RKO Keith's Theatre

135-35 Northern Boulevard,
Flushing, NY 11354

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Ed Baxter
Ed Baxter on February 27, 2005 at 1:18 am

I grew up in College Point and now I am a 34 year old man living in Connecticut. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s I attended quite a few movies at the RKO. Like many others have stated, this theater was an amazing place. Beautiful. As a very little kid, I was a little intimidated by the size of it. I remember seeing Star Wars about 50 times, usually on Wednesday afternoons with my father and brother. St. Fidelis School would have half days every Wednesday to give religious instruction to kids from the local public school. I remember seeing Grease a whole lot of times there as well. I saw the first six Friday the 13th films there as well as a bunch of other horror films like Halloween, The Fog, and Scanners. On a Friday night, opening night, of big horror films the upstairs theater would be packed.

My brother and I went the theater in 1986 right before it closed. We stayed for two movies because we knew that they were going to close it down. I remember going into the men’s room and the toilets were free standing without the stall walls or doors. It was pretty creepy. The manager at the time, Adele, actually let me and my brother in for free. She recognized us both because we were there so often. I remember the two movies that we saw were “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” and “Night of the Creeps”. Oddly enough both of these movies were R rated horror films and I was only sixteen and my brother thirteen. At this point the theater was really let go. I remember sitting in the upstairs theater watching Texas Chainsaw and my brother and I could hear mice or rats scurrying around under the seats. Then at one point my brother picked up his box of candy and there were roaches on it. We were really grossed out and left the theater pretty bummed out at the state of it and at the fact that it was the last time that we would ever go there to see a movie.

With every passing year my heart would break a little more watching the theater rot away. Then in 1999 I was working in Flushing for the phone company. I think at that time we were still Bell Atlantic. Anyway I passed the front of the theater as I did several hundred times before hoping to sneak and peek. I saw that the front wooden construction door was open. I walked up and tried to take a look. When I got there I saw a guy with a hard hat coming out. I asked him what he was doing. He told me that he was there removing the oil tank from the basement. It was about noon and I noticed that he was the only one there. I asked him if he could let me run in for just a second so that I could take a look. I told him that I used to frequent the theater quite a bit when I was younger. He told me that since his boss was out for lunch he would take me for a quick tour if I put on a hard hat. I felt my heart race. I was so excited.

There was just a sting of work lights set up so that the guys working could see what they were doing. First we stopped in the lobby. I was really shocked at how messed up it was. Paint falling from the ceiling and most of the things I remembered being there were gone. The fountain and big brass doors were gone. The doorways to the left and right of the candy stand, under the stair cases that were the entrance ways for the two downstairs theaters had been torn down. We walked behind where the candy stand used to be and into the auditorium. From this vantage point I could see the whole theater, balcony and all. Since I was very young when the theater was converted into a triplex I had never seen it like this. Looking up from the main floor I could see what was left of the screen from the big upstairs theater. I just hung from the top left hand corner, suspended in the air, most of it torn away. It was really scary looking; it looked like an old pirate ship sail. I was wishing that I had a camera at that time but I knew that if I didn’t take immediate advantage of the guys offer to tour the place that I might never again get the chance to.

The guy asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the place. I said sure. He told me that the tour would be with flashlight only. Because the building looked so unsafe and dark I have to admit that I was pretty nervous. The fact that I was getting married the following weekend didn’t help either. We walked back out into the lobby and then up the staircase on the left hand side, near the women’s bathroom. The stairs were messed up and felt unsafe to climb, but that didn’t stop me. We then entered what used to be the upstairs theater. Scary stuff. There was no longer a floor to separate the upstairs theater from the downstairs theaters. What was probably the balcony in the olden days now was littered with broken chairs and tons of unrolled movie film. The balcony floor had quite a few huge holes in it. They looked like they had been punched into floor by some big destruction equipment. Yikes. I was really scared that I was going to fall through a hole in the floor to my death. The only light that we had was coming from the flashlight my guide was holding and he was leading the way. When we got to the top of the stairs near the projection booth we turned around and he gave me the flash light to look around. The left and right walls were actually in pretty decent shape. The architecture of the theater was much easier to appreciate at 29 then it was at 16. I really thought that if someone cared enough they could restore the key elements of the building. What a shame. I noticed that behind where the screens used to stand were a stage and mural painted back wall. These were things I had never seen before, probably covered up in the 70’s and the 80’s when I used to attend the theater. Both were in pretty good shape from what I could see.

