Empress Theater

544 W. 181st Street,
New York, NY 10033

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Showing 1 - 25 of 33 comments

OldSchoolBx1970 on August 18, 2018 at 2:31 am

This movie theater didn’t close back in the 60’s. An Iris Chacón movie played there during the 70’s.

jordanlage on June 21, 2016 at 7:12 am

This must have been known also as the Cinema Astral, showing Spanish dubbed films in the 1970s. Posting an ad from the NY Times June 27, 1975 listing the theater as showing The Godfather Part II either dubbed or subtitled in Spanish.

guarina on May 9, 2015 at 4:30 pm

I remembered I also saw in that theater “Top Banana” in 1954 with Phil Silvers and Rose Marie. I used to eat ice-cream bon-bons off the vending machine.

GaryZ on May 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I can’t remember, but I believe it might have been the Lane in which my Dad took me and my brother to see THE TEN COMMANDMENTS after its initial release (1956 or 1957). For a young kid the effect of the widescreen was indescribable—-you felt as if you were IN the scene, seeing these events in person. A few years ago I revistied 181st and adjacent streets of my Washington Heights youth, and it was difficult to imagine how they had once played so important a role in my life…especially the many movies seen. It’s sad that the movie houses are almost all gone…the Lane, the Heights, the Loews 175th, the Uptown, the Empress, the Alpine….places in which we would not just “observe” a motion picture but actively participate in it with our eyes and imagination.

guarina on May 20, 2012 at 5:31 am

I just noticed OnslowKUA’s comment about the Empress under the Lane: “On the same side of 181st Street on the same block to the east of the Lane was another theater called the Empress. This theater was unique in the sense that you entered it at the side of the auditorium in the middle.” True. At the entrance to the right there were a couple of vending machines, then the seats were to the left and the screen to the right. I remember that as if I were looking at it, if it were yesterday.

guarina on May 19, 2012 at 8:25 pm

GaryZ, I used to go from the RKO Coliseum at 181st Street, the Heights, the Empress and the Loew’s 175th, to the Uptown on 170th Street. I sometimes went to one on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, saw “One Summer of Happiness”. At that site about Washington Heights they advertised two books, “Nosebleeds from Washington Heights” and “Oblivious in Washington Heights and Loving It”, I asked my son for either one of them and he sent me both for Mother’s Day. I’ve finished them both, but they’re both written by guys who lived west of Broadway and hardly even knew anybody who lived east of Broadway, neither of them mentions ever going to the Empress, the Lane or the Gem, or even the Heights. They went to the same Humboldt Jr. High School 115 as I did, but I guess it was a few years before me. I went back to New York in June of 2001 after a long time, but don’t know what was still left in Washington Heights, couldn’t find any familiar store, went to the movies in Times Square, saw “Sous le sable”.

GaryZ on May 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Guarina, thanks, I’ll check out that site. Have checked out several Washington Heights sites, and some of them bring back memories all right. But generally people recall just their old neighborhood, within a radius of a few blocks. I lived a dozen blocks south of the Empress—-and of course the great RKO Coliseum—-and it was always a great walk, knowing that you’d see three movies in the Empress for only a quarter in the late 1950s, and then 50 cents in the early ‘60s. They were generally movies shown after the general release in the major theaters, and sometimes a very old movie, dating back to the 1940s, was shown. I remember seeing NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE, GI BLUES, THE FAR HORIZONS, FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, SITTING BULL, MORGAN THE PIRATE, many of the Hercules movies and other sword and sandal epics, and so many more films, there. The concession stand was small: the hot dogs were not good, and the popcorn always never salty enough! It was not a well-kept place. The manager was a fat, mustachioed fellow who often walked up and down the aisles checking things. But for 50 cents, who would complain? You could spent almost the entire day there. They also sometimes showed “adult” movies there, which in those days were generally documentaries about nudist camps, or risque foreign films with Brigitte Bardot etc. I was always envious of my older brother and friends who could get in to see those! When it became the CINEMA 181 in 1962, it had been beautifully cleaned and refurbished under different management, and even the outside marquee had been jazzed up to present a classier appearance. And they showed more up-to-date films. I saw DR. NO there, as well as THE MAGIC SWORD, GERONIMO, THE 300 SPARTANS, SODOM AND GOMORRAH, THE LONG SHIPS, etc., etc. I actually felt great pride in that little theater after it was fixed up. It was still a smallish place, much smaller than the Coliseum or Loews 175th, but the movies were just as good.

