Variety Theatre

110 Third Avenue,
New York, NY 10003

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Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on March 23, 2006 at 4:23 am

Here is the text of J.P. Valensi’s excellent post:

STREETSCAPES: Variety Photo Plays Theater; Marquee’s Lights Are Dark on 1914 ‘Nickelodeon’

Published: September 3, 1989

IT’S hard to put your finger on what was special about it. Perhaps it was the aura of the early days of the movies, but the 1914 Variety Photo Plays Theater at 110 Third Avenue was unforgettable when it was in operation.

Now the theater’s distinctive lightbulb marquee is dark, the property is vacant and being shown to potential buyers and, according to Michael Lerner, the leasing agent, a final decision – to sell, net lease or demolish the building – will come on Sept. 12.

The earliest movie theaters were just ad hoc alterations of spaces of opportunity, like a saloon or a storefront. According to the theater historian Michael R. Miller, these turn-of-the-century nickelodeons, where admission was usually nickel, were not superseded by specifically built movie theaters until 1908, when the Nicholand and Prospect Pleasure Palace went up in the Bronx.

By the early 1910’s, perhaps 100 theaters built for movies had gone up in New York City. They were good businesses and clustered near high-traffic sites. In 1914, one promoter, Jacob Valensi, secured a 15-year lease on a plot on the west side of Third Avenue, just south of the 14th Street stop of the elevated. There he built a two-story theater, according to Mr. Miller’s research, on a site previously occupied by a theater operation. Although filed as a new building, the theater actually used some of the perimeter walls of an older structure; the theater could in some ways be considered to pre-date 1914.

In its name – Valensi’s Variety Photo Plays – it sought an association with legitimate theater endeavors, of which 14th Street had been a center since the 1850’s.

Designed by Louis Sheinart, the exterior of Variety Photo Plays was in plain brick, generally unornamented except for arcaded piers projecting above a sloping tiled false roof. Mr. Miller called Sheinart ‘'a minor, minor architect of many, many theaters’‘ in this period.

Inside, the auditorium was fairly plain, but did have a slightly pitched floor and fixed seats, still novel touches in an industry that had started only recently with plain benches and sheets hung on a wall.

It is not clear if the walls have lost some architectural effect – they are now mostly patched plaster – but the ceiling is covered with modestly patterned pressed tin. Four large Tiffany-type half-globe lighting fixtures have somehow survived, and the simple fixed seats bear a ‘'V’‘ on the end panels.

There are rooftop louvered vents, still remote-controlled with chains that hang down in the middle of the theater, and a great square panel in the center, perhaps 30 feet across, is what remains of a sliding roof used in the days before air-conditioning.

Variety Photo Plays originally seated 450 and, according to Mr. Miller, probably first presented groups of two-reelers, collections of individual features, each 15 or 20 minutes long. This was at a period when the feature-length film was still uncommon and films in general were generally considered low-culture – ‘'photo plays’‘ or not.

By the early 1920’s, nickelodeons like the Variety Photo Plays were being supplanted by larger houses seating one or two thousand, and if the Variety was ever a first-rank theater, it surely must have begun a downward slide at that time.

In 1923, a marquee was added, designed by Julius Eckman. In 1930, a balcony seating 150 and a new lobby were installed by the architects Boak & Paris, who also made over the 1923 marquee. The lobby is nondescript neo-Renaissance and it is the marquee that has made the theater special, at least to modern eyes. Boak & Paris did not change the Eckman marquee’s underside, a coffered field with regularly spaced bulbs, but did add a zigzag Art Deco fascia in enameled metal and neon lighting. The fascia gives the theater’s, rather than the show’s, name and recalls the period when movies were more of a generic product. The lights buzzing on the underside of the marquee, when they were on, enveloped the passerby in a warm, glowing field. People going past the theater, even in the daytime, got a whiff of vintage celluloid, and at night it was intoxicating.

HE film fare over the last 30 years gradually shifted from B-grade to raunchy to naughty to pornographic, and added a slightly forbidden, Coney Island spice to the building. A 10-year-old schoolboy who somehow found himself on lower Third Avenue would walk straight by but keep his eyes glued to the pictures on the billboards outside the ticket booth.

Earlier this year the Department of Health closed the Variety Photo Plays, which was operating as a gay movie theater. Now it is still and musty inside, its 1940’s candy machine empty, its projection booth a small museum of antique apparatus – carbon arc projection lighting was discontinued only a few years ago. The owner, the 110-112 Third Avenue Realty Corporation, includes members of the same families who owned it since the 1920’s. In their hands lies the fate of a institution that will live on at least in the memories of many New Yorkers.

jvalensi on March 23, 2006 at 3:20 am

Here’s an intersting article I stubled across yesterday. Does anyone have any more information on the theater’s history? It seems my grandfather built and leased it and the gentleman cited in the article who did the research has passed away.