We then ventured into the projectionists booth. This was a mess. The projector was gone but some other big metal equipment was still there. The plates that the film lay on while being show were still there. There was a mess of film uncoiled all over the floor. I grabbed a few pieces of it hoping I would end up with something cool. If nothing else a cool souvenir to take home. When I got back into the light I found that I ended up with a piece of count down film. Multiple frames of the numbers eight through two. The other, bigger piece had scenes from some movie that I was never able to identify. Knowing that I wasn’t even supposed to be in there, I was afraid to look for any other keepsakes.

From the projectionist booth, we proceeded to another room. The wall in the room had a mural of the New York City skyline on it. It looked very old. At this point the guy I was with seemed to notice the time and said that we would have to get back downstairs before his boss got back. On the way back down I got a look of the ceiling in the lobby and a little balcony type thing that sculpted above where the front doors were. Again, really beautiful architecture in repairable shape. I really wanted to go down into the basement and see what was down there. I told the guy I could put on my phone company helmet and tools and say that I had to do work in the basement. He told me that it was pretty foul down there and not really enough light. He also said that he wasn’t too sure how safe it was. Coming from a guy who had just given me a guided tour of what I would have deemed to be extremely unsafe, I figured it must be bad. So I thanked him for taking me around and left. On the way out I tried to take everything in as much as I could, but to be honest I was so overwhelmed that I felt almost numb from the experience.

I am very happy to hear that someone is going to preserve as much of it as can be saved and incorporate it into that building. Personally I’ve always dreamed of the whole theater being restored, but this is obviously better that the whole thing being demolished. I guess after being shut down for almost 19 years, this is probably the best anyone could have hoped for. I have to admit that when I sat down to share my comments I was figuring on writing a quick paragraph or two, and here I am almost two hours later. I guess that anyone who has ever had this theater be a part of their life gets pretty passionate when they talk about it. I hope anyone who’s made it this far in reading this has enjoyed the experience and found it somewhat informative. I can’t wait until the project to restore the RKO Keith’s is underway. I look forward to visiting it when it is finished and having the opportunity to relive some very good childhood memories, instead of seeing the shell of it that now stands and feeling sad.

Bway
Bway on February 18, 2005 at 2:44 pm

Thanks Warren.
For those interested, I found the article online from the Daily News.
Here it is:
View link

I don’t know how long the link will be valid, but it should work for a week or two.

opus1280
opus1280 on January 14, 2005 at 8:42 pm

<<Bernie at the Organ was a regular live feature at the RKO Keith’s for many years and well loved.
posted by lorraine on Dec 10, 2003 at 5:01am>>

I just returned from an organ tuning trip to Branson, MO where I saw the Keiths original Wurlitzer pipe organ (Opus 1975 style 260). Its been installed (intact and original)in the Jones Learning Center auditorium at the the College Of The Ozarks since its removal from Keiths in around 1971.

As the story goes, while in transit from Flushing to Branson the tractor trailer crashed, flipped over and burst into flames. Some of the pipe work was damaged, some chests and other wooden parts felt some heat,and console cable was cut into 4 segments. But it was all repaired. What a survivor!

I took a few photo’s while i was there, if anyone is interested, drop me a line.

B7000
B7000 on December 29, 2004 at 1:19 pm

As a child of the late 70s/early 80s some of fondest memories are of attending the movies at ‘Keiths’. From Star Wars at age 8 through Runnning Scared at 15, I attended this decaying palace as often as my parents would allow- and quite often when I was forbidden ( the box office was pretty lax in enforcing the age restrictions on R rated movies). Even as a child, I was awed by the architecture – as a kid in working-class Queens you were not exposed to much of the exotic and to me the Keith’s was truly a magical place. Over the years I have watched the building slowly crumble, and to this day when I am visiting my parents in their old neighborhood I am saddened each time I pass Northern & Main. It was always my dream to win Lotto, and invest in the restoration of Keith’s as a community arts center/movie palace…complete with Saturday Matinees at affordable prices and a progressive schedule of foreign/art and hollywood films for the community to experience in a grand setting. It doesn’t look like this will ever happen, but it is fun to imagine.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on December 27, 2004 at 7:20 pm