guarina on May 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm

GaryZ, RSearchEtc answered me they don’t have any Manhattan telephone directory yellow pages now, try later, and the other 2 didn’t bother to answer. As I used to live 2 blocks away, I’d walk to the theater and see what was playing. I assume you lived in the neighborhood. Have you gone to http://home.comcast.net/~idreos/H9.html ? It’s about old Washington Heights.

GaryZ on May 7, 2012 at 11:53 am

Guarina, good luck. As I recall very clearly, the movies shown in the Empress Theater were never advertised in the newspaper. You had to take pot luck; that is, see or not see whatever they were showing. Sometimes you knew a week in advance, via the posters they would place in the lobby, or the “coming attractions.” But for a kid paying only 50 cents for three movies, one never complained!

guarina on May 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm

GaryZ, I’m nowhere near the NY Public Library main branch now. I grew up in Washington Heights, but now live in Florida. Thanks for the tip anyway. I e-mailed 3 book sellers including Jumel Terrace Books about an old Manhattan telephone directory yellow pages, I’m still waiting for a reply.

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on May 2, 2012 at 6:51 am

Hey Guarina, the building lot for the theater that I researched on the Department of Buildings' website includes both the entrance and row of stores on W. 181st Street as well as the auditorium on Audubon Avenue.

Another tidbit from that research evidences that there was a fire that started in one of the adjoining storefronts in 1993, which caused damage to most if not all the stores in the row. One filed complaint notes damage to “seven stores,” in the cellar, first and second floors including “badly charred” floor joists.

GaryZ on May 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Guarina, the NY Public Library main branch has every old city phone book, I assume. It’s pretty sad to me that a theater in which I saw saw many great old movies, has been so poorly documented; even photographs seem to be nonestistent. Very sad.

guarina on April 30, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Ed, photo 36654 shows the rear auditorium of this theater on Audubon Avenue.

guarina on April 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

GaryZ, Do you know if there are old telephone directories of Manhattan available?

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on April 26, 2012 at 7:37 am

No doubt due in part to the age of the building, NYC Department of Building records on this theater are sketchy. I could find no viewable online documentation from its years of operation as a theater. Much of what is viewable relates to one of the other storefronts along West 181st Street.

There are a couple of violations from July 1988 that note construction work without a permit at 544 W 181st. The owner is listed as Astroc Enterprises. This may have been related to the renovations that converted the theater space to retail stores. A renwal of a work permit is noted from June 30, 1991, to renovate the “existing theater into stores.” It also notes “No structural changes. Add partitions, new vinyl floor, new lighting fixtures.” Alteration permits are listed from 1986, but they are not viewable and, again, may apply to one of the other storefronts within the building block.

My guess is the Astral was probably hastily converted into a store in the late 1980’s and may have even operated as such illegally, until the proper permits were obtained and work completed and approved in the early 1990’s. Interestingly, annual “illuminated sign permits” are still being renewed for an 81 square foot sign that the DOB still notes as being worded for “Astral Theatre Inc.”

Further online research shows that paperwork for the formation of Astral Theatre, Inc, was filed on December 1, 1966, with New York State Department of State. The entity was dissolved at the end of 1982. This might be a good indication as to when the former Empress Theatre re-opened as the Astral. We know from ads I posted in this thread that the Astral was still in operation as late as 1985, so that would make nearly 20 years of operation (possibly more) under that moniker.

