Crystal Hall

46 East 14th Street,
New York, NY 10003

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Crystal Hall, 14th Street, New York in 1911

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Crystal Hall was a small Union Square movie house located on East Fourteenth Street between Broadway and University Place. Most interestingly, the Hall began life as a penny arcade opened in 1903 by future founder of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor and his partners Morris Kahn and Mitchell Mark. Operating as The Automatic Vaudeville Company, the arcade featured a variety of amusements including penny-operated peeps, phonographs with individual listening devices, stationary bicycles, punching bags and a basement shooting gallery. The movie theater was installed several years later on the floor above the arcade and was reportedly reached by a glass staircase behind which water cascaded over colored lights. Admission for viewing the two-reel “flickers” was five cents.

With financial backing from burgeoning theater impresario Marcus Loew, the partners would go on to open similar operations in Boston, Philadelphia and Newark. Zukor himself would join Loew’s company to build a chain of some two dozen nickelodeons and theaters before the two men parted ways in 1912. Zukor would go on to introduce feature length films to American audiences and build his own chain of magnificent movie houses, including his flagship Paramount Theater in Times Square.

Meanwhile, the Crystal Hall would eventually fall under the proprietorship of a gentleman by the name of William F. Shorck, who was managing the theater when, on the evening of March 4th, 1923, just after 8pm, a fire broke out in the shooting gallery. Smoke started pouring into the theater as a full house enjoyed the on screen antics of Charlie Chaplin in “Crippled Trouble”. While some 30 fireman were overcome by smoke and heat, the theater was evacuated in an orderly fashion and no patrons or theater workers were seriously harmed. The blaze was reportedly witnessed by a crowd of some 20,000 that had gathered in Union Square to watch the fireman try to extinguish the flames.

Having been gutted by fire (and with such establishments having been outmoded by newer and larger motion picture theaters), the building was renovated and converted to retail use. Combined with adjoining buildings, the site became an Orbach’s before being completely reconstructed around 1965 for Mays Department Store, who vacated in 1988. The building was completely remodeled once again in the ‘90’s as a retail complex currently known as 4 Union Square.

Thank you, Lost Memory, for pointing me in the right direction on this one.

Contributed by Ed Solero

Recent comments (view all 16 comments)

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on December 7, 2006 at 7:48 am

I’m trying to research that Comedy Theatre, but I’m guessing you might be right about it possibly being a live performance space exclusively. There was a live performance Comedy Theatre run by William Collier up on W. 36th Street circa 1910 into at least the late 1920’s. I wonder if this was an earlier incarnation, from before the theater district migrated north to Longacre Square (later known as Times Square).

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on December 7, 2006 at 10:03 am

My mistake about the midtown Comedy Theatre. It was located at 108 West 41st Street and built in 1909. It became the Mercury Theatre in 1937 and was home to the troupe of the same name founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman, before being demolished in 1942.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on October 19, 2007 at 10:33 am

The 14th Street Comedy Theatre was originally a store that William A. Brady leased in the early 1900s for conversion into a “Hale’s Tours” location. Scenic movies of famous places were shown in a simulated railroad coach. When the novelty wore off, Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew took over the lease and converted the premises into the Comedy Theatre. Though they were competing with their own Crystal Hall nickelodeon next door, the Comedy would be a classier venture, charging ten cents for movies and several acts of vaudeville. When Zukor and Loew ended their business partnership, the Comedy’s lease was sold, but I don’t know what happened to the Comedy after that. But I would guess that whatever remained was consumed in the 1923 fire that destroyed the adjacent Crystal Hall.

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on October 19, 2007 at 11:16 am

This illustration from Adolph Zukor’s memoir, “The Public Is Never Wrong,” shows the glass staircase that led to the Crystal Hall on the second floor. The ground floor Automatic Vaudeville was a penny arcade with peep shows and other coin-operated amusements. The first two letters of signage for the adjacent Comedy Theatre can be seen at the extreme right:

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on October 24, 2007 at 7:30 am

This image shows the original Automatic Vaudeville, before the addition of Crystal Hall on the second floor. The store to the right, then occupied by a diamond merchant, would be converted into Hale’s Tours and then the Comedy Theatre:

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on January 16, 2008 at 11:20 am

Cowboys were all the rage when this photo was taken in Union Square, circa 1910-11:

Warren G. Harris
Warren G. Harris on April 25, 2008 at 10:13 am

Here are new direct links to previously posted images:
View link
View link

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on November 2, 2008 at 10:08 am

Warren… I was able to locate a couple of the titles listed on the marquees in the cowboy-themed photo you date around 1910-11. Both “Falsely Accused” and “The Ranchman’s Son” were short films released in 1911 per IMDB.COM. I couldn’t find any information on the other titles. However, since I have been able to identity the title “The Ranchman’s Son” (assuming the match is not purely coincidental), we now know that the Comedy Theatre adjacent to the Automatic Vaudeville did indeed operate as an early cinema – at least for a time.

AlAlvarez on January 29, 2010 at 6:07 pm

J.F. Lundy, I just stumbled onto that image you posted.


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