Liberty Theatre

234 West 42nd Street,
New York, NY 10036

Unfavorite 15 people favorited this theater

Liberty Theatre exterior

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Liberty Theatre, built in 1904 on 41st Street, was designed by the firm of Herts & Tallant in Beaux-Arts style for Klaw and Erlanger. Its lobby opened onto 42nd Street, as it was at the time the more desired address.

The 100-foot long lobby stretched from 42nd Street to the auditorium, which actually sat on 41st Street.

The Neo-Classical inspired facade, with a set of caryatides flanking the main entry four stories tall. A huge arched window was surmounted by a carving of the Liberty Bell, and at the summit of the facade was a large stone American eagle, its wings spread and staring downwards to the sidewalk below.

A stunning ticket counter was located in a vestibule in the lobby, which was topped with a large dome, covered in gilding and aluminum. A promenade led to the staircase leading to the balconies and the orchestra seating, with an ivory, amber and gold color theme.

Its auditorium, which could seat well over 1,000, continued the patriotic theme of the exterior, with Liberty Bells and eagles covered with gilt circling the huge ceiling dome and the towering proscenium arch. Again, the ivory and amber color scheme continued into the auditiorium. Each side wall featured four sets of opera boxes.

In the basement, luxurious lounges catered to each sex, with the ladies lounge carrying a garden theme, complete with pastel shades and floral patterns, and the men’s being designed in a Spanish countryside theme, with leather and oak highlights.

The Liberty Theatre remained a legitimate theater until 1933.

Like most of its neighboring theaters, the Liberty Theatre, rather than go dark, converted from stage shows to movies, and remained a movie house for well over half a century until the revival of 42nd Street began in the early-1990’s.

By 1996, the Liberty Theatre of old was gone, its magnificent Beaux-Arts elements mostly removed, and the rest hidden behind a very ugly boxy marquee. Its front entrance was remodeled in a late Streamline style facade. The interior of the Liberty Theatre had suffered just as badly over the 50 years since its golden days ended, and was decrepit and dirty. Its balconies and side boxes long since closed off, and its original color scheme painted many times over.

However, it was just the appearance that a theater company was looking for for a short run of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which was the Liberty’s first legitimate use in over six decades. However, it was shuttered as soon as the play closed.

In 1997, plans were announced to convert the Liberty Theatre into a virtual reality arcade. However, this plan fell through. After over a decade laying empty and unused, it was restored and converted into a Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant which opened at Christmas 2011, but was closed in 2013. A bar operates from the foyer area.


Excerpted from “Lost Broadway Theatres” by Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, 1997

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 143 comments)

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on January 5, 2012 at 6:49 pm

I’m surprised that there is no mention in the introductory remarks regarding the NYC premiere and reserved-seat engagement of D.W. Griffith’s controversial epic “Birth of a Nation.” I know it’s been referred to in the comments section – and I believe an image of the opening ad was once provided – but seems that this is a significant enough bit of history for the theater (and, indeed, the history of cinema!) to warrant inclusion in the introduction.

While the film had already been exhibited the previous month in Los Angeles, the Liberty was secured for its NYC premiere on March 3rd, 1915, according to most sources. The top ticket price (in the loge) for evening showings was $2.00 – astronomical for the time. That price was reduced to $1.00 for matinees.

An article from the NY Times, dated January 2nd, 1916, notes that the film’s engagement at the Liberty was scheduled to conclude with that evening’s showing, after an unprecedented run of 45 weeks. The passage about the film reads as follows (all dates, numbers AND punctuations per the original publication):

“After two showings today Griffith’s picture, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ will end an engagement in the Liberty Theatre that has never been approached in filmland. The picture was first shown there on March 2 of last year, and the man whose business it is to get things in the paper about it has assembled these interesting figures. The run lasted 45 weeks, with a total of 620 consecutive exhibitions. Simultaneously the pitcure was shown in outlying theatres 6266 times. In round numbers 616,000 persons saw the film at the Liberty, while adding those who witnessed it in other metropolitan playhouses brought the figure up to 872,000. This is about one-seventh of the population of New York, and, computing the admission average at 75 cents, $600,000 was paid by New Yorkers for the privilege. Simultaneously the picture was being shown in the larger cities of the country, and it is estimated 5,000,000 have already seen it.”

