The Sorg Opera House in Middletown, OH originally opened on September 12, 1891. Paul J. Sorg, Middletown’s first multi-millionaire, had the opera house built as a gift to the city of Middletown. Sorg hired Samuel Hannaford, who designed the Cincinnati Music Hall, to design the 1,200-seat opera house. Opening day included a performance of the opera “The Little Tycoon,” composed by Willard Spenser and a speech by then Ohio Governor James E. Campbell.
In 1901, the Sorg began showing early forms of motion pictures, such as photo plays, and vaudeville performances before the operas. Many now famous vaudeville performers played at the opera house, including Marie Dressler, Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Bob Hope and Sophie Tucker. The live shows were discontinued in the late 1920s, and in the summer of 1929 a sound system was installed, turning the Sorg into a full time movie theater.
On January 17, 1935, a fire caused $10,000 (or $185,298 when adjusted for inflation) of damage to the backstage area of the theater, which caused it to close for several months. In April 1935, the Gordon Theatre Company took a long term lease on the theater and began repairs. It reopened in September 22, 1935 with films and stage shows. The Sorg closed again for a remodel in the late 1940s and a false ceiling was added, separating the upper balcony from the the rest of the theater to improve the sound.
The Sorg remained a movie theater until it closed in the late 1970s. Soon after, the Friends of the Sorg was formed to reopen it as a live performance venue. They were successful, and ran the theater until 2010, when a water main break forced the opera house to close again. In 2012, the Sorg Opera Revitalization Group (SORG) formed to buy and reopen the building. SORG was able to purchase the theater in August 2012 for $32,000. Since then they’ve made a number of improvements to the building, including removing the partition between the upper balcony and the rest of the auditorium, replacing the seats with ones donated from the Cincinnati Music Hall, repairing the public restrooms and re-hanging the house curtains. A full restoration of the building is estimated to cost between $9M and $11M. The Sorg reopened in late 2017 with a performance called “Celebrate the Sorg” and featured the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra.
This theater is not abandoned, but I had the chance to shoot it a few years ago, and I wanted to share the images with everyone.
The United Palace originally opened on February 22, 1930 as the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre. Located in the the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, the building takes up an entire city block and was designed by famed theater architect Thomas W. Lamb. (Lamb’s work can also be seen in my posts on the RKO Hamilton Theatre also in Washington Heights, and the RKO Keith’s Theatre in Flushing, Queens.) The interior decor was designed by Harold Rambusch of the Rambusch Company, who did some of the interior work on the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, the Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia and many others across the country. The theater was estimated to cost $1.25M to build in 1928 or $18.4M when adjusted for inflation. It was the first theater in Washington Heights designed specifically for talking pictures.
The 3,000 seat United Palace was the fifth and last of the theaters that became known as the “Loew’s Wonder Theatres.” The wonder theater concept was originally developed by the Balaban and Katz Theater Corporation of Chicago to bring large movie palaces to smaller urban neighborhoods. Loew’s acquired three of Paramount’s planned wonder theaters (the Kings and Pitkin in Brooklyn and the Valencia in Queens) in a deal with the company in 1927. Each of the Loew’s Wonder Theatres originally had identical Robert Morton “Wonder” organs built specifically for them.
In 2007, the theater became a concert venue and hosted acts such as Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, Beck and Neil Young. Xavier Eikerenkotter, Rev. Ike’s son, created a non-profit called the United Palace of Cultural Arts to turn the theater into a performing and community arts center in 2012. One year later, the United Palace held a crowdfunding campaign to purchase a 50-foot screen. The campaign was a success, and the first movie screened in the theater in over 40 years was “Casablanca” on November 17, 2013. In 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda donated $100,000 for a new state-of-the-art digital projector that launched the campaign “Reawaken Wonder at a Timeless Movie Palace,” to raise funds for cinema-quality audio. The United Palace has also been used as a filming location for television and motion pictures in recent years. Upcoming events and more information can be found on the theater’s website at: UnitedPalace.org
Originally a carport for the Brooklyn Railroad Company, 1027 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, where the Kings was built, was actually almost the home of another theater ten years earlier. William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation purchased the property on November 1, 1919, and intended to build the biggest theater in Brooklyn on the site. Fox hired famed theater architect Thomas W. Lamb to design a 3500 seat theater on the property, but it never happened. Fox liked to buy land in areas he thought could be or needed a theater, often never building anything and just selling the land years later.
In 1927, Famous Players (Paramount) entered into an agreement with the Allied Owners Corporation, a subsidiary of New York Investors, Inc., to finance the construction of the theater. According to the agreement, the Allied Owners Corp. would hold the deed to the Flatbush Ave. property along with three others in New York and one in Birmingham, Alabama and finance the construction of the theaters. Upon completion, the theaters would be leased to the Paramount-Famous Players- Lasky Corporation to repay the bond. In October 1927, Allied Owners sold an issue of $9,500,000 real estate bonds and used the profits to finance the building of the five theaters. These theaters were the Paramount, Kings, and Pitkin in Brooklyn, the Valencia in Jamaica, NY, and the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham.