I am interested in learning if this is indeed my grandfather’s place as i’ve walked by many many times and now its gone.

View link

bgazou on February 19, 2006 at 11:58 am

NYU needs to be stopped. Where is the Landmark’s Commission? First Luchow’s then the Academy of Music and now this little gem of architecture. I’d love to know what city officials have made these dirty deals with the Philistine builders; who changed our zoning?

NYU, the most over-priced of all NYC’s universities and it’s not even Ivy League. The dumbest science grads come from NYU. Baby Bush would have done well there as NYU’s major function is to serve the blockhead progeny of the very rich.

AlexNYC on February 2, 2006 at 1:13 pm

I had passed by a couple of weeks ago and was shocked to see this grand old theater missing. I double checked becuase I thought I was on the wronng street or avenue, and then realized The Variety is gone. I was never inside, but it was always a bit of a step back in time just walking past. NYU is taking over the whole downtown area, and getting local officials to change zoning laws to build more large student housing. I miss the grand old Palladium on 14th Street, saw lots of great concerts there. NYU is also respomsible for kicking out The Bottom Line Cabaret Theater on 4th Street after 30 years. Upstairs are also student housing and offices for NYU. The Bottom Line only took up the first floor of the building, there was alot of support from the comunity to keep them there, even a radio network was willing to broadcast shows from there in return for rent support, but they kicked them out anyway. Today in it’s place is the Yalincak Family Foundation Lecture Hall. Out with the old, in with the new I guess.

markane on January 19, 2006 at 4:13 pm

Yes NYU is clearly that powerful.

Apparently, NYU has leased out the ground floor of the Palladium dormitory to Trader Joe’s, which will be opening in a couple of months.

I have a feeling the Variety was torn down to allow the new tenants to receive loading dock deliveries off the street.

Or am I too cynical?

EcRocker on January 8, 2006 at 3:10 pm

It just kills me to hear that the VP is no longer.I always thought it was a city designated landmark. I worked around the corner at the now destroyed Academy of Music. I know for a fact that the Academy was a designated landmark at the time it became the Palladium.At one point the new owners wanted to install a new AC unit in the building and started doing it before they asked for permission to break some walls down. I don’t understand how a landmark could be torn down unless the building collapsed or something. That whole block sounds like it is gone. Way back in the 70’s Luchows was a major fixture on 14st. They closed and relocated in the mid 70’s and that building is gone. Is NYU that powerful that they can tear down a landmark? Sounds like my memories of growing up in NYC are nothing but that now. All the reality is going away.

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on October 20, 2005 at 11:09 am

A September 2003 photograph of the Variety Theatre. Twenty months later it would be gone!

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on July 28, 2005 at 12:02 pm

I just discovered that this theater has come down and I can’t fucking believe it. It is impossible that a perfectly fine theater, especially one this old, can just be destroyed for student housing. I know I’m preaching to the converted here but it is truly monstrous. I’ve been to this theater several times, both as a movie house and as a play house, and I am in shock.

RobertR on June 27, 2005 at 3:46 pm

I can’t believe all we have lost this year. Will it stop? The city is becoming nothing but steel and glass.

markane on June 27, 2005 at 3:39 pm

no it’s not. its no consolation that you got a souvenir, at all. They’re in incredible condition because they’re basically under 10 years old. They’re not original to the theatre.

jmonkey on June 27, 2005 at 4:40 am

In case any of you are interested, I was wandering the city yesterday and came across an antique dealer in Chelsea that is selling seats they saved from the Variety. They’re in incredible condition and surprisingly comfortable…I picked up two of them. Not nearly as good as the theatre itself being preserved, but it’s something.

kevbo on June 15, 2005 at 6:19 am

Samuel R. Delany writes about “Variety Photoplays” (and others… “Eros”, “Venus”, “Adonis”…etc) in his book: “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue”.

markane on June 2, 2005 at 8:01 pm

Its totally over. This theatre has been completely demolished and carted away. Its a small empty lot now.

evmovieguy on May 24, 2005 at 8:51 pm

br91975 I’m with you.

