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Photos: The Most Beautiful Old Movie Palace in Brooklyn, Back From the Brink

Photo: Matt Lambros

There were five of them, called the Wonder Theaters. It was 1929. The new exhibition palaces had pipe organs, like cathedrals, and some of the pictures even talked, all by themselves! And when you set foot in a golden auditorium that seated 3,600, you too could feel imperial, at a cost of 25 cents. With candy, 30 cents.

Brooklyn’s Wonder Theater was even called the Kings — the Loew’s Kings. “It’s huge,” says the architect Gary Martinez, whose firm, Martinez + Johnson Architecture, has been restoring it. “Huge! Even for those of us who have seen hundreds of theaters, the first time you walk down onto the orchestra level, it’s just a massive room.” In 1929, a building like this was already retrograde, gaudy, overwrought. But that was the point: The Kings was built for architectural escapism along with cinematic escapism. Spending a day at “the Lowies,” as it was curiously pronounced, was a pretty far cry from sitting around your parents’ apartment on Avenue P. Being one of the only really big auditoriums in Brooklyn, it also hosted dozens of high-school graduations. Chuck Schumer crossed its stage in cap and gown. So did Carole King. So did my mother.

What happened next is dank and familiar. The neighborhood grew seedier just as the movie-­exhibition business started to favor multiplexes over giant single screens. The Kings had opened with Dolores Del Rio in Evangeline, a silent film played in sync with shellac records; it closed in 1977 with a cheap Bruce Lee biopic. The building was abandoned, the roof buckled, and the interior got wet. Scavengers stole the copper pipes and the fixtures. But it didn’t burn. The Kings was down, but not out.

After decades of what-do-we-do-with-this-thing inertia, the Kings has been overhauled by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, to be run under contract by the Ace Theatrical Group. It cost $94 million to dry it out and get it fixed, and just about every over-the-top detail has been meticulously put right. Diana Ross will reopen the hall on February 3.

All five Wonder Theaters made it out of limbo, although only the Loews Jersey, in Jersey City, regularly shows movies. The economics of film still cut against enormous rooms like these. In fact, the other three — in Washington Heights, on the Grand Concourse, and in Jamaica, Queens — are now churches. Each provides, in its way, uplift. Enter, and you can convince yourself that you are both at the center of the world and transcending it, in the presence of either God or Miss Ross.

*This article appears in the January 12, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

There was a basketball court, of all things, in the basement — “a primitive one, but it was there,” Martinez says. The space was reused for dressing rooms — and additional bathrooms, because “I think there were four toilets for 3,600 seats before.” ******* “When you go in, look up at the top at the spiral columns on either side of the stage,” says restoration architect Gary Martinez. “You’ll see pairs of figures on either side, and they look proportionally correct, normal. When we put up the scaffolding floor, and got up to those things for the first time — those figures are 11 feet from top to bottom. I was amazed at how huge they are.” ******* Movie theaters can have a shallowly sloped floor, since everyone’s looking up at the screen; live-performance halls need a steeper rake, lowering the sight lines toward the stage. Since the Kings was built primarily for movies, “we repoured three-quarters of the floor,” says Martinez, “and the entire center portion of the balcony.” ******* “Almost the entire house-right side was lost to damage — we had to rebuild all that plaster,” says Martinez. “But even losing that area, we had a tremendous amount of original material to work with. We were able to take molds from different areas and re-create the decorative motifs.” ******* Barbra Streisand, contrary to neighborhood lore, was never an usherette here. But it was her local theater of choice, she has said, “partly because it had double features, air-conditioning, and great ice-cream cones.” Photo: Matt Lambros
Some walls had been repainted in different colors over the years; others had simply darkened with decades of smoke (yes, you used to be able to light up at the movies) and dirt. Microscopic studies revealed the lighter, brighter original palette. ******* The arched colonnade running around the auditorium, and the vaulted spaces above, survived mostly intact. ******* A few original seat standards — the plates at the ends of the rows — survived, and were used to cast a set of reproductions. “You wouldn’t think it, but we spent a lot of time on seating,” Martinez says. Photo: Matt Lambros
Every light fixture, except for a few of the biggest chandeliers, had been changed or stolen. The restorers spent a lot of time comparing old photographs of the theater with old electrical-fixture catalogues, to figure out what the builders had ordered. Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Historical Society of America
“It all has to be done differently from the way it used to, to meet accessibility codes, fire codes.” Legroom has been bumped up; so have seat widths, from 18 inches to 21, 23, and 24. That took the capacity down to 3,200. Photo: Matt Lambros
Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Historical Society of America
Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Historical Society of America
Photo: Richard Perry/The New York Times/Redux
The ornate marquee was rebuilt in boxier form sometime around mid-century; the vertical (“blade”) sign was cut down in the 1990s when it grew dangerous. A new marquee strongly echoes the original, and the support for a blade sign was retained, so it, too, may be re-created soon. Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times/Redux
Photos: A Brooklyn Movie Palace, Back From Ruins