As the Tonys head Uptown, step inside the United Palace 'dream world'

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As the Tonys head Uptown, step inside the United Palace 'dream world'
The stage at the United Palace in New York, May 26, 2023. The ceremony honoring Broadway’s top shows and performers will take place at the majestic former “Wonder Theater” in Washington Heights. (Gioncarlo Valentine/The New York Times)

by Darryn King

NEW YORK, NY.- Nearly 8 miles north of Times Square, the United Palace in Washington Heights is a dazzling remnant of a golden age of cinema. On Sunday, it will provide the backdrop for Broadway’s biggest night.

This former Loew’s “Wonder Theater,” at Broadway between 175th and 176th streets, is beguiling, if mysterious. Its landmark exterior — where pigeons make themselves at home among terra-cotta ziggurats and pilasters — is said to have been influenced by Egyptian, Aztec or Mayan design, or perhaps the architecture of the 16th- to 18th-century Mughal Empire.

Inside, nearly every surface is golden and gleaming — a riot of resplendent detail. Twin elephants carry newel post lamps on the staircase. Seahorses mingle with peacocks in the lighting fixtures.

In the 3,400-seat auditorium, designed by renowned theater architect Thomas W. Lamb, bodhisattvas smile serenely in their niches while griffins, centaurs, buraqs (human-headed equines from Islamic mythology), forbidding lions, long-necked birds and weirdly muscular cherubs can be spotted among the swirling tendrils, acanthus leaves and rosettes.

It’s a building that induces delighted befuddlement among architecture critics. In “On Broadway: A Journey Uptown Over Time,” David W. Dunlap, a former New York Times reporter and columnist, described the interior as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco.”

In other words, it is a lot.

More recently, the United Palace has hosted movie screenings and concerts. It is also a popular filming location: Keanu Reeves’ reluctant assassin pays a visit in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.”

With the Tony Awards, Michael Fitelson, the CEO of United Palace of Cultural Arts, is eager to welcome a new audience.

“Ten years ago, Broadway folks said it’ll never work; it’s too far away,” he said. “Over time, the noes got fewer and fewer.”

Loew’s 175th Street Theater opened in 1930, the last of five Wonder Theaters the chain built in and around New York City. Opening-day festivities included a screening of “Their Own Desire,” starring Norma Shearer; a performance by the Chester Hale Girls dance troupe; and a recital on the twin-chambered Wonder Organ.

Not everyone was a fan of these exuberantly designed movie palaces. One critic complained, “Americans visiting the great sites of antiquity will be heard to remark: ‘So this is the Taj Mahal; pshaw … the Oriental Theater at home is twice as big and has electric lights besides.’”

They weren’t meant to be subtle. In the 1961 book “The Best Remaining Seats,” theater historian Ben Hall described movie palaces as “dream worlds for the disillusioned.” They were exotic fantasylands, intended to ignite audiences’ imaginations and invite them to lose themselves.

(Sometimes they lost more than themselves. An eager fan swiped Judy Garland’s hat when she made an appearance there in 1939. She offered $10 and an autograph for its return, to no avail.)

Harold Rambusch, who decorated the interiors of Lamb’s building, called movie palaces “social safety valves,” a way for the public to “partake of the same luxuries as the rich and use them to the same full extent.” (Rambusch also designed the more restrained interiors of Radio City Music Hall, which seats around 6,000 and has often hosted the Tony Awards.)

With the rise of television and other factors, the allure of the dream world had faded somewhat by midcentury. In 1969 — after a final screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — the building was purchased by televangelist Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, known as Reverend Ike, who preached his prosperity theology on its stage.

Under Reverend Ike, the building came to be known as the United Palace and was kept in sparkling condition. But relatively few in the largely Dominican community had a connection with the goings-on inside. A sign outside read, “Come on in or smile as you pass.”

In the 2000s, the United Palace began a new life. After Reverend Ike’s death in 2009, his son, Xavier Eikerenkoetter, steered the venue in a more arts-focused direction, founding the United Palace of Cultural Arts.

Lin-Manuel Miranda first entered the theater in 2013, before it was to host a five-year anniversary concert of his first Broadway musical, “In the Heights.” Despite growing up in the neighborhood, he knew nothing about it.

“I couldn’t believe that this enormous, gorgeous architectural marvel was sitting in the heart of Washington Heights,” Miranda wrote in an email.

Miranda was instrumental in bringing movies back to the United Palace: He bought a new screen, while a crowdfunding campaign helped pay for a new HD projector.

The United Palace’s film screenings — most recently, “When Harry Met Sally,” in May — have drawn crowds to upper Manhattan.

Fitelson is excited for the neighborhood’s Latino community to get some time in the spotlight. “To bring the Tonys to this community makes a huge statement that they’re interested in opening their doors to a wider audience,” Fitelson said. “And that this community is interested in hosting things that have a citywide, national, worldwide impact.”

Most of all, Miranda hopes that the United Palace can continue to be a gathering place for Washington Heights residents. “This is our community’s theater, and we’re so proud to be a part of it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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