What a cheap way to do business. Huang will get his. What goes around comes around…though not always as fast as you might like.

trapdoor
trapdoor on December 25, 2004 at 12:07 am

Michael-
Its a long and sorted story, but in a nutshell
I suggest you read this article:
View link
and look at the section called demolition by neglect.Thomas Huang, who purchased the Keiths in 1986, was a very big contributor to politicial campaigns.He contributed to the crooked Donald Manes and subsequently received many favors.Manes successfully brokered a deal
which allowed the lobby to be landmarked and the rest of the theater to be converted into retail space.Thus satisfying those lobbying for preservation and any developer that wanted to purchase the theater for future conversion to retail space.I dont know what year the deal was brokered.Manes obviously knew that the developers wanted to get their hands on the theater sooner or later and he wanted to satisfy them.Huang purchased the theater in 1986 and closed it very quickly.His horrendous neglect as well as deliberate acts have led to the demise of this gem.Yes, it is too late to save the rest of the building.All of the auditorium space is a wasteland.Its water logged and falling apart.Huang removed a portion of a backwall, partially exposing the interior to the elements.It would take many tens of millions to restore the building with out any real hope for recouping that investment and making a profit.No developer is going to take that on.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on December 6, 2004 at 8:28 pm

I am all for saving part of a theater when you can’t save the whole thing…that is a reality of the modern world. But, why isn’t the whole building being reused, if it has such a place in community history? I’ve seen pictures of the inside…and it looks beat up. But, no more beat up than other buildings that have been restored.

MEB
MEB on December 6, 2004 at 3:26 pm

I worked at the RKO Keith’s between 1977 and 1979. Although it had already been in decline by then, the place still had a magical quality about it. I got to know virtually every inch of that building. Aside from the beauty of the architecture, it was a very interesting building behind the scenes. There was a corridor in the basement that had twists and turns and staircases. There were numerous rooms for support staff and mechanical equipment. As the building engineer, I got to operate the antique air-conditioning equipment which included the “air-washer”, the very large main fans and the old recipricating refrigeration machines. If I remember correctly, there were a total of 12 dressing rooms back stage, each was named for a city – the Akron Room, the Boston Room, the Rochester Room, etc. My understanding is that the rooms were named for cities that were part of the Keith’s-Albee circuit. There was also the green room and something called the elephant bath, or the animal room. It was a larrge porcelain tiled room under the back of the stage which had a ramp leading down to it. As the name implies, it was apparently used to wash animals that were used in stage shows. There was a great feeling of camaraderie among the workers. I became good freinds with a number of people, some of whom I am still friends with today. I recall a few people meeting their future wives/husbands while working there as candy-girls and ushers. I am very grateful for the wonderful memories. It really is a terrible shame what has happened to the Keith’s. Hopefully, the new owners will be able to incorporate the inner lobby into their new design.

Bway
Bway on November 26, 2004 at 9:00 pm

Quote:
As a resident of College Point throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s, and as a student of fine art and art history, I would like to say that this is indeed one of the most tragic cases of New York City architecture neglect and waste I have witnessed.

I have to agree with you. The only other tragic waste of architecture I can think of that is even worse was the tragic destruction of the original Penn Station in 1964. THAT was a sin that such a phenominal building was destroyed. This is a close sin though.

Karinb
Karinb on November 26, 2004 at 7:33 pm

As a resident of College Point throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s, and as a student of fine art and art history, I would like to say that this is indeed one of the most tragic cases of New York City architecture neglect and waste I have witnessed. I remember distinctly the magic conveyed by the atmospheric Moorish interiors, including the awesome lobby, (with it’s lady’s lounge, the furniture of which was still upholstered in the same faded red velvet which I could tell was the original fabric),the stunning fountain, the impressive stairs to either side, leading to the incredible auditorium, which gave many of us our only in person view of “Moorish architecture”, with it’s beautiful arched niches, the amazing starlit ceiling, including clouds that moved in wisps across the sky, the beautiful shades of blue the sky transitioned through on its way to nighttime black…What could be more magical? The movie I was going to see was definitely a secondary concern compared with just being in the theatre. I attended Kay’s Dance Studio a few blocks away, and their Recitals were always held there at the Keith’s. One of the most special moments of my entire life has been the time I accompanied my sister to the dressing area of the theatre to prepare for the nighttime recital, in the very downstairs (?) dressing areas that had been used by people in vaudeville all those years ago. This would be in 1976, when I was 12 years old. My mother, sister and I were led through the labyrinth that comprised the backstage areas to a long, narrow room that had been used by the chorus girls in their day, to prepare for their shows. The room was furnished with a long row of separate dressing tables pushed against the wall, a mirror hung on the wall above each table, and the little bench seats each table had in front of it was covered in the same faded red velvet to be found in the Ladies Lounge off the lobby. To my vivid 12 year old imagination, raised as I was on Late Night TV black & white musicals, I could feel the energy and spirit of those long gone chorus girls. How I do regret that my mother did not photograph those girls in that very special room that night in June. Perhaps Kay’s Dance Studio Alumnis have some interesting pictures to share?

