For an Opulent Movie Palace, New Hope for a Revival
In the $150 Back in the Bronx Chess Set touted on the Back in the Bronx Web site, the brass pieces represent borough icons: the king, predictably, is Yankee Stadium. The bishop is the Botanical Gardens, the knight is the Bronx Zoo, the rook is the Kingsbridge Armory.
The queen, the most powerful player, represents Loew's Paradise, the storied 4,000-seat theater that was once the borough's gem but was split into multiple screens amid controversy in 1973 and closed in 1994. A much-publicized multimillion-dollar attempt to restore the theater and reopen it as an entertainment venue collapsed in 2000. But a few months ago, a new developer took over the property, hung a bright yellow "For Rent" banner, and once again gave hope to passers-by and old friends of Loew's that the theater will be revived in one form or another.
If the new developer succeeds, it will have been a long and tumultuous interregnum.
The Paradise was the venue where generations of Bronxites chose between watching first-run films and a first kiss in the balcony. Opened in 1929, it was one of the "atmospheric" cinemas created by the designer John Eberson, meant to transport Bronx residents into a Baroque Italian garden, adorned with marble pillars, statues, tapestries, even a goldfish pool and a night sky with twinkling stars and moving clouds. Nor was Loew's just for films: stars like Bob Hope and George Burns performed on its stage, and countless Bronx high school and college students received their diplomas there.
The new owner of the property is an entity called First Paradise Theaters Corporation, a company whose president is Gerald Lieblich, a 42-year-old developer with offices in Manhattan who built the restaurant Beppe on East 22nd Street. The corporation paid $4.5 million for the space in a deal made two years ago, but took possession only in May.
Legal wranglings were the source of the holdup. The previous owner, ABI Property Partners, was fighting Richard DeCesare, a Westchester developer who had poured millions of dollars into restoring the theater after signing a 10-year lease for the place in April 1999. Mr. DeCesare said he underestimated the cost of the renovation, noting, in an interview a few days ago, that he spent $1 million just gilding the ornamental elements in the lobby. Court records show that he defaulted on the rent, and he ended up in litigation over his option to buy. A state appeals court six weeks ago denied his appeal to be allowed to buy the property.
But despite his financial difficulties, Mr. DeCesare accomplished a tremendous amount. He hired Lawless & Mangione, a Yonkers architectural and engineering firm, to run the project, and Higgins & Quasebarth, the Manhattan historic preservation consultants, to oversee the historical accuracy and work with the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. The theater's exterior is landmarked, and the interior has been under consideration for landmark status for years.
Workers removed the partitions that had divided the theater into separate cinemas and restored most of the plasterwork, using historic photographs. Replicas of Greek statues and figures that could not be restored were recast and the opulent detailing returned to moldings, ceilings and fixtures. Nearly 4,000 cast-iron seats covered with red velour were produced by Irwin Seating, a Michigan company. (The project collapsed before they were delivered.) The hauntingly realistic midnight blue sky was painted on the ceiling, although workers never got to carry out plans to replace the old-time light bulbs with flickering stars created with fiber-optic technology.
Bruno Pietrosanti, a partner in the architectural firm that oversaw the work, speculates that costs may have overwhelmed business considerations. "We outlined what the costs would be, and he ignored it," Mr. Pietrosanti said. The original plan, to rent the ground-floor retail space and use the proceeds to help pay for the renovation, never worked out. "Somehow or other he got so enamored with the beauty of the original theater design,'' he said, "that he started backwards."
The new owners have taken a more cautious tack.
"When I have a tenant in hand,'' Mr. Lieblich said the other day, during a tour of the darkened theater from which