Utopia Theater

187-02 Union Turnpike,
Jamaica Estates, NY 11423

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Utopia Theater, Fresh Meadows, NY 11366

Viewing: Photo | Street View

The Utopia Theater stood mid-way between 188th and 187th Streets on Union Turnpike in Jamaica, Queens.

Opened on January 1, 1942, no one could call this tiny theater a movie palace, but to all who went there, especially the children, it offered all the excitement and wonder of any theater 50 times its size. The marquee of the theater (topped by large, round, red Art Deco style letters that spelled its name) was so small that many titles of films had to be abbreviated. Also, the names of stars had to be brought to their shortest form. So it was that J. Allyson starred with V. Johnson in “Hi Barbaree” and B. Grable and D. Daily appeared in “Mom Wore Tights!”

The outer doors of the Utopia Theater led into a small, wide lobby, with one sheets of coming attractions in glass showcases, covering its walls. The ticket booth was on the far right of the lobby, facing the theater, and across from it, a long stand, behind which stood the ticket taker. The Utopia Theater was owned by an unlikely pair. Mr. Paul Raisler, a short, jovial, Jewish man, and Miss Wright (no one knew her first name), a tall, Wasp-y lady who, in her man tailored suits and swept up hair, looked very much like a young Katherine Hepburn (Wright sold the tickets/Raisler took and ripped them).

Inside the theater, the auditorium was to the right while the ladies and gentlemen’s rooms were to the left, in a recessed lounge area. Between the rest rooms was a water fountain, above which was a long hard plastic cylinder holding cone shaped paper cups. The cups started out costing a penny, then were given away for free and then disappeared altogether, leaving their dispenser as a reminder of what had been.

There were two candy machines in the lounge area, and the “ching” of the coin being dropped, the “ka-chung” of the plunger under the selection being pulled, and the “thunk” of the candy hitting the bottom opening could be heard all through the show. No one cared. It was the Utopia! The theater’s small screen was surrounded by Art Deco style half moons. It’s thin, gauzy curtains pulled sideways as the show began.

The Utopia Theater showed Movietone News and in the 1940’s there were also bond drives and kiddie shows with twenty cartoons, a serial (“The Sea Hound”, “Rocketman”), and a children’s feature, like “Bill and Coo”. On those days, and on all Saturdays, a small gray haired woman, dressed in a white nurses uniform patrolled the theater, brandishing a flashlight and a small black purse from which she gave change for the candy machines.

Though the Utopia Theater never offered stereo sound or 3-D, it did convert to CinemaScope in the summer of 1954 with “Garden of Evil”, followed by “The High and the Mighty” (the coming attractions were always preceeded by a glittering screen, lighting horizontal lines that read “Sunday through Tuesday” and “Thursday through Saturday.” (for years, Wednesdays were given over to revivals or foreign films.)

On the way out of the theater, on the back of the entry doors were small wooden boxes containing the programs telling you what was coming soon. Nothing more than folded pieces of paper with either green or blue lettering on a white background, these programs, done up in horizontal lines that formed a months grid, were an exciting extra as you left the theater. (I can still smell the fresh print of the programs on the day that the new ones were delivered to the theater!)

Mr. Raisler died first, and shortly before she herself died, Miss Wright sold the theater. The already tiny auditorium was twinned into two miniscule theaters. After a number of years, unable to keep up with the two large multiplexes only a few streets away, the Utopia Theater shuttered and was converted into a drug store around 1999.

What no one knew was that there was nothing that any drugstore could sell that could match the curative powers of the Utopia Theater when the lights went down and the screen flickered to life.

Contributed by Jeff Laffel

Recent comments (view all 70 comments)

aquarianick
aquarianick on April 8, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Hey Ed and Techman – Those shots of the booth ARE in the Utopia.

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on April 9, 2011 at 2:43 am

Thanks for confirming that, Nick

Tinseltoes
Tinseltoes on April 29, 2011 at 2:00 pm

This recent article may answer some questions about the neighborhood designation for the Utopia Theatre: View link

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on May 10, 2011 at 12:15 am

Great story aquarianick, we were family no matter where your theatre was more so, than say, working at a Burger King.

robboehm
robboehm on August 5, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Wow, the opening description of the theatre just blew me away.

