Showing all 18 comments
The present-day building is 625 Madison Avenue
Vinnie, do you remember anyone who lived next door? Do you remember the kid who kept his bike in the alley on the west side of the building and was friendly with Robbie, Mr. Evans and Mr. Marx?
Well done, Tinseltoes…thanks for posting!
Vinniep: What years did you work at the Plaza? Do you know what happened to Robbie? Arthur Marx? Polly? Mr. Evans?
…so well expressed, Astyanax, and I agree!
Hi, Capt: I grew up next door to the Plaza in the same building that housed the 58th Street Pharmacy. Unfortunately, all of the people that I asked about clearly pre-dated you. They were well-known in the Community and to the Plaza regulars. Polly was a former thespian — about 4 feet tall — who sold tickets long before there was a candy cart, an item that I don’t even remember. The only candy in my time was in ancient, mechanical machines in the basement. Polly had quite the style and worked until she was in her 80s. Robbie was the Jamaican custodian, a classy, affable man who had the task, among many, of polishing all the brass on the beautiful front doors. Mr. Evans, the Manager, was a Plaza legend. I don’t remember his background but he was always well-dressed and a gentleman. He, too, worked until he was in his 80s. Mr. Marx was a relative newcomer. He was very tall and walked with a marked limp. He replaced Mr. Evans but was ultimately transferred to, I think, the Murray Hill.
…and Mr. Shaffner at Cinema I and II?
Captblood: Do you know what happened to Robbie? Mr. Marx? Polly? Mr. Evans? Thanks.
…if you worked there in the 60s, you should! Please read my earlier posts and see if you remember me! We lived next door.
Is “Vinnie P” still reading? I’d love to know if you remember Robbie.
Astyanax, thanks for mentioning the Fine Arts which was on 58th between Park and Lex. I saw “The Producers” there, first-run.
Cinema V at 595 Madison Avenue (around the corner) was the last operator of the Plaza. President Don Rugoff was an interesting character.
December 25, 1988
STREETSCAPES: The Plaza Theater; Is the Reel Running Out for a Converted Stable?
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
LEAD: DEMOLITION work has begun on a handful of small buildings on the north side of 57th Street between Madison and Park Avenues in anticipation of a new commercial project that William Zeckendorf Jr. is developing.
DEMOLITION work has begun on a handful of small buildings on the north side of 57th Street between Madison and Park Avenues in anticipation of a new commercial project that William Zeckendorf Jr. is developing.
Mr. Zeckendorf and his partners control a plot of about 20,000 square feet, and are understood to be attempting to enlarge their zoning lot by acquiring nearby property, or, perhaps, only the unused development rights from those properties. One such property is the 10,000-square-foot plot occupied by the one-story Plaza Theater, at 42-44 East 58th Street, which started life as Cornelius Vanderbilt 2d’s stable.
The death of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1877 dispersed his great fortune in several directions. A major beneficiary was his favorite grandson, Cornelius 2d, who inherited the family portraits and $5 million, according to John Foreman, who is writing a book on the Vanderbilt family houses.
In 1879, when the estate was finally settled, Cornelius 2d began construction of his mansion at the northwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue – one of several family houses that helped change Fifth in this section into ‘'Vanderbilt Alley.’‘ He also built a grand stable at 42-44 East 58th Street, neither too close nor too far from his home.
Designed by George B. Post, the stable was French Renaissance in style, of brick and limestone with a peaked roof. Large central doors led to a storage area on the first floor for carriages and a ramp to the basement for the horses. Servants lived on the second floor.
The stable housed not only carriages but also sleighs for winter use in Central Park.
Elizabeth Lehr in her 1935 book, ‘'King Lehr in the Gilded Age,’‘ recalls seeing the Vanderbilt sleigh ’‘flash by in a blaze of red – dark red liveries, red carriagework, crimson plumes, red and gilt.’'
Cornelius 2d died in 1899 and in 1916 the family converted the stable to a dance hall. The Vanderbilt house itself was replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store in 1928. The next year the Vanderbilts leased the former stable to a theater operator, Leo Brecher.
Brecher retained Harry Creighton Ingalls to design not a new building, but an alteration. The front wall was taken down and an auditorium was inserted in the first two floors. According to Brecher’s son, Walter, the present central stairway to the basement lounge is a reworking of the old cleated horse ramp, and the lines of brick arches that run through the lower floor are actually the remains of the original stall enclosures.
