Special Reports

If You Rebuild It, They Will Come: Brooklyn's Kings Theatre Reopens Its Doors After 37 Years

The glittering movie palace in the heart of Flatbush aims to become one of New York’s leading performance venues.

The house of the Kings Theatre, the newly reopened "Wonder Theatre" in the heart of Brooklyn.
(© Seth Walters)

The line to get into the open house of the newly refurbished Kings Theatre stretched all the way around the block and into the parking lot the venue now shares with the old Sears Roebuck & Company building. Even in the bitter February cold and with a light snow falling, people were curious to see the inside of an iconic structure of Flatbush Avenue that has been shuttered to the public since 1977. "Welcome Back Brooklyn," glowed a notice on the marquee, drawing in passing shoppers.

"We thought we'd check out the theater before we get priced out of the neighborhood," said a couple who live just two blocks away. For all but the oldest residents of Flatbush, The Kings Theatre has always been there, but rarely accessible.

It was the product of the roaring '20s and an exuberant construction boom that reached deep into Brooklyn. The 3,676-seat venue (one of five Loews' "Wonder Theatres" throughout the city) first opened its doors on September 7, 1929 with a screening of the silent film Evangeline. A month later, the stock market crashed, hurtling the country into The Great Depression.

The Kings muddled through the bust, hosting an eclectic mix of live performances, high school graduations, and, first and foremost, movies. Its opulent gold-leaf, Corinthian columns, neoclassical statues, wall-length mirrors, and giant crystal chandeliers were meant to evoke the palace at Versailles. Certainly its whimsically grandiose trappings would have made its Depression-era patrons feel like royalty. But as America rebounded and the industry changed (opting for utilitarian multiplexes over single-screen movie palaces), The Kings fell into disrepair, finally boarding up on August 30, 1977.

The Kings Theatre boasts an ornate lobby with embossed gold embellishments, massive chandeliers, and carpet re-created from samples of the original.
(© Seth Walters)

Now, after nearly a decade of lobbying, the theater has been restored to its former glory (to the tune of $94 million) through a public-private partnership between the City of New York, Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, and United Fund Advisors. Matt Wolf, the theater's new executive director, hopes the Kings can reclaim its place as the heart of the neighborhood. "Generations of Brooklynites went to this theater," he said. "I have a lot of people tell me they graduated here. There's so many ways this theater wove its way into the fabric of Brooklyn."

While The Kings closed its doors as a movie house, it has reopened as a live performance venue with an ever-expanding roster of events. "It will be a very robust combo of programming," Wolf said before mentioning several of the upcoming acts: Fantasia, the national tour of Annie, and Spoon are among the shows and performers set to grace the stage of the Kings.

Transforming the Kings into a modern performance venue involved expanding the backstage area, removing 400 seats to comply with accessibility codes, and slightly raking the audience to offer better views of the stage. "We have added state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems," Wolf boasted.

Most exciting for anyone who's had to wait in an interminable line for the bathroom at a Broadway house, The Kings has converted an enormous downstairs space (formerly a basketball court) into brand-new restrooms. "We have a very large women's restroom and an overflow women's restroom for intermissions." This should come as a huge relief to theatergoing ladies, who all too often are forced to improvise their own "overflow restroom": the men's room.

People lined up to check out the recently reopened theater.
(© Seth Walters)

The Kings may not be exactly the same as it was in 1929, but Wolf insists that this is necessary to make it a working theater in 2015. "In bringing a theater back to life it's important to have a marriage between today's needs and maintaining the integrity and beauty of the space as it was originally conceived," he opined. Certainly, no one can deny that The Kings has been restored to its original visual splendor. (Several elderly visitors commented that the theater looked exactly how they remembered it, but cleaner.) Rather than presiding over a historically precise (but empty) relic, Wolf hopes The Kings will become one of New York's premiere performance venues.

He also anticipates that the whole neighborhood will profit. "Two hundred shows a year in a three-thousand-seat venue means six hundred thousand people coming into Flatbush annually," he predicted. "The businesses that exist here will benefit from the foot traffic and new businesses will come in and fill the needs of the neighborhood."

They've rebuilt it, but will they come? That is yet to be seen. The next concert at the Kings will be Sarah McLachlan on March 14. There are still plenty of seats available.