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on August 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm

The only minor correction I would make to the opening description is to note that the theater was gutted for the drug store (as were the other storefronts that ran along its length on Union Turnpike) and not torn down. The auditorium structure still stands behind the street front facade – no doubt stripped down to the bare bricks before the drug store was layed out within.

techman707
techman707 on August 5, 2011 at 6:31 pm

The picture posted for the Utopia is a view as though you were in the theatre looking across the street at the library.-LOL

FredC
FredC on October 3, 2011 at 2:10 am

My name is Fred Cantor and I wanted to let everyone know we have a photo of the Utopia Theater taken from across the street in 1977 in a new book, “Fresh Meadows,” from Arcadia Publishing. (You can also see Rogers Luncheonette in the picture.) We are donating 100% of the authors' royalties to the Fresh Meadows public library. There is also a photo in the book of the Century Meadows taken in 1977 that I think captures the marquee and glass lobby from an angle not seen in other photos of the theater. I grew up in Fresh Meadows and loved going to both theaters. This is a wonderful site, by the way, that brings back great memories.

JeffGreene
JeffGreene on March 21, 2013 at 3:00 am

I lived around the corner from the Utopia on 80th Road and grew up seeing movies there. My dad was good friends with Ruth and we would stop in to say hello when walking our dog in the evenings. In the mid 70’s, while attending Jamaica High School, I worked as an Usher there. It was purely old school. I wore a white shirt, black bow tie and tuxedo pants while I escorted people to their seats, flashlight in hand. Back then smoking was on the right and we still showed shorts and cartoons. I would jingle as I walked around since I was the only source of change for the vending machines in the lounge. The Utopia was a last vestige of a bygone, simpler and kinder time. It is sorely missed.

BTW 80th Rd, is in Jamaica Estates, 11432.

techman707
techman707 on March 21, 2013 at 4:35 am

Jeff,

If you worked at the Utopia, you must also have known Paul Raisler, Ruth’s partner. Over the years, I worked as projectionist at the Utopia many times over the years. The regular projectionist for nearly 40 years was Sam Conte, who moved to Italy after he retired. After Paul passed away, Ruth ran the theatre alone for a number of years, but when the lease was up she was screwed over by the landlord (and/or his son)because they wanted a large rent increase, at a time when business was declining. He also wanted her to twin the theatre at her cost, which she didn’t want to do. After operating the theatre with Paul (and Sam as the projectionist) since the early 1940’s, the landlord signed a lease with a new tenant, an attorney named Epstein, who agreed to twin the theatre. Without any further negotiation or warning, it resulted in landlord literally pulling the rug out from under her. Because Ruth was one of, if not the sweetest person I have ever met, it was very upsetting to me also. After she lost the theatre, she was really never the same and shortly after, she became ill and not very long after that, she passed away. That theatre was her WHOLE LIFE and if you ask me, she died of a broken heart. I lived in the neighborhood for over 60 years. I used to go to the Utopia as a child, when the admission was only $.20 for children. After I was married in 1969, I bought a house nearby on 178th ST and 75th Avenue. Although the Utopia wasn’t my regular job, I was as the chief projectionist at the DeMille Theatre in Manhattan until 1973, because of where I lived, when it snowed, I would be sent to work at the Meadows, Utopia, Parsons and once even walked down Utopia Parkway in the snow to work at the Valencia in Jamaica. To the best of my knowledge (with the exception of the Valencia, which was saved as a church), virtually ALL THE THEATRES I’ve worked in over the years, have all been demolished. While I’m currently a member of a group that’s trying to save the RKO Keiths in Flushing, the theatre has been so badly destroyed (some of it intentionally over the last 25 years, in my opinion, the restoration would be nearly impossible. A recent article I read in the NY Times says that the restoration of Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn has begun and is going to cost 90 million dollars (somebody is going to wind up with heavy pockets before that’s done). How come they don’t think of saving these theatres BEFORE they are wrecked?

Unlike cities like Los Angeles, which appear to have respect for their old movie palaces, New York, despite having a Landmark’s Preservation Commission, which has watched while virtually EVERY theatre has been destroyed and/or demolished. New York once had more theatres per square mile than any other city in the U.S. …….and now, with one or two exceptions, there are none left.

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