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The Wonderful World of the United Palace Theatre

The Loew's 175th Street Theatre, now the United Palace Theatre, opened on February 22, 1930. Imagined by architect Thomas Lamb, the fifth of five Loew's Wonder Theatres in the New York area (and all still standing, another wonder) boasted architectural elements from the whole wide world. Details include lions, Buddhas, ornate Islamic patterns, and impossible knights in armor guarding the stage. Gold and red, the colors of opulence envelop the vast palace from floor to ceiling, from first-row orchestra to the nose-bleed seats, and up and down the theatrical staircase.

The United Palace Theatre, 175th and Broadway, was one of five Loew's Wonder Theatres.

The uptown theater had 3,000 seats when it opened that first night, and it has about 358 more now. Like the fashion of the time, the show included live vaudeville acts along with a motion picture. On opening night in 1930, the featured movie was THEIR OWN DESIRE starring Norma Shearer. One of the big attractions was the "Wonder Morton," a pipe organ that not only rose up to the stage from underneath the orchestra pit but also rotated while doing so.

The theater had a great run in Depression-era America, but like other great movie palaces of the day, the space gradually fell into decline. It closed in March 1969 with a screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. You know that was something special to see.

The lobby of the United Palace.
Rev. Ike was mightily impressed. The popular televangelist and his wife had attended a screening of 2001 during that final run. The vast golden theater, while run down and in need of extensive repairs, provided the perfect backdrop for preaching the prosperity gospel. Rev. Ike bought the house and immediately started holding Sunday services there. The renovations began.

The non-denominational congregation continues to gather to this day. Rev. Ike's son, Xavier Eikerenkoetter, leads the community. In addition, Xavier founded the non-profit United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA), an organization that presents live events and movie screenings. Uptown residents have been sorely in need of an entertainment venue, especially for movies, close to where they live.

One uptown resident has given the United Palace a much needed boost. Enter Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda, the accomplished creator of IN THE HEIGHTS and HAMILTON. Miranda is just about everybody's favorite person these days. He started hosting screenings at the theater a couple of years ago to help raise money for the venue. He donated funds to purchase a new projection screen. He introduced the documentary, HAMILTON'S AMERICA, featured on PBS Great Performances this past week, from the stage of the United Palace. Miranda is serving as the spirit guide for the theater's current series of movie screenings, part of the campaign "Reawaken Wonder at a Timeless Movie Palace” to raise funds for a new surround sound system.

At some point, the old pipe organ will be restored and reinstalled, too. The Palace lives on and is thriving. And it's a wonderful thing.

United Palace, detail interior.

See the website for the United Palace for future screenings and events.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from October 15, 2016. The theater was open for public viewing that day as part of OHNY weekend.     

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