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

By Jeremy Megraw, Librarian
January 13, 2012

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

(quoted in opening night program, B. S. Moss' Coliseum Theatre, 1920)

RKO Coliseum

RKO 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.