Greenpoint Gazette

The heyday of theater in Greenpoint

BY Patricia Drohan

If you were fortunate enough to be born in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s and lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn you most likely spent every Saturday afternoon at one of the local movie theaters, enjoying hours of entertainment for as little as a nickel.

Twenty-five cents went a long way in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Every Saturday afternoon I would go to the Meserole Theater and see two or three movies, 10 cartoons and a serial,” said Bob Grady, who grew up in Greenpoint. He also remembers going to the movies with his grandmother for the week night specials. To encourage patrons to attend the movies during the week, the theater gave out a dish, or a plate and if you went back every week you would eventually have a set of dinnerware. “Sometimes my grandmother would send me to the movies so I could her get the dinnerware of the week at the Meserole.” Grady also remembered that the theater matrons walked up and down the aisles with their flashlights dressed all in white, probably a little eerie for small kids watching a horror flick.

John Santaniello, born in 1933 having lived his whole life in Greenpoint, remembers going to the movies for just a nickel. Not only could you go and see movies and cartoons, some theaters ran bingo games in between the films. Santaniello reminisced that there were free toys given out at the Saturday afternoon shows. “They would give us a toy bow and arrow set, or a big bag of a marbles..things like that. There were also people who walked around after they turned on the lights, with little cans collecting donations for the war effort or for the Red Cross, or other causes.”

Santaniello got to spend plenty of time at the movies, since his mother worked for several years as a cashier at both the Meserole and the Nassau Theaters and he could get in free.

Another life-long Greenpointer, Debra Gibney-Ortutay recalled that the Meserole was used by the schools in the area too. “One time the Meserole Theater ran the movie, Song of Bernadette for the neighborhood Catholic schools and all the parish school children in Greenpoint got to go and see the movie.”

Judy Muller Drapala remembers her graduation from JHS 126 in 1956 was held in the Meserole Theater.

Greenpoint, in it’s heyday had many theaters beginning with the silent movies of the early 1900s.

As early as 1911, public records indicate a theatre at 153 Green Street. “A motion picture theater is listed as operating at 153 Green Street in a Business Directory for 1911-1912; no name given for the theater but it was operated by Patrick Kelly. It could possibly have closed for some years and then re-opened in 1926 as the Arcade Theater and is listed in the Film Daily Yearbook(FDY); 1926 edition with 475 seats. In the 1927 edition of FDY it is listed as the Green Street Arcade Theater with a seating capacity of 400.” (http://cinematreasures.org)

Another small theater known as the Sacks Theater opened in 1914 at 555 Graham Avenue in Greenpoint and seating was on the ground floor only. “By 1915 it had been re-named Public Palace Theater, a name it retained until it closed in 1927. Today the building houses a number of apartments.

Another theater at 1059 Manhattan Avenue between Freeman and Eagle Streets was mentioned in the American Film Directory 1914-15 and listed as the Manhattan Theater, a name it retained through the 1930s. NYC records for 1938 show a 599 seat motion picture theater at 1059-61 Manhattan Avenue and by 1941 it had been renamed the Midway Theater and was also known as The Eagle. However the NYC records show the same building as a factory in 1954.

In the middle of the block between Meserole and Norman Avenues at 742 Manhattan Avenue, records show that around 1906, a movie house opened up called The Garden with the owners’ names listed as Warren & Sweeney. A listing in the Film Daily Yearbook Brooklyn notes that The Garden had 600 seats in 1926. It is said to have been a silent-era theater that closed in 1929. “A property search for 742 Manhattan Avenue lists this building as one large building that spans 742-750 Manhattan Avenue.” (http://cinematreasures.org)

Another early theater was the RKO Greenpoint which opened as a vaudeville theater in 1908, and later became a full time movie theater around 1925. This “ornate auditorium” was at 825 Manhattan Avenue, at Manhattan and Calyer. The original building was demolished and a clothing store, Rainbow is presently at that location in a one floor building. Archives show that RKO Greenpoint was an opulent auditorium, with ceiling murals and a proscenium arch. There were three levels of boxed seats on either side of the stage, and two balconies. A Wurlitzer Organ Opus 113 Style E provided music and RKO showed first-run double features when it first took over as a movie house.

Santaniello remembers the stage shows every Tuesday night at the RKO and the Ray Anthony house band that played there in the early 1950s.

Judy Muller Drapala remembers that all the theaters gave out something during the 50s that you could collect; dishes, glasses, dish towels. At the RKO, she remembers a Bela Ligosi stage show and on that same night a hurricane was expected in New York which didn’t keep them home but just added to the excitement. “And can you believe it, when I was going to the movies, the Meserole and the RKO were 25 cents, and if you didn’t have that, then you went to the Nassau or Winthrop Theaters as they were only 10 cents for 2 movies, 5 cartoons and a serial like Flash Gordon,” added Drapala.

The Nassau Theater was at 88 Nassau between Manhattan Avenue and Leonard Street and operated between about 1910 until 1953. It is said to have had one screen and 600 seats. Nowadays the building is a large catering hall, the Princess Manor.

The Winthrop Theater was at 135 Driggs Avenue, across from McGolrick Park (formerly Winthrop Park) at the corner of Russell Street. That movie house operated between 1922 and 1959 with 580 seats and also had a Wurlitzer organ. In 1961 the building became a grocery store, and is now a MET Food store.

Finally, many Greenpointers remember the American Theater at 910 Manhattan Avenue that boasted 592 seats. It was advertised as a twin theater, but only had one screen. It mostly showed second run movies. Later it became a Polish Theater, the Chopin which continued to screen movies into the 1980s. There were two entrances, one on Manhattan Avenue and one on Greenpoint Avenue.

Sharon Talbot remembers going to the Meserole, the RKO and the American theaters when she was growing up in Greenpoint. “At the American, you could go and see a movie, cartoons and the news. It was fun!” Today there is a Starbucks where the box office used to be and at the Greenpoint Avenue entrance is Quest Laboratories.

So little of the original theaters’ architecture is left in Greenpoint today. However the Meserole Theater which is now a Rite-Aid store still has the original facade of the building and inside the huge winding store, one can still see where the stage and the balcony were. The ceiling of the Meserole is a lavish design which has persisted through all the changes.

At what was the Chopin Theater there is a large sculpture of an eagle on the roof that has been left in tact.

For a truly wonderful collection of photos of many of the Greenpoint theaters go to www.Brooklynpix.com and see what the theater district of Greenpoint looked like back in the early twentieth century…a walk back in time.

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Greenpoint Gazette
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