Upper Broadway, which has been called that “ignored stretch of Manhattan,” contains the remains of a number of former movie theaters from the golden age of the silver screen. While none of these buildings are currently utilized as movie theaters, their facades (and a few of their interiors) serve as reminders to their prior uses. Their conditions, both interior and exterior, range from abandoned to restored and are representative of many of the city’s old theaters. Walking down Broadway from Washington Heights to the Upper West Side I encountered these theaters some of which were instantly recognizable as such by their architecture, while others I only discovered were theaters during the course of writing this article. The theaters are arranged from North to South, beginning with B. S. Moss’ former Coliseum Theatre at 181st Street and Broadway and culminating with the former RKO 81st Street Theater at 81st Street and Broadway.
B. S. Moss’ Coliseum Theatre today
B. S. Moss’ Coliseum Theatre, located at 181st Street and Broadway, opened on September 24, 1920, to rave reviews and a full house. (The New York Public Library has an informative article on the theater including a copy of the opening night program, which features an image of the Roman Coliseum on its cover). It was designed by Eugene De Rosa, who designed a number of Broadway theaters. In addition to Harold Lloyd, who performed at the theater on opening night, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Gertrude Berg all performed there.
The 3,500 seat theater was the third largest in the city and was built on the site of the Blue Bell Tavern. The tavern had been in existence since before the Revolutionary War and George Washington spent a night there. According to Reginald Pelham Bolton, remains of the tavern were visible until the construction of the theater. The theater was taken over by RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum) and renamed the RKO Coliseum Theater. By the 1980s, the theater was subdivided into a triplex and the ornate marquee was taken down. The theater closed and re-opened under new management as a quadplex in 1991. This reincarnation of the theater closed in 2002. In 2004, another theater opened in the space only to close in October 2011.