Greenpoint’s Vaudeville Era Theaters: Still Hiding in Plain Sight
It is almost inconceivable today, but in the 1920s Greenpoint had as many as eight Vaudeville theaters. Some of the buildings still survive, but with other uses.
In the days before most homes had a radio, Vaudeville theaters provided cheap non-stop entertainment with shows lasting for up to 15-hour stretches. In those days families were often larger in size with people crammed into their tiny dwellings like sardines. Vaudeville theaters provided an escape from these overcrowded apartments.
By 1911, records show a theatre at 153 Green St. It shows up in later records as a 400-seat theater either called the Arcade Theater or The Greenpoint Arcade Theater, but it did not last.
Starting in 1927 with the arrival of the first talkie moving pictures, many of the Vaudeville theaters also served as movie houses. The largest theater was the RKO Greenpoint Theater on the corner of Calyer and Manhattan Avenue, which seated more than 1600 people and resembled an opera house with boxes, arches murals and terracotta designs on the ceilings. There were three levels of boxed seats on either side of the stage, and two balconies. The RKO hosted first-run double features after becoming a movie house.
Probably the biggest act to hit the Greenpoint Theater was the infamous Eva Tanguay, a singer and dancer known for her risqué songs full of double entendres. Tanguay’s theme song was entitled “I don’t care.” When Fr. O’ Hare the pastor of St. Anthony’s learned that Tanguay would sing around the corner from the church he bolted up onto the stage and stopped Tanguay’s act. However, the next night she returned changing the words to her theme song and taunting O’ Hare by singing the lines,” Fr. O’Hare I don’t care.” One of Tanguay’s fans was Mae West who was born on Herbert Street at the edge of Greenpoint. West began her stage career at age five on a Vaudeville stage in Brooklyn and later used her Vaudeville experience to become a playwright and Hollywood actress. West copied much of Tanguay’s stage act, incorporating it into her legendary stage and screen persona.
Local talent was a feature in all the Greenpoint theaters, but audiences could show their displeasure by hurling fruit at unsuccessful acts. The management also got rid of unpopular acts by pulling them offstage with a large hook or by opening up trapdoors underneath the unsuspecting actors.
Sadly, the RKO building did not survive, but the Meserole Theater down the block on Manhattan Avenue did. Today it houses a Rite Aid, but if you go to the back you can easily spot the stage and the balcony. There was also the American Theater at 910 Manhattan Avenue with 592 seats. It was advertised as a twin theater, but only had one screen. It mostly showed second run movies. It was later renamed the Chopin and it once was famous for Polish language films it screened there.
There was once a Manhattan Theater at 1059 Manhattan Avenue. By 1941, it had been renamed the Midway Theater and was later known as The Eagle. The theater, however, did not last and it later became a factory.
The Nassau Theater, at 88 Nassau Avenue between Manhattan Avenue and Leonard Street operated between about 1910 and 1953. In its day it seated over 500. Nowadays the building is a large catering hall, the Princess Manor. The Winthrop Theater was at 135 Driggs Avenue, across from McGolrick Park (formerly Winthrop Park) at the corner of Russell Street. That movie house operated until 1959 with 580 seats and also had a Wurlitzer organ. In 1961, the building became a grocery store, and is now it is home to the MET Food store.
The Sacks Theater opened in 1914 at 555 Graham Avenue in Greenpoint with ground floor seating only. By 1915 it had been re-named Public Palace Theater, a name it retained until its closure in 1927. Later, an apartment building occupied the site.
It would be great to see one of the surviving theaters turned into a performance venue again. The Meserole would be a great venue for concerts or for films, not to mention plays and other live performances. Perhaps one day soon, theater will re-emerge in Greenpoint and reawaken the echoes of its Vaudeville past.