Fuck NYU and all the rich kids that go there that have no clue, nor care about preserving anything in NYC, or preserving anything for that matter. I know that may sound belligerent and sub-mental, but I’m sick of these kids born in the 80s that grew up on Nickleodeon TV that seem interested in nothing but turning their lives into some lame Indie-Yuppie fashion show. They are a major force in the watering-down of New York City, and it seems that their kind is being catered to at every turn these days. Granted, having a safe, less dangerous place to live is a good thing, but in New York City fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point if view, you take the danger away and clean things up a bit, and it’s not New York City anymore, it’s a shell of it’s former self. Yeah…it’s still the ‘big apple’ and all that, but it is now a suburbanized apple. The kids moving into these dorms think they are getting the real NYC, and probably feel all cool living here in their clean, comfy dorm listening to The Killers or The Strokes, but they are getting the FAKE New York!! Screw them, their reality shows, their money, their arrogance, and their school that could give a rat’s ass about maintianing the character of the town they have the gall to plant their school in.

br91975 on May 21, 2005 at 10:18 pm

…and, pardon me for writing this, but f*** NYU. Growing up in Boston, I thought Harvard was as tyrannical and land-hungry as a large academic institution could possibly be, but NYU has the vaunted halls of crimson beat by a country mile…

br91975 on May 21, 2005 at 10:12 pm

Peeked through the tarp covering part of the former exterior and saw nothing much remaining, save for some of the (now) non-descript interior walls and an ‘Exit’ sign partially dangling above a doorway. A perfectly viable theatre, reduced to rubble for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This is one of the darkest period for the preservation of NYC movie theatres, both recent and long past; too bad more people just don’t seem to care as this city I’m still somehow proud to call home is quickly having its character sucked away…

br91975 on May 15, 2005 at 7:17 pm

I hate to say it, but why didn’t the owner just tear down the entire building in one shot and get it over with? What the hell is he trying to prove, anyway?

markane on May 15, 2005 at 1:40 pm

the roof has been torn off, and there’s basically nothing left of this theatre with the exception of a partial facade.

Thomas on May 8, 2005 at 4:23 pm

Here’s a 1980’s circa photo of the Variety I took.

evmovieguy on April 21, 2005 at 9:48 pm

No change in usage? Does that mean they are going to use it as a theater after all? Wishful thinking is that they return the marquee after the construction is over and we all live happily ever after, but the way things have been lately and if they do keep this as a theater, I predict that it will be turned into yet another generic looking NYU structure used for students and faculty only. And they’ll probably call it the NYU ‘Variety’ Assembly Hall in lame tribute, just as they re-named the mega-dorm where the Palladium once was “Palladium Hall” Weak, man…really weak!

markane on April 17, 2005 at 11:59 am

The scaffolding has come down, and just this week, the theatre was gutted down to the bare brick walls, even though the construction permit states that there is no change in usage. There is a raw, rusted I-beam where the marquee once was. Tragic. Again.

evmovieguy on April 5, 2005 at 10:16 am

The current demolition of the Variety has me more pissed-off than I usually am about stuff like this although it always bothers me regardless. As a long-time resident of Manhattan I feel like I should be playing the Pretenders song ‘My City Was Gone’ everytime I walk outside. These things are happening at a frightening pace all around. It almost seems like I’m a visitor in my own city. You’ll be away from a certain block or neighborhood for a month and the next time you go there WHAM-O: the Sutton is leveled, the Astor Plaza closes, the Baronet and Coronet are gone, and now The Variety. I mean the place was there for over 70 years and they can’t preserve it somehow? I walked past the other day and noticed the cornices gone, and last night I sailed by in a cab and the marquee is gone!! What is happening to this city, and why doesn’t anybody care? They are sucking the life out of this town. It seems to me that the new generation of MTV kids coming ionto this town have no regard for the past and just want to go to some jerk-off club, pay $12 for a Stoli & Cranberry and try to get a seat in the VIP booth.

Unfortunately I never got to go into the Variety, but back int he 80s when it was still a porn theater I remember my roomate who had gone there had some pretty wierd stories about the place. I remember him telling me that they played those old ‘medical’ films from the 60s that had people having sex but couldn’t be considered porn because they were ‘educational’.

Joe on April 4, 2005 at 9:13 am

Okay, I’ll confess, I was Van’s friend from RAT newspaper that threw the bottle of Ripple against the wall. I have the VHS of the movie mentioned, worth it for the cover alone. I actually don’t remember hardcore films there, but many that were, oddly enough, in the hard-core era but more SOFT core, probably because they were so cheap, or just fell off the truck. And by this time, many of these were TRIPLE features. Lotsa Spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef which at the same time, were on television in the afternoon.There was a weird graphic novel aspect with roaming weirdos, as well as drunks and bums in the back that snored, often loudly. Ocassionally, mgt would come down the aisle yelling “EYES GLEAM” (ICE GLEAM) which they sold, contributing to the slick and sticky veneer which hung about. When he got to the front, where the mens room was, he’d holler and clear the place.

br91975 on March 26, 2005 at 10:33 pm

Walked past the Variety within the hour and the building gives that distinct chill of being doomed. Of course, one of the posted working permits notes that the construction work won’t involve interior alterations, but that seems like only a matter of time. (Interesting sidenote: the two permits note the building is not a landmark, which an alert contradictory sort contradicted by writing in black marker by each permit, ‘YES, THIS IS A LANDMARK!’ Right on, brother – or sister… )