As for ownership, the earliest deed available for viewing online was recorded April 23, 1970, and passed title from Audubon 181st Street Corp to Jeffries Enterprises, Inc. Jeffries Enterprises then deeded the property to Astroc Enterprises on April 11, 1975, and Astroc, in turn, deeded to the current owner, Won Merchadise Corp on August 14, 1984. Astroc might have retained a lease on the theater portion of the building after the sale. In fact, Astroc had originally leased the building from Jeffries Enterprises in March, 1972, prior to acquiring actual ownership a few years later.

GaryZ on April 26, 2012 at 6:26 am

I hear you, Guarina….have no idea what name it had before The Empress.

guarina on April 26, 2012 at 5:17 am

GaryZ, I lived in the neighborhood from 1951, 6 years, to 1957, before your time. I lived two blocks away and used to go there a lot. While I lived there, that little movie theater at 544 had another name.

GaryZ on April 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

Oh, it was DEFINITELY called the Empress! I know, I lived in the neighborhood and went to that theater hundreds of times from 1958 to 1966! It changed to the Cinema 181 around 1962. I remember that very clearly too. That theater was a huge part of my early movie-going life. I will never forget either of its names!

guarina on April 25, 2012 at 8:13 am

Yes, Warren Harris!, that’s what I’ve been saying, when I lived in Washington Heights, from 1951 to 1957, that little movie theater at 544 wasn’t called Empress, it had another name. It must have been “Cinema 181”. Now I can sleep tonight.

guarina on April 25, 2012 at 7:37 am

I remember this little theater well from 1951 through 1956. I recall seeing “The Man in the Iron Mask” with Louis Hayward there. I used to get vanilla-ice-cream-filled chocolate bon-bons from the vending machine. But that name Empress doesn’t ring a bell at all. When did it have that name “Cinema 181”?

Ed Solero
Ed Solero on September 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Ha. So far I’ve seen a street view defaulted to a tunnel and now this on the GWB. Both times, heading for New Jersey! Hope this one gets re-set soon so it can be corrected!

Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez on September 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm

The Google map view above is trying to leave the city.

GaryZ7 on May 4, 2010 at 1:48 pm

ALAlvarez, YES—-that’s what was once the old Empress, then the Cinema 181, then the Astral.

GaryZ7 on May 4, 2010 at 1:41 pm

The Empress Theater at 181st Street near Audubon Avenue gave me some of the greatest moments of my moviegoing childhood. For one thing, a kid could get in for 25 cents and see THREE movies, not to mention a cartoon, newsreel, or short feature on the lumber industry haha. It also showed older films, from the 1940s, like DeMille’s NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE, which my brother and I saw in 1958, I believe (along with FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE and a horror flick). Sometimes the films were 5-10 years old; e.g. I recall seeing THE FAR HORIZONS and SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD (both from 1955) there around 1961. Generally, however, the films were recent releases, often after making their initial runs in the major theaters. From Elvis in GI BLUES to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, from HERCULES UNCHAINED to other foreign films, it was always a treat to go there, although the hot dogs were terrible and the place was small and not well kept. Around 1962, however, it was cleaned up and refurbished, and became the small but classier “CINEMA 181.” I remember seeing there such films as THE MAGIC SWORD, THE 300 SPARTANS, BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE YOUNG SAVAGES, SODOM AND GOMORRAH, HATARI, many many others. By that time, however, I had to pay the exorbitant adult admission of 75 cents, as I recall. It only lasted as the Cinema 181 for a few more years, I believe, then becoming a Spanish language theatre. But all I can say in retrospect is, it may have become a forgotten theater, but I will always remember the wonderful films seen there, and in such generous quantity!

RobertR on April 17, 2009 at 12:27 pm

This theatre ended its life as the Astral in the 80’s.