When the Loew’s Corporation found out about the theaters, Nicholas Schenck contacted Paramount to offer a new deal. In exchange for showing Paramount Films in over 40 of Loew’s theaters, Paramount would sublease three of the four New York theaters over to Loew’s, keeping the one located in downtown Brooklyn.When the agreement was finalized, the Pitkin, the Valencia, and the Kings opened as Loew’s theaters. The theaters would be paid for in 181 monthly payments: $20,983 a month for The Kings, $18,873 for The Pitkin, and, $18,228 a month for The Valencia.
Paramount hired the architectural design firm of Rapp & Rapp to design the Kings. They were also responsible for designing the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan, the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn and the Uptown Theatre in Chicago. C.W Rapp passed away in 1926, and most likely had nothing to do with the designing of the Kings. Edwin “Ted” Bullock, one of George and C.W’s nephews, ran the New York office of Rapp & Rapp, located in the Paramount Theatre Building in Times Square, during the 1920s.
Work on the Kings began in the spring of 1928. The railroad buildings were demolished first, to make way for the building’s foundation. Once the foundation was poured, the steel frame was erected, followed by the roof. This permitted construction at the top of the building and the bottom simultaneously, which allowed for faster building. The Kings cost 1,300,000 to build in 1928 which when adjusted for inflation comes to $17,767,198.83.
The interior of the Kings was decorated by the Rambusch Company with the assistance of Anne H. Dornin, who was in charge of theater decor for Loew’s Incorporated. Dornin, an architect herself, started work with the firm of Thomas W. Lamb shortly after graduating from Columbia University, and became associated with the Loew’s Corporation after decorating the interior of some of the theaters Lamb designed for Loew’s. She came up with something she called “the Theatre Decorators’ Color Chart” which had certain criteria she used to determine what colors would be used inside each theater she decorated. The main colors she picked for the Kings were Red and Bright Gold, which she felt were perfect for large theaters in metropolitan areas.
According to E.A. Schiller, a VP of Loew’s Inc, the original structural plan was changed due to vaudeville and silent films declining in popularity, and motion pictures becoming more and more prominent. The entire design was revised to further the acoustical properties of the theater. Engineers at Loew’s came up with a coating that when applied to the ceilings and walls of the theater would create a texture would help to give a more uniform sound vibration across the entire auditorium. Even the elaborate ornamentation and heavy velvet drapes were designed to distribute sound throughout the auditorium.
Another change that was made to further the audibility of sound coming from the screen was the reduction of the size of the balcony. The original plans called for the Kings to have a much larger balcony, but it was discovered that a shorter and wider mezzanine would improve sound and vision. The auditorium’s footprint was widened to account for more seats being placed on the main level. 2,793 of the 3,692 seats were located on the main level with 899 in the shallow balcony. The wider auditorium also helped the sound from the speakers behind the screen to reach the entire audience.
Kings wasn’t always the name of the theater. It was first called the Tilden, named for the nearby cross street. Paramount had intended to call it the Tilden Theatre, but when Loew’s took over they considered several different names including Loew’s Tilden and Loew’s Regent. Regent made it as far as being included in some of the blueprints and contractors’ agreements, but in the end the theater was named “Kings” for the county where it was located. This final name change came around six months before the theater opened, in time to include it on the marquee and vertical sign.
On July 26, 1929, E. A. Schiller, vice-president of Loew’s, announced that the grand opening celebration of the Kings would take place on August 24, 1929. However there were two delays before the theater finally opened on September 7, 1929. The doors were opened to the public at 11 AM as part of a full day grand opening celebration. However, the official ceremony did not kick off until 9 PM that evening when James J. Bryne, the Brooklyn Borough President, took the stage. Bryne spoke about how grateful the residents of Brooklyn were to have a magnificent theater like the Kings opening in their borough.
A number of movie stars made special “appearances” at the opening via pre-recorded messages. Marion Davies, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, William Haines, and Buster Keaton each appeared on screen congratulating Loew’s on the opening of its new theater. The opening presentation was a Broadway-style stage show called Frills and Fancies and was directed by Arthur Knorr. It began with a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner by Beal Hober, which was followed by an overture performed by the house orchestra, The Kings Grand Orchestra. Wesley Eddy, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, took the stage next and sang If I Had You, and It All Depends on You. Jack North, a banjo-playing comedian, took the stage and sang a few songs. Christy and Nelson, a comedy acrobatic team, had the audience laughing with their routine. William “Singing Bill” Zuckerman, the Kings organist, played the Wonder Morton Organ, and a talking newsreel was shown. Next, Teddy Joyce, master of ceremonies at the Loew’s Penn Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA came out to introduce the star of the evening, Dolores Del Rio. Del Rio said a few words to mark the occasion and to introduce her film “Evangeline” which was the night’s feature presentation. Eddy retook the stage to sing the theme song for Evangeline. Nina Oginska, an internationally famous ballerina, and the Chester Hale Girls joined him on stage during the theme song. According to an advertisement in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10,000 people attended the opening celebration.
