Utopia Theater

187-02 Union Turnpike,
Jamaica Estates, NY 11423

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Utopia Theater, Fresh Meadows, NY 11366

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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 69 comments)

JeffGreene
JeffGreene on March 20, 2013 at 8:00 pm

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 20, 2013 at 9:35 pm

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.

pumpop201
pumpop201 on June 15, 2014 at 11:27 am

I was the film booker and buyer for Lightstone Theatres wich booked the films for the Utopia from around 1971 to 1982. I also worked directly for Ruth and Paul as the night manager for the Utopia during that time. Does anyone remember the war bond certificate hanging in the lobby?

techman707
techman707 on June 16, 2014 at 10:11 am

pumpop201,

I remember the WAR BOND CERTIFICATE they received for selling war bonds. While both Paul and Ruth were really wonderful people, Ruth was particularly very special to me. Every time I think about what the landlord (Filderman)did to Ruth with the theatre at the end, it STILL makes my blood boil. He was essentially forcing her to twin the theatre or give it up. In the 1950’s, I can remember people coming out of the theatre on a Saturday night and Paul and Ruth addressing them by their first name. If you can believe it, they knew virtually every customer that came to the theatre by name back then! It was a TRUE neighborhood theatre.

In the 1960’s I worked in ALL 3 theatres in Long Beach (Lido, Laurel and Nautilus). I see you worked for Lightstone from 1971 to 1982. Was Hank Lightstone still booking the Nautilus Theatre (formerly the West End Theatre), or was Irwin Knoll (County Theatres)doing his own booking at that point? Did you also know Tommy Pozin?

pumpop201
pumpop201 on June 20, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Hi techman707,

After spending a couple of years as a booker for Warner Bros. and Universal I went to work as a booker/buyer for Morty Lightstone. Hank was his nephew and left the industry. I was with Lightstone Theaters for 11 years when I took some poor advice and left the business. During this period I worked a few nights a week for Paul and Ruth, two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. I did indeed know Tommy Pozin. His office was in the Brill Building on Broadway between 49 and 50 streets as was Lightstone’s. Sometime in ‘74 or '75 (I’m not sure of the year) Lightstone moved his office to space above the Oceanside Theater. I don’t remember who was booking for Irwin Knoll, but it wasn’t us.

techman707
techman707 on June 21, 2014 at 11:22 am

I know Lightstone WAS booking for Irwin Knowll, but I guess he was doing his own booking when he bought the third theatre. I can’t remember the name, but Knoll was operating the Nautilus and the Roosevelt Theatre.

I’m surprised that I never ran into you at the Utopia. Although I worked until around 1974 at the DeMille (until it burned in a fire), I lived close to the Utopia and was in there quite often to talk with Ruth.

The film companies have RUINED the business today for exhibitors. Digital projection equipment has caused hundreds of independent theatres across the country to shut down because of the high equipment costs.

pumpop201
pumpop201 on June 21, 2014 at 1:28 pm

We may have met but the only projectionist i remember is Sam. My name is Jordan Marks. During my tenure with Lightstone I also did a part time paid internship with RKO Theatres. The president of RKO, Matty Polan, had me working in a different RKO theater each weekend. The most interesting was the Keith’s in Flushing. I got to walk through the old Vaudeville dressing rooms behind the screen.

It was the US Department of Commerce that made me decide to leave the business. I wrote to them asking their outlook for the motion picture exhibition business. Their outlook was bleak to say the least. They predicted that in 10 years there would no longer be any independent theater owners. I guess they were right.

techman707
techman707 on June 21, 2014 at 8:09 pm

I worked when Sam needed to take off. Although I worked at the RKO Flushing many times, in 1975 I took Century’s Prospect as my fulltime job.

The only reason the Commerce Department turned out to be right is because the Justice Department FAILED to enforce the anti-trust laws….like they did when they RUINED Loew’s/MGM )and the other theatre chains owned by film studios (Loew’s was the greatest chain of motion picture theatres there ever was or ever will be and they destroyed them). While the “consent decrees” were purportedly meant to PROTECT the independents, you can see what they caused. You be the judge – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v.Paramount_Pictures,Inc.

If you have any interest in saving the RKO Keith’s-Flushing, you might want to join this group that I’m a member of: https://www.facebook.com/groups/220242754654213/

Bruce

pumpop201
pumpop201 on June 21, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Thanks, Bruce. I’ll look into this group.

techman707
techman707 on June 22, 2014 at 4:11 pm

It’s just too bad that the former Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, had already got the city to commit to 90 million dollars with some “developer” that was supposed to put up 5 million, to restore Loew’s Kings.

While I’m certainly in favor of saving the Loew’s Kings (they are currently working on it now), the RKO Keith’s would have been an even better choice if I could only choose one.

You might also find this book DEMO for the RKO Flushing interesting: http://www.blurb.com/books/4315941-the-rko-theatre-of-flushing-n-y

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