The Times' calculations don’t quite add up – 872,000 patrons at an average of .75 cents would tally to $654,000 paid admissions for the NY metropolitan area. Also appears they botched the date of the premiere as March 2nd, rather than March 3rd. If the numbers for the Liberty are to be believed (616,000 patrons over 620 showings), then the average attendance per show would have been near capactity at over 990 persons. Of course, coming from what appears to have been a publicist for the theater, I believe these figures should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on January 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm

Great news, Ed, and an interesting link to the architectural plans. I hope the reality matches the dream.

(And did you have time to get over to the Fantasy and photograph its restored verticle blade before the elements and inevitable neglect take over?)

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on January 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Hey saps. Sorry to disappoint, but I have not been able to do so yet. I’ll comment in more detail over on that page.

Garth
Garth on January 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Glad to read Ed and LuisV’s info about the renovations and new life as a restaurant. I went to many Manhattan theatres in the 70’s but never had the grindhouse experience. We have the Paramount theatre here in Staten Island that some good people tried to renovate and open as a restaurant/ catering hall. They were well into the renovations but the theatre became a money pit and the project was abandoned. At least the Liberty has a new lease on life.

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on January 18, 2012 at 12:19 am

OMG, I stopped in today and it is effin' gorgeous! The former lobby is a seating area, with photos and programs from the old theater gracing the walls; the main auditorium is lovingly restored, to a point. The two balconies are there, and the side boxes and proscenium, and there is seating throughout.

There is a big modern-type chandelier but it doesn’t obscure the details in the ceiling. I only spent about three minutes there (the staff was very accomodating) and I can’t wait to return and leisurely take it all in.

And I can’t wait for our intrepid members to start posting photos here, so I can savor this true cinema treasure even more.

I saw many movies here, notably the cannibal holocaust/Ilsa/faces-of-death type of grindhouse gore that the Liberty seemed to specialize in, and it’s a real kick to be back. I’m truly over the moon about this.

LuisV
LuisV on January 18, 2012 at 2:08 am

Wow Saps, what a great commentary! I will have to make it there soon to have me some Famous Dave’s Grub. It’s not realisitic to expect any of New York’s remaining Movie Palaces to be returned to showing films; as much as we all want at least ONE to be. That said, the next best thing is have them restored and put back into a use that the public is able to see the glory of what once was. A sample of how America used to spend its leisure time. I hope the restaurant is a great success as I prefer this use than any church. Of course, I still very much appreciate the churches that have saved some of our best palaces and restored them so that future generations can enjoy them. A special thank you to the churches that saved the Stanley in Jersey City, the Valencia and the Elmwood in Queens, the Gates and Metropolitan in Brooklyn, and of course, the 175th Street and Hollywood Theatres in Manhattan. The theaters that were prolonged in life by conversion to Discos didn’t fare as well, BUT it did result in many of these palaces surviving way longer than they otherwise would have. I was because of these conversions that I had the chance to see such stunners as the Academy of Music (Palladium), Club USA (The Forum) Xenon’s (Henry Miller), The Saint (Loews Commodore) and, of course, the most famous of them all, Studio 54 (Gallo Opera House). Technically, Studio 54 doesn’t count because it was never a movie house, but in my mind, a theater is a theater and I hold all of the old Broadway Legit stages in equal high regard to the other palaces. But I digress. :–) I’m thrilled to have The Liberty back in the public realm. What’s next? The Times Square? Loew’s Canal? The Brooklyn Paramount? The Coliseum? RKO Keiths Flushing? RKO Keiths Richmond Hill? What other palaces are still hidden?

42ndStreetMemories
42ndStreetMemories on January 18, 2012 at 2:59 am

I just posted two photos of the Liberty’s new interior. My daughter and son-in-law attended a Christmas party there last month. Being an old regular of The Deuce, I was thrilled that my daughter got to experience the Liberty albeit a somewhat altered version.

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on January 18, 2012 at 11:41 pm

According to Cinema Treasures, New York City has a garment district and a midtown, but no Times Square.

Mike (saps)
Mike (saps) on August 1, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Tinseltoes, you are a cinema treasure!

oknazevad
oknazevad on June 27, 2013 at 10:08 am

So it seems the Famous Dave’s has closed (I went there once on a Friday night just after all the shows got out; it was pretty empty, so I’m not surprised.) But the front portion, where the bar is, is still operating as the “Liberty Diner”, while the main auditorium is available as a rental reception space. See libertytheaterny.com

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment

Subscribe Want to be emailed when a new comment is posted about this theater?
Just login to your account and subscribe to this theater