bvdfitness
bvdfitness on November 12, 2004 at 10:55 pm

Sorry, should have been 55 years not 65. My grandfather retired before the theatre closed so I have no idea when it finally shut down.

bvdfitness
bvdfitness on November 10, 2004 at 9:43 pm

My grandfather was the projectionist at the Keiths for over 65 years. He was there at the opening and for the next 6 decades. I spent alot of my childhood being able to roam all over the theatre. Many of the original vaudeville artifacts were still in place. I remember the trap doors in the stage, the Green room (which was in fact green), and the labyrnth of other rooms throughout the theatre. In the basement was an “air washer” that cleaned the air before it entered the theatre. I had the priviledge to meet many of my boyhood idols, Mohammad Ali, Adam West (Batman), Howard Cosells, and others that would make the rounds to promote their movies or events. It’s a shame that the theatre is in the shape it is now. If anyone knows of photos of the exterior or interior I would love to purchase a copy.

movieman69
movieman69 on November 10, 2004 at 4:50 am

I had loved this theater the most out of all the neighborhood movie houses, such as The Prospect which was up Main Street and the Quartet on Northern.
The Keiths bring back very haunting memories when I see It today standing like the tomb It Is.
I can remember the place as if I stepped into the lobby yesterday and kind of brings a slight tear of sadness to know It will never be alive again as it once was.
I remember seeing the 70’s horror film “Bug”, one of the Sinbad films before it became a triplex and do remember that big water fountain that stood in the lobby.
The sound which echoed through the auditorium in this theater was amazing and also another haunting memory.
When it became a triplex I always hoped that the movie I was going to see was featured in cinema 1 being the top floor that was once the balcony. That room was fantastic it had a feeling as if you were sitting in an out door stadium in some weird far off land.
I remember these two big chandeliers that hung on each side of the room’s entrance and the blue night sky above the coliseum walls.
I saw so many films here; Andy warhols “Frankenstein” in 3D, “Saturday Night Fever”, “The Omen”, “Grease”, “star Wars”, “Alien”, “Friday the 13th”, “Airplane”, all of the mel brooks films at the time and many double bills that would play …sooo many.
“Running Scared” was my last film to see at this great place.
I miss it still ever since it’s closing in ‘86 :(
I would love to be able to go inside and look around at it now to see the ghosts that linger.

sdoerr
sdoerr on October 30, 2004 at 9:14 pm

This is one of the worst stories of neglect I have seen.
Shame on that man

br91975
br91975 on October 12, 2004 at 8:32 pm

As depressing a sight as they’d provide, I wonder if any photos exist of the Keith’s auditorium in its present state…

StephanieK
StephanieK on September 30, 2004 at 2:50 pm

I remember spending one long day there with my little sisters watching “The Green Berets” and leaving them alone to wander upstairs to make crank phone calls from their “London-style” telephone booth. I wonder what ever became of that. This theater was the coolest place to spend the whole day watching some great movie. Growing up in College Point in the 60’s I saw everything there and we called it The Keith’s. It was magnificent then and I am sick to think that it met so ignoble an end. That lobby rivaled anything Disney could even contemplate for a Great Movie Ride! How sad.

dave-bronx™
dave-bronx™ on September 14, 2004 at 3:15 pm

Several life-long New Yorkers I knew in the 80s called it ‘da Keets'
never mentioning Flushing, and everyone knew what they were talking about.

Bway
Bway on September 14, 2004 at 1:56 pm

That was also probably as to not to get it confused with the RKO Keith’s Richmond Hill. Many people confuse the two.

