Wonder. That’s a concept we don’t often think of when considering much of anything anymore. The experience of awe. We throw around the word “awesome” these days so much, it’s lost its meaning. Not much is really “awesome,” that jaw-dropping moment when we are in the presence of something so special, so amazing, that words fail us, and we just stand there gawping at what’s in front of our eyes. For the average person in the first few decades of the 20th century, the best place to feel that sense of awe was at the movies. Sometimes the motion pictures on the screen were amazing, with glamorous stars and exotic locations, but for many people, especially here in New York City, just being in the movie theaters themselves were truly the awesome experience. And nowhere was more awesome and wonderful than the Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Jamaica, Queens.
Before motion pictures was theater, and theater has always been over the top. Entertainment venues have always sought to be something beyond what the everyday person lived with, with luxury and lavishness at every turn. Since many movie theaters were themselves built as stage theaters, it’s not surprising that they too, were also quite opulent. But no one had ever seen the likes of the Loew’s “Wonder” Theaters. The Loew’s chain built five of them in the New York City area, designed to give the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan the chance to experience a motion picture in the lavishness of a midtown Theater District movie palace. And palaces they were.
The men who built the great movie studios and controlled the great movie houses knew their audiences. They were them – immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come from poverty in Europe to find a better life in America. They were joining native-born people who worked hard in factories and offices and farms, but most had never been anywhere beyond their neighborhoods, or the towns and cities where they lived. These people would never go to the palaces of Europe, or the exotic cities of India or China.
So when they went for some well-deserved and cheap entertainment, they would be given a look at all of those exotic places. They would be surrounded by the opulent, the exotic, and the larger than life. They would be in the palaces of Bombay, experience the majesty of Spain’s castles, and know what it was like to be in a Sultan’s harem, surrounded by luxury and color, or in mysterious ancient Egypt. The names of the theaters would match this world tour: the Granada, the Tivoli, the Majestic, the Palace, or the Oriental. It was a brilliant idea that gave rise to a unique and very American style of theater architecture.
The Loew’s Valencia was the first of the new “Wonder” theaters. It was built on busy Jamaica Avenue, in the heart of one of Queen’s busiest commercial and shopping districts; a place that guaranteed a steady stream of patrons. The architect was a man named John Eberson, an experienced theater architect, born and educated in Vienna, Austria. He came to the US around 1901, settled in St. Louis, and was soon designing opera houses and theaters throughout the Midwest and Southwest. In 1923, he designed his first “atmospheric” theater, the Hoblizelle Majestic, in Houston, Texas. This would be his greatest contribution to American theater architecture.
Instead of the usual domed classical style ceiling, Eberson installed a ceiling that was painted to look like the sky, with inset lights that simulated stars, and hidden lamps that projected clouds that could move across the sky like in a planetarium. The side walls of the theater were designed to look like sets of an Italian garden, and when the lights went down in the house, the sky and the sets lit up, the audience felt as if they were outside, in an Italian garden, watching a show. Eberson thought the movie houses of the day were becoming too ornate in the old fashioned styles mimicking European opera houses, and his “atmospheric” interiors would bring the Mediterranean, or anywhere else, to the viewer’s experience.
Theater owners loved it. For the Loew’s chain, he designed the Loew’s Paradise in an ornate combination of Baroque and Italian Renaissance themes. More was definitely more. For the Valencia, he went with a Spanish/Moorish/Mexican/ Baroque theme, freely mixing elements of all of these styles in both the exterior façade and interior spaces. One of his main influences here was the work of Spanish architect J.M. de Churriguera, whose 18th century buildings combined ornate Italian Baroque, Moorish and Gothic elements. The Baroque period is characterized by a great deal of curved, carved ornament, with cherubs and foliage and twisted, twining elements. There are columns and shells, wreaths and faces, everything is here, and everything went into the façade of the building, a dizzying combination of terra-cotta colors and shapes.