The 500-seat theater opened in January 1930 with an unusual policy. ‘'Better a good old picture than a dull new one,’‘ The New York Sun quoted Brecher, who was competing against giant movie palaces like Proctor’s at 58th Street and Third Avenue. The Sun reported that the Plaza ’‘revived the old Chaplin two-reelers and had dowagers rolling up in limousines’‘ to see them. Indeed, the intimate theater was designed to look antique to appeal to a more moneyed crowd ’‘who didn’t like to be part of a huge mob,’‘ according to Walter Brecher.
Tudor in style, the building has a rough stucco exterior with irregular stone trim, a small balcony over the marquee and six double doors of colored, leaded glass with insets of coats of arms.
The architect gave the lighting fixtures antique finishes, artificially aged the woodwork, installed a timbered ceiling and decorated the rough white walls with colored stencilwork.
IN 1938, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum and the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt 2d, sold the building to Walter Reade, the theater-chain owner, although the Brechers continued to operate the theater through the 40’s.
Now the building is owned by the family of Jules Stein, founder of the Music Corporation of America, known as M.C.A. – and leased to Cineplex Odeon of Toronto. The stencilwork has been covered with dark paint, but the theater is largely intact – the chairs and sofas in the downstairs lounge make it as inviting as a private club.
Representatives for the owner and the lessee would not comment on reported offers to buy out their interests. But Mr. Zeckendorf confirms that the 5,000-square-foot theater parcel would make a nice addition to his assemblage. The Stein family also owns another 5,000-square-foot parcel at 601-603 Madison Avenue – connected to the Zeckendorf site only by the Plaza Theater land.
Mr. Zeckendorf has not yet announced plans for the project he will build on his assemblage. And so the fate of a Vanderbilt stable converted to a mock-Tudor moviehouse that favored the old over the new remains undecided.
Astyanax, the last I remember of Don Rugoff was that he presided over a stockholders meeting of Cinema V at the office at 595 Madison Avenue (the Fuller Building). I think he passed away in the late 80s.
Re your earlier comment abotu Ilya Lopert. Yes, I believe that he was in the chain of title at some point. I think his daughter Tanya went to school with my sister. I have to ask her about that. Rings a bell.
Did you live in the neighborhood?
Certainly the lobby was wood paneled, to the best of my recollection. I remember that the interior walls of the theatre were covered with curtains, gold, I believe. The downstairs wating area was also gold-themed. Sorry I can’t really help much with this. Kids don’t pay that much attention… Maybe someone has some photos????
None of the original decor survived.
Sorry, that should be “Vanderbilt.”
I must also mention that if what was playing at the Plaza didn’t interest us, we could always go to the RKO 58th Street where I saw Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Time Machine. What a place that was!
BTW, my parents moved in to their apartment in 1943; my Father is still there! Yes, we do know the Plaza!
My brother, sister and I were raised in the building that is just west of the building that used to be the Plaza Theatre and is now the Tao Restaurant. I was delighted to find this site and hope that readers will be pleased by what I have to offer.
First, to the writer who mentioned Polly, I have quite a vivid recollection of her. She was in vaudeville for many years; I wish that I could remember her stories. Mr. Evans, the long-time manager of our childhoods, confirmed her tales. I remember that in her later years she was especially washed in rouge and ate saltine crackers behind her booth.
We were all quite friendly with Mr. Evans and Robbie, the building’s caretaker and I spent many hours in the building, upstairs and down, during business hours and off-hours. Robbie and Don Rugoff allowed me to store my first bicycle in the alley between the Plaza and my parents' building. I saw Gimme' Shelter in the theatre probably three times. Once from the projection booth and twice in the audience.
Another writer explained the relationship between the Plaza and the Vanderbuilt family’s mansion on 5th Avenue. The writer is quite correct. I spent hours in the basement (beyond the public waiting area) looking at what was left of he stables. There was a lot of plumbing but the archways were absolutely there, clear as day. Do you remember the steps going downstairs? They were built on what used to be the ramp going down to the stalls!
BTW, the short buildings that go from the Plaza to the corner of Madison Avenue used to be separate brownstones that were built in the civil war era. They were combined into a “horizontal multiple dwelling” in the 30s. The corner building, the one that is on the SW corner of 58th and Madison, was the first of these to be built and housed the Vanderbilt’s stablemen!
Mr. Evans was succeeded by Mr. Marks, a tall gentleman who walked with a limp and later worked at other theatres. We lost contact years ago.
The Plaza Theatre was an extraordinary place. We all have many happy memories of it.
By the way, Neil (Doc) Simon was one of the owners of the Theatre property.