46 East 14th Street,
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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.
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