Grand Dames: The Eternally Regal Diana Ross Opens Brooklyn’s Lavishly Redone Kings Theatre

Diana Ross on November 1, 2014. Photo: Manny Hernandez/WireImages/Getty

To get to the Diana Ross concert in Flatbush last night, I exited the Q train at Beverley Road with a small, decently dressed pack of people who had absolutely no idea where they were going. They asked each other nearly in unison which way to the Kings Theatre before laughing and realizing that of course they were all headed to the same place. They pulled over beside the entrance to the Beverley Road Q — one stop away from the Church Avenue station where, last fall, someone began scrawling on the pillars messages like “Fight white gentrification of FBush” and “Keep Flatbush black” — and consulted their phones before someone among them finally looked up long enough to notice the dramatic, crisscrossing spotlights to their right. With a medium no less grand than the night sky, they broadcast their message loud and clear: This is the way forward.

From 1929 until it closed in 1977, the Kings was the immoderately glittering crown jewel of Flatbush Avenue — Brooklyn’s Versailles. It was built in the unholy year of 1929 and opened about a month before Black Tuesday; many believe that had its completion been delayed a little while longer, until after the stock-market crash, it never would have opened at all. But it did, and like the four other Loew’s Wonder Theatres scattered throughout the city, it became a Depression-era emblem of the arts’ transformative, communal power. Designed by Chicago architects Rapp and Rapp, the Kings was a gaudily secular cathedral of American excess, where Brooklyn came to escape, to luxuriate, to dream. “I would say that the real historian or architectural expert would feel that this is really bastardizing architecture,” says one man who worked on the theater in the Kings documentary Memoirs of a Movie Palace, “because it was not correct according to any style. Every effort was just made to make it as voluptuous, as gorgeous as possible.”

A few days before the show that would reopen the Kings, the sold-out An Evening With Diana Ross, the best seats in the house were going on StubHub for $1,000. And yet, it’s hard to imagine a performer better suited to rechristen the place; what does Diana Ross represent if not excess, uplift, and a fairy-godmotherlike flair for turning apple juice into Moët? (Well, former Supreme Mary Wilson might phrase it a little more acidly, but still.) Last night, the largely white crowd milled about the lobby and took in the gorgeous restoration — plush carpets, dramatic staircases, the lavishly painted ceiling painstakingly restored to its original colors. A politely tinkling bell indicated that it was time to take our seats, and the curtain lifted in the Kings for the first time in nearly four decades — revealing Ross’s 11-piece band, which got the crowd on its feet with a lively, percussive instrumental. Soon after, our diva emerged in the middle of the theater and, bubblelike, floated up the aisle singing a galvanizing rendition of (what else?) “I’m Coming Out.” She was wearing a mermaidlike, sea-foam sequined dress and a billowing, near-parodic shawl that suggested she had walked into a fabric store, purchased an entire bolt of tulle, and wrapped it around her body in an effort make herself as voluptuous, as gorgeous as possible.

This performer and venue were not always so spiritually in sync: At height of Ross’s solo fame in the ’70s and early ’80s, the Kings saw some of its darkest days. The film industry had changed — decreased output, the rise of multiplexes, a general distrust of glamour — and the Kings and other movie palaces like it fell into disrepair. After a gradual decline into B-movie screenings and dwindling attendance, the theater finally shuttered in 1977. For decades it remained stubbornly undemolished, surviving a series of proposed development deals that fell through mostly because when push came to shove, nobody wanted to build in Flatbush. But, perhaps to stay a few strokes ahead of the looming wave of gentrification, the city and private investors put $95 million into an extensive two-year restoration process. According to the Times, workers found a naked man asleep on the stage when they first arrived to rip up the carpets and remove the asbestos.

Last night, though, was all class. On her great 1977 live album documenting a tour that was also called An Evening With Diana Ross, the Boss spends much of the show ramping up to a climactic Supremes medley, but in 2015, she dispenses with that early, as though she would like to get it out of the way and move onto more important things. Still, even for its perfunctoriness and a few understandably human rasps, she sang the songs nearly note-perfectly — that clarion, sparrowlike voice ringing out with such stirring familiarity that a man behind me at one point gasped to his companion, “I’m out of my skin!” In a moment when we are dealing with the unsettlingly mortal fact that Mariah Carey can no longer hit some of those signature high notes, there is something deeply, profoundly, and perhaps even existentially comforting about the fact that Diana Ross still sounds exactly like Diana Ross.

Supremes biographer Mark Ribowsky once wrote that the group’s genius relied upon a “delicate camp/fantasy balance,” and this is the pinhead on which Ross, at 70, still twirls. She has this breezy way of dancing while at the same time saying with her expressive, silent-film-actress eyes, “Can you believe I’m dancing?” The audience eats it up. Her outfits were differently hued variations on the sequins-beneath-a-cloud-of-tulle theme, as though they were the other options — crimson, silver, canary — presented to Glinda the Good Witch by her stylist before she finally settled on pink. The silver dress, of course, meant disco, and Ross had the crowd worked into a froth during the set’s highlight, the effervescent “Upside Down,” during which one man very elegantly rushed the stage and launched into an impressive dance routine. Though it is not spoken of as frequently as her diva’s reputation, onstage, Ross has always had an almost Zen-like tendency to move with the elements, to simply let things be. She regarded this interloper much as she did the legendary Central Park thunderstorm in 1983: gamely, professionally, even with a degree of delight. Beaming, she let the man dance beside her, and when he was done, even offered him a hug, much to the visible terror of the security guards poised in the wings.

For a fittingly over-the-top finale, she played her version of “I Will Survive” — twice. The second time, she passed the mike to her backup singers to do some impressively spirited solos, and then invited some of her family out onstage, including her son Evan Ross and his wife, Ashlee Simpson. Though it seemed like a charming opportunity for a lip-sync joke or perhaps a hoedown, Ross unfortunately did not pass the mike to Simpson.

The whole thing ended with a warm, soaring sing-along of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” which gave off the feeling that Ross had just sprinkled a heaping helping of fairy dust over the swaying crowd. Across the street from the theater, before, during, and after the show, a steady stream of passersby lifted phones and snapped photos of the marquee that proclaimed, “GRAND REOPENING … WELCOME BACK, BROOKLYN.” It was hard to tell exactly what appeared in the pictures: a landmark of old Brooklyn successfully revived, or another ominous harbinger of a neighborhood’s impending transformation. The show was a little bit of magic, which means that it was impossible to say in the intoxicating moments afterwards if $95 million worth of fairy dust could have been better spent.

*This article appears in the February 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.