre Building
RKO Bushwick Theatre January 3, 2014
Historic Photo of RKO Bushwick Theatre Marque
RKO Bushwick Theatre Historic Photo
(image source: William-Cinima Treasures)
The RKO Bushwick Theatre was once Brooklyn's largest and most magnificent vaudeville theatre with seating for 2,500 patrons.[1] The venue was designed in Beaux-Arts and Greek Revival styles by prolific theatre architect William H. McElfatrick (1854-1922) with interior decorator Louis Kuhn Studio.[1][2][3] The exterior building materials included brick, limestone and glazed terra-cotta. The main entrance fronting Broadway was grand, illuminated by powerful lights on 28-foot high ornamental columns. It is difficult to imagine today, but the neighborhood must have been awash in light.[4]

Architectural Plan of Bushwick Theatre
RKO Bushwick Theatre Plan (image source: Brooklyn's Bushwick)
Architectural Section-Elevation of Bushwick Theatre
RKO Bushwick Theatre Section-Elevation (image source: Brooklyn's Bushwick)
Photo of Interior of Bushwick Theatre
RKO Bushwick Theatre Interior
(image source: Brooklyn's Bushwick)
At the time of its construction the Bushwick Theatre had the largest allotment of space for theatre foyer, lobby and lounging rooms. Also unique to the theatre’s design was the animal room. The animal room was an area underneath the stage built to house the many animal acts that were once included in vaudeville shows. Its design was sufficient in size to accommodate dogs, monkeys, horses, elephants and other beasts. The main theater consisted of a large stage, lower floor, gallery and balcony with mezzanine boxes at the front.[4] The theater also featured a Wurlitzer Opus 1390 organ, as well as mural painting by Arthur Thomas.[2][3] Construction was completed in 1911 at a cost of $225,000 and the theatre opened on September 11, 1911. Later alterations in 1926 and 1929 were made by architect Thomas W. Lamb and in 1930 a screen was added for motion pictures.[3] In the mid-thirties live shows were dropped in favor of movies.[5]

The Bushwick Theatre was commissioned by Percy G. Williams, a turn of the century vaudeville mogul. A leading force in vaudeville, Percy owned many New York theaters including: Brooklyn Music Hall, the Novelty, Orpheum, and the Greenpoint Theatre in Brooklyn and the Circle, Alhambra, and Colonial in Manhattan. When Williams' health began to fail him he sold his chain of theaters to his leading competitor, Keith-Albee (later R.K.O), for a sizable profit. Percy Williams then retired to his estate in Islip, Long Island. Williams died in 1923 and willed his fortune to the actors that helped make him make it.[5]

The Bushwick Theater was once a neighborhood institution. In its heyday, during the 1920s and 30s the Bushwick Theater featured the biggest vaudeville acts and headlined stars like Ethel Barrymore and Lily Langtry. During WWI the theatre hosted Red Cross and Liberty Bond drives.[6] In July of 1926 the theater sponsored a swimsuit giveaway to neighborhood children.[7] Later, in 1947 the theater hosted a beauty contest with the winner to be crowned “Miss Bushwick”.[8]
Historic 1970 Photo of RKO Bushwick Theatre
RKO Bushwick Theatre circa 1970
(image source: National Archives)
Nothing lasts forever and in spite of the theatre's earlier success and neighborhood reputation, RKO Bushwick Theater fell on hard times. Like many inner city neighborhoods in New York and across the country, the once fashionable neighborhood of Bushwick faced a rapid decline as people retreated from urban areas for the suburbs. It was a midst this backdrop of urban abandonment that ticket sales slumped and the theatre was closed in 1969. By 1970 the theatre had been converted into a church known as Pilgrim Baptist Cathedral. After being vandalized during the 1970 blackout the church abandoned the building and the structure slowly decayed.[5][6]

RKO Bushwick Theatre Howard Avenue Facade
RKO Bushwick Theatre-Acorn Highschool
Photo of Terra-Cotta Window Sculptures & Relief
RKO Bushwick Theatre
Terra-Cotta Window Treatment
RKO Bushwick Theatre Terra-Cotta Window Details
RKO Bushwick Theatre Terra-Cotta Details
The balustraded parapet wall, large cherubs over the window pediments and theatre marque have all been removed from the facade. However, today, the fa├žade is all that remains of the RKO Bushwick Theatre; it has been preserved as part of the Acorn High School for Justice building constructed in 2004.[9]

  1. Merlis, Brian & Gomes, Riccardo Brooklyn’s Bushwick. Wyckoff, New Jersy: Gomerl Publishing, 2012
  2. Backmann, Kevin & Gabel, William “RKO Bushwick Theatre” Cinema Treasures online.
  3. “Bushwick Theatre” Journal of the Theatre Historical Society of America 2nd Quarter Vol. 26 No. 2
  4. Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1910
  5. Robinson, Jack “Brooklyn’s Magnificent Ruin: The Bushwick Theatre” Marquee Vol. 18 No. 1 1st Quarter 1986
  6. English, Merle “Encore for a ‘Fading Beauty’” Newsday 10 November, 1989
  7. “1,200 Children Dash for Free Bathing Suits-Big Ones Lose” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 10 July, 1926
  8. “RKO Bushwick to Start Beauty Contest Tuesday” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 3 July, 1947
  9. “RKO Bushwick - I'm Still Standing” Forgotten NY online. 2004

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