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Ghost Light: Illuminating Our City's Theaters: RKO Coliseum

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A thing of beauty is a joy forever... — Keats

(quoted in opening night program, B. S. Moss' Coliseum Theatre, 1920) RKO ColiseumRKO Coliseum in 1923, a combination Vaudeville house and movie theatre

The end of 2011 also brought the quiet demise of the last movie theater in WashingtonHeights, Coliseum Cinemas. Known to most residents as the RKO Coliseum, the large theater, occupying the entire corner of 181st and Broadway, has been a fixture of the neighborhood for over 90 years. As the community now debates the future of the Coliseum and nostalgia starts to kick in, let’s open this theater's historical file, found among the rich collections of the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

On its opening day on September 24, 1920, B. S. Moss' Coliseum Theatre featured live Vaudeville acts while Harold Lloyd entertained onscreen in the latest Pathé comedy.

Imagine the impression this enormous brand new theater must have given, the third largest in the city (second only to the Hippodrome and the Capitol), its lobby and corridors festooned with flowers from well wishers: Vaudevillians, movie stars, as well as the grateful neighborhood community itself — all milling around, smiling mouths agape in awe at the splendor. The interior was ornately decorated in gray, ivory, French gold, and American Beauty Rose red. Even the bathrooms were richly furnished and included statuary and paintings on the walls. Like its neighbor, Audubon Theatre, the Coliseum’s purpose was to present a mixed program of Vaudeville and motion pictures, and was considered primarily as an “amusement center destined to play a large part in the neighborhood community life.”

That first night, the 3,500-seat theater easily filled to capacity with eager invitees. Up in the boxes were the big names in Vaudeville, including moguls E. F. Albee and Martin Beck. With its built-in organ, the theater was the ultimate entertainment center. As an overture, music surged from the 25-piece orchestra pit with Ponchielli’s magical “Dance of the Hours,” followed by the latest newsreel. Thus warmed up, the audience was then treated to the latest Vaudeville skits from Eddie Foy and his Family, who broke in the new stage and made it shine. The lights were then dimmed to screen the latest silent films, the Harold Lloyd comedy Get Out and Get Under, followed by the Norma Talmadge drama The Branded Woman. The intermission consisted of selections from Sigmund Romberg’s latest musical, The Magic Melody. An exit march concluded the show well after midnight.

exterior of The Coliseum, 1927 During its heyday, the Coliseum continued to present live Vaudeville with the likes of Ethel Waters, Eddie Cantor, MIlton Berle, Bob Hope , and even Rin-Tin-Tin making appearances. Most residents though will remember it primarily as a movie theater. I personally recall seeing many poorly-dubbed Kung fu and Italian horror pictures there in the 1970s and 80s. Old-timers may remember seeing Blonde Venus, RKO comedies featuring the Marx Brothers, Mae West and W. C. Fields, and sci-fi classics like The Thing.

Rare interior shot of the Coliseum in 1927 during its 7th birthday, visible is poster of Vaudeville veteran Eddie Foy, announcing his own birthday.

Old Blue-Bell Tavern, Kingsbridge Road / N. Orr, Digital ID 424351 , New York Public Library

Interestingly enough, the site of the Coliseum as a community rest and recreation spot goes back further still to the American Revolution, when an inn called the Blue Bell Tavern stood there, its bar situated where the box office is now. The inn's guests alternated between both British and Continental forces during the War, including General George Washington himself. The Blue Bell, which dated back to the 1720s, still existed well into the 19th century, and whatever remained was razed and replaced by the Coliseum.

Over the years, the Coliseum's role as performance venue has experienced a general decline. The theater's structure was gradually broken up into a duplex, then a triplex, and a large chunk of its enormous footprint on Broadway eventually became commercial spaces, occupied by grocery and retail stores. During the 1980s attempts were made by residents to rejuvenate the space as a community arts center. A benefit performance called Salute to Ol' Vaudeville was staged in 1980 by a local arts organization for just this purpose. In recent years, after two closings (and subsequent renamings), and despite such promising local initiatives as a Dominican Film Festival and Children’s Film Festival, the venue still struggles to find its identity.

Whether the Coliseum will experience another reboot as a cinema or a revised cultural venue remains an open question. Until then, researchers are welcome to explore its past via the ephemera left behind and preserved by The New York Public Library.

Further reading:

This page is dedicated to Mary Henderson, whose writings on the theater arts and the theaters in which they were performed continue to inform and inspire.

 

 

 

Comments

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Thank You!

This is amazing - thank you! First time I've seen a photo of the interior! Really interesting/informative piece. I'd wager not 1% of the current WaHi community knows anything about the early days of the Coliseum. Amazing how much of our history simply disappears over time.

A very well written and

A very well written and informed piece not to mention nostalgic. I remember Brooklyn's own RKO Kennore Theater on Flatbush and Church Avenue - an absolutely grand space. It's tragic demise after years of violence and vandalism- its since been gutted. Perhaps this will be a call to preserve our landmarks of the past.

Thank you

My mother would have appreciated this story and I appreciate your dedication to her!

Excellent!

Please continue to provide us with history material, especially about Washington Heights, that is excellent.

THANK YOU! INTERIORS!

The photo of the opening night playbill AND the interior shot from 1927 are amazing. Thank you very much for taking the time to illuminate us all.

THANK YOU! INTERIORS!

The photo of the opening night playbill AND the interior shot from 1927 are amazing. Thank you very much for taking the time to illuminate us all.

Excellent post!

This is a beautiful post, Jeremy. I love especially how you've worked in your own personal experiences with the theater, and have referenced the site's significance during Revolutionary times. Plus, the original images are invaluable!

The Future of Moss' Coliseum Theatre

What a pity this beautiful and historical site, Moss' Coliseum Theatre is no longer being used as a theatre. My belief is that since most of the revival theatres in New York have closed down or changed their purpose in showing films, this beautiful theatre could open up again as a revival theatre. There is a very large audience for old films. A large part of the population of America is now older, and many retired. Most of them have fond memories of the wonderful films of days gone by, the Hollywood musical extravaganzas, the films of Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando,Leslie Howard, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Vivian Leigh...and other such great actors, as well as the wonderful clowns like Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the fabulous Marx Brothers. If such a theatre were to open on Broadway, it would probably do very well. In the past there was usually a second feature called a B film. They were often mysteries or soap opera-type melodramatic films. Moss'Coliseum Theatre is a unique historical site and that alone would add to its popularity. Thank you for calling it to the attention of the public.

Coliseum Documentary

I hope it reopens again soon. It's too important not to. When these theaters close - unfortunately - the magic of the movie-going experience vanishes too. I did this brief documentary as part of one my NYU film courses several years ago. It deals in part with the RKO Colliseum and its evolved audience. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ3RszEQ4GE (Part 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3SdOzzNkP0 (Part 2) -Boris

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