BoxOfficeBill
BoxOfficeBill on September 14, 2004 at 1:23 pm

Thanks, Warren, for the nicely researched double-bills. Yes, ‘52 was a flop. I’m shocked to realize that I’d seen only two of those billings day-dating at my local nabe (RKO Dyker)that year, even though memory has tricked me into thinking that as a movie-mad ten-year-old I went to the Dyker nearly every week. (I did see six of those features at other theaters, however, some first-run in Manhattan, others third- or subsequent-run in B'klyn.) One downside of seeing films first-run in Manhattan was missing some curious co-features that have meanwhile achieved cult-status: “Rancho Notorious,” “Three for Bedroom C,” “The Thief,” “Beware My Lovely.” One surprise is the reversal of status that sometimes happened in double-billing: that year, “Wait till the Sun Shines Nellie” was a prestige opener at the Roxy (with an ice show on stage!), while “Don’t Bother to Knock” snuck into the Globe: then Monroe became a sensation, so that “Don’t Bother” (deservingly)got top billing when it reached the boroughs. And what a sad end to Irene Dunne’s fame to go out on a second-billing in “It Grows on Trees.” For the record, the two programs that I saw at RKO were “Les Mis” & “Wife’s Best Friend” on a chilly, rainy autumn day (late in the year, implying that I hadn’t been in that theater for at least ten months!) and “Snows of Kilimanjaro” & “Raiders,” which I recall as the Christmas-week show (and remember darkly for having eaten popcorn, the first time ever, which made me sick later that evening—uugh). I’m sure that I saw many, many more films at the Loew’s circuit that year. For RKO, yes, '52 was a bummer.

cb229
cb229 on August 26, 2004 at 8:55 pm

I have searched high and low for photos, but there isnt
much available, as the theater was locked up for so many years.
Here is a two page article about the current state of
the theater with info. about the upcoming changes.It also
has a small picture of the lobby.
View link
The auditorium is going to be demolished as it is in horrendous
condition.The moron who owned it for almost twenty years
tore out a crucial wall, leaving the theater partially exposed
to the elements, thus the massive destruction.The lobby and mezzanine will be saved an incorporated into RKO Plaza which is
scheduled for completion in 2006.

longislandmovies
longislandmovies on August 25, 2004 at 1:32 am

CINEPLEX was the company that saved the movie bsns in N.Y. and many other places.Not until CINEPLEX ODEON come along was anyone restoring or putting any money into theaters.

dave-bronx™
dave-bronx™ on August 25, 2004 at 1:10 am

The RKO-CW people sold this theatre just days before they sold the rest of the company to Cineplex. When The Grand Pooh-bah of Cineplex found out he went to the guy who bought it and offered him the sun, the moon and the stars to buy it back, but was refused. While I generally view Cineplex and The Grand Pooh-bah with contempt for ruining so many decent theatres New York, I will admit that on these big old palaces they did do a decent job of restoration [e.g. the lobby of the Loew’s Met in Brooklyn]. This would have been one that I would have been glad to see him take over.

It’s a shame that the slimeball who let the Keith’s deteriorate wasn’t jailed years ago for his disregard of the landmarks law. And the City of New York is culpable for letting him get away with it. The City could have declared eminant domain and bought it from this guy and sell it to someone committed to restoration, like Cineplex.

Bway
Bway on August 24, 2004 at 9:01 pm

Much has been talked about here about the lobby of the Keith’s. Any word on what the main auditorium’s condition is in? From what I gather it’s not that great of condition, maybe even totally trashed. Does anything remain of the walls or ceiling, or anything? I would love to see photos of the Keith’s both in it’s heyday or current shambles, anyone know of any available on the net?

sticky
sticky on August 23, 2004 at 1:42 pm

I rememmber attending my first Rock n Roll show at the Flushing RKO. It was emceed by Murray the K deejay from 1010 WINS. The show featured Wicked Wilson Pickett and introduced two new bands from England, Cream and The Who. I remember Pickett strutting up the aisles with his mike cable trailing behind singing “Funky Broadway” and “Midnight Hour”. Cream and the Who did only a couple of numbers and were LOUD and raw but pumped up the crowd.

shalow
shalow on July 15, 2004 at 7:03 pm

I remember going to the rock and roll shows at the Keiths. What a great memory and theater. Going to a show was truly and event.