Part Two will be available in two weeks. Material from for this post was taken from the first three chapters of my book, Kings Theatre; The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Wonder Theater. If you’d like to buy a copy they are available on Amazon, and my website.
The Robins Theatre in Warren, Ohio is currently being restored and is scheduled to reopen in 2020. I’ve been documenting the progress and put together a short video tour. Look for an in depth post on the Robins soon!
The Arcade Theatre in Los Angeles, California originally opened on September 26, 1910 as the Pantages Theatre. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by the Morgan & Walls architecture firm and was a part of the Pantages Vaudeville Circuit. Morgan & Walls are also known for designing the Mayan and El Capitan Theaters in Los Angeles. The location of the 1,400 seat theater helped to make downtown Los Angeles an entertainment destination, and 11 more theaters opened in the area between 1910 and 1931.
Vaudeville singer and comedian Sophie Tucker appeared at the Arcade’s opening day celebration as part of her first West Coast tour. Other opening day acts included a one act pantomime called “A Hot Time in Dogville,” singer Maurice Burkhart, a musical comedy sketch by the Lelliott Brothers, and the Yalto Duo dancers. On Christmas Day 1913, an unusual wedding took place on the theater’s stage — Napoleon, a vaudeville-performing and silent film starring chimpanzee “married” Sally, another chimpanzee from the E&R Jungle Zoo. The theater closed in December of 1921 so that a photoplayer, an automatic mechanical orchestra to accompany silent films, could be installed.
Pantages sold the building in 1925 to the Dalton Brothers, who owned the nearby Folles Theater. It was renamed Dalton’s Theatre (or Dalton’s Broadway) until 1928 when the name was changed to the Arcade Theatre, after the Broadway Spring Arcade Building, which is located directly next to the theater. The Dalton Brothers renovated the Arcade in 1932, and reopened it as a burlesque house on July 30, 1932. Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello) was one of the comedians who performed at the theater during this time.
In 1938, famed theater architect S. Charles Lee remodeled the interior of the theater, which reduced the seating to 800, changed the foyer to the Moderne style, and updated the building’s facade. On August 22, 1941 the Arcade became a Telenews Theatre, which ran newsreels from 8AM to 3AM the next day. The opening newsreel was called “This World Besieged,” and was about World War II. This change lasted only four months, and by mid-November 1941 the Arcade was back to showing feature films.
The Arcade was an independent theater in the 1960s and 1970s. In the early 1970s, keno was played at the theater every night at 8PM. Metropolitan Theatres ran the Arcade as a grindhouse (a theater that ran three or four different films on repeat) until it closed in 1992. The following year the lobby was converted into a retail space. It is currently an electronics store, and the stage is used as a storage space for the store’s inventory. There have been a few proposals to restore the theater, including one that would have it and two other theaters turned into a restaurant and multiplex complex, but none have come to pass.
Yesterday I attended a photography workshop at the Strand Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts hosted by Bryan Buckley of Vanishing New England. I love hosting workshops, but it was very nice to be on the other side of one this time. The Strand Theatre originally opened as the Vien Theatre in 1905, and is going to be turned into a community center in the near future.
While I was in the area I also visited the former Capitol Theatre in Fall River, MA. The Capitol originally opened on February 2, 1926. I believe it closed in the 1960s, but haven’t been able to verify that yet. Part of the orchestra level was converted into a bowling alley sometime after it closed. The proscenium and organ chambers were removed so that a large steel support beam could be installed as part of the conversion.
I’ll be posting full write ups on both of these theaters very soon.
One of the questions I’m asked pretty often is “How do you light these theaters?” When I first started photographing theaters the answer was pretty simple. I didn’t. I relied on whatever was already in the building. I’d use construction lights, open fire escape doors, or in some rare cases use the original theater lights.
A few years ago I picked up some small LED lights from Amazon. They worked pretty well, but had a battery life of around 45 minutes, which wasn’t ideal. Earlier this year I noticed that they were taking longer to charge and not lasting as long. I began to search for replacements. If you’ve ever looked at how many LED lights there are on Amazon and B&H you’d know that finding a good one is a pretty daunting task. After weeding through the duds I bought two Yongnuo YN300 III LED lights, and they’re pretty fantastic. I’m able to light an entire auditorium with the two lights running at 50%, and the batteries last for around two hours. I’ve only tested them at the Everett Square Theatre and the Victory Theatre, but I think they’re a welcome addition to my camera bag.