After 100 years, the RKO is no more. Even though it has not functioned as a movie theater for many years, this was the movie theater for so many generations of people from Washington Heights. It will be sorely missed and represents one more reminder of what we have lost and continue to lose. To add insult to injury, it is slated to become a big-box retail store.
When it first opened its door back in 1920, the RKO Coliseum was the third largest theater in NYC with 3,500 seats. It was an ornate, palatial performance space and movie theater that was designed by architects DeRosa and Periera, who had designed other movie palaces of that era. The Coliseum was built on the land that once housed the Blue Bell Tavern, which was built in the late 1720’s and was there until 1915.
In its heyday, the Coliseum hosted some of the biggest names of the vaudeville era. By the 1980’s, it had seen better days and no longer occupied almost the entire block. The theater had become a triplex whose footprint had shrunken precipitously but it belonged to us. In the 1980’s, 181st Street had 3 movie theaters within a 3-block radius. There was a porn theater on Wadsworth Ave between 181st and 180th that I couldn’t go into because I was kid and then there was the Astral Theater on 181st right off of Audubon Ave. While I absolutely loved the Astral Theater and it was the first theater I had ever been to, it was the theater of my parent’s generation. My mom would take me there almost weekly to see the latest Cantinflas movie or the newest James Bond flick. My mom had a thing for Roger Moore. But the RKO is where I went with my boys. No parents involved.
Just like it has been for previous generations, the RKO was a sanctuary from a world gone mad. During the Depression and WWII, the theater was a refuge for those looking for a temporary escape from hard and uncertain times. That is what it was for my generation who came of age in the late 80’s and early 90’s during the Crack Era that had so radically transformed our neighborhood. It might have been dinghy and unkept and as a kid I probably caught a contact high or three because of the older kids and adults puffing cheeba in the back but it was ours. IT. WAS. OURS.
And now it is gone.