All of this Churrigueresque-ness carried right through the front doors and into the lobby, the corridors beyond, and into the auditorium. It also wandered into the rest rooms and lounges and anywhere else the public could go. With mirrors and fountains, exotic chandeliers and sconces, marbled and tiles floors in elaborate patterns, ornate metal grille work and plump seating, the Valencia was a visual feast of fantasy, opulence and overdone vaguely Spanish splendor. It was huge, with seating for 3,440 people, and it blew everyone away.
When the theater opened on January 12, 1929, the papers, and even Queens politicians and officials, couldn’t stop gushing about its wonders. It was an immediate success, and helped put sleepy Queens on the map, bringing people from all over to see the Valencia, and experience being in it for shows. The audience would see a combination of vaudeville and live acts and motion pictures. The theater could also host concerts and other stage events. Down in the pit, rising up for the occasion, was a Morton “Wonder” Organ, one of five, for each of the New York City “Wonder” theaters. There was a lot of wonder here, but that’s the origin of the name. The pipe organ was a huge ornate instrument, with four keyboards, or manuals, and 23 ranks, or sets of pipes. An accomplished organist could make this instrument sound like an orchestra, or a solo voice, and the Valencia’s organists were masters.
The Valencia stopped the stage shows in 1935, and became a first run movie house. They were the most successful theater in Queens, in part because they got the first run movies at least a week before other theaters did, and that week makes a huge difference in revenue. In the 1950s they were the first Queens theater to get the new “Panoramic” screen and “Stereophonic Sound” system, adding to the venue’s popularity. The press called the Valencia “the Taj Mahal of Long Island movie houses.” A mix of geographic and stylistic metaphors there, but you get the idea – the place was something else.
The worst part of these stories is always that the party has to end, and like almost all of New York City’s great movie palaces, that end came in the 1970s. Loss of revenue, expensive overhead, middle class suburban flight, a city-wide disregard of public and private property, safety issues; all of the urban woes of the period struck the Valencia, as it did everywhere else. The last show at the theater was a showing of “The Greatest,” in 1977. The theater shut its doors, and the building stood empty for two years. There were ideas to turn the theater into a Queens performing arts center, home to the Queens Symphony Orchestra, but this was the 1970s, the city had no money to keep itself afloat, let alone fund an arts center, and no private money was forthcoming. The theater looked doomed, destined for teardown.
The theater could have ended up like Brooklyn’s Loew’s Kings, another of the “Wonder” Theatres, allowed to deteriorate almost to the point of no return, or it could have been torn down, but in 1979, the Loew’s organization donated the building to the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People, formerly a Brooklyn congregation. They were thrilled to get the ornate theater, and promised to take care of it, inside and out. And they have.
The interior of the theater remains almost entirely intact. The church has made some small changes, such as adding a large chandelier in the auditorium to bring in more light. A theater needs darkness, but a church needs light. The lights illuminate the ornate walls and fantastic set items throughout the space. The box seats are intact, as is most of the ornamentation. The nude statues that once stood in niches have been clothed or replaced by more modest statuary. The huge renovation project was overseen by architect George Exarchou, and cost almost a quarter of a million dollars.
Photographs are so much better than words here. I’ve included some old black and white shots, as well as shots by a blogger who is a movie scout. His collection of shots of the interior of the Valencia give you the same sense of jaw dropping awe that movie goers must have had. Here’s the link to his site, Scouting New York. If you love movies, also check out Cinema Treasures for commentary and more vintage photographs. For some purists, the interior was ruined by the renovation, as the colors very different, and much more vibrant than the original colors of the plaster ornamentation, but most people are just glad it wasn’t all painted beige, or destroyed altogether. The church offers tours on Sunday morning. The building is located at 165-11 Jamaica Avenue. It became a New York City landmark in 1999, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places that same year. GMAP
(Photo above: Ed Solano for Cinema Treasures)