Reviving Motion Pictures At The Palace

By Mike Fitelson  (@MikeFitelson)

Screen Clean United Palace - Washington Heights

Cleaning the silver screen at the United Palace.

When the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre opened on February 22nd, 1930 – just three years after “The Jazz Singer” broke the sound barrier as the first feature-length “talkie” – the inaugural program referred to the theatre’s “speaking screen,” MGM’s upcoming “talking production,” and a promise to deliver “outstanding photoplays.” These seem like strange ways to describe what you and I would call “the movies.” But at the time, when the film industry was caught in technological revolution, no one really knew what to call the booming art form other than to boil it down to its fundamentals: motion pictures.

This was a time before most Americans owned a radio, let alone a television set. For these audiences, the Loew’s Theatre was an entertainment palace, an affordable destination to escape the Depression. Perhaps as often as every weekend. The inaugural program also proudly asserted that the theatre was the “most modern playhouse in the world,” featuring a silver screen that was 50-feet across, one of the largest in America at the time.

The cinematic magic that the so-called Wonder Theatre conjured only lasted for 40 some-odd years before that magnificent screen went silent and dark. Long-time Washington Heights residents say the last film shown there was “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. A year later the building was purchased, and restored, by Rev. Ike who renamed it the United Palace and relocated his church there.

Ever since then the silver screen has been tucked away seven stories above the stage, gathering dust while awaiting its next act.

Last Friday, January 5th, 2013, we took the first step to reviving the Palace as a place for motion pictures as the screen was professionally cleaned by the AV Group in preparation for the world premiere of “Trouble in the Heights” on Thursday, January 24th.

It’s the first of what the United Palace of Cultural Arts plans to be regular screenings at the Palace.

Technically this won’t be the first movie screened under the auspicious of UPCA. Last June we showed the documentary “To Be Heard.” And a couple of weeks before that the World Science Festival projected a movie behind an 80-piece orchestra performing live on stage.

But neither of these events utilized the Palace’s silver screen.

Ever since UPCA began last year, there has been a steady stream of inquiries about when – not if – we were going to start showing films again.

But there were several obstacles to overcome, the first of which was dusting off the screen. We also needed to figure out how to create a smaller environment for watching movies in what is a 3,400-seat theatre, Manhattan’s third largest. Even with an audience of 500 people – what would be a huge number for most first-run blockbusters – the house would look dead because of all the empty seats, diminishing the experience.

A couple of weeks ago we came up with a way to use drapes to curtain off unused sections of the orchestra seating, providing a more intimate setting for audiences as small as 300, which will be an asset for many types of performances.

Finally, since most movies no longer exist in the material world but as digital bits and bytes, we needed a new projector. While we have not yet settled on a permanent solution, we are comfortable with the system that we have planned for January 24th.

Trouble in the Heights - Image

Which brings us to the show. It’s fitting that the first time we put the silver screen to use is for “Trouble in the Heights.” Part of UPCA’s mission is to showcase the work of local artists. It doesn’t get much more local than “Trouble in the Heights.” It was just about entirely shot in Washington Heights, by a local crew, and stars local actors.

The film captures the essence of living in Washington Heights, from the authentic portrayals of its residents, to the close-knit community feel, to the sights and sounds that are unmistakably uptown. The thriller’s resolution is also gutsy compared to how most urban dramas typically end. It’s a transformative story, which is what UPCA is always striving for. (See below for a trailer.)

“Trouble in the Heights” was shot a couple of years ago and debuted at the 2011 New York International Latino Film Festival under the title of “GWB.” This screening, the first under the new name, is to promote its January 22nd release through Video on Demand, Pay Per View and outlets such as Redbox, iTunes, Blockbuster.

Following the screening will be a conversation with the filmmakers that explores the major themes of the movie as well as how this community shaped the project from inception to distribution. It promises to be a special night in Northern Manhattan. (The screening is free but audience members must RSVP via email to: [email protected].)

As mentioned before, this is the first of what we plan to be a series of screenings at the Palace. Yet I’m hesitant to call them film, or even movie, screenings. Both terms seem quaint, almost anachronistic in the face of new art forms that are being explored in our ongoing technological revolution. Like the theatre’s opening night 83 years ago when the industry was being rocked with new possibilities brought on by the talkies, it’s difficult to know exactly what to call what we plan to present. (Ponder for a moment that the premiere of “Trouble in the Heights” is for its DVD and Pay Per View release, not its theatrical release, and you’ll get an idea of how much the industry is shifting.)

Certainly we’ll show what we’ve traditionally called movies, with perhaps a special series of classic, or children’s, or foreign titles. But we are also looking for ways to maximize the size and scope of what is one of the largest silver screens around in one of the largest theatres around. Who knows what technology will bring next?

Let’s just say that we want to present motion pictures, in all their forms and formats.

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RSVP: [email protected]

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Twitter: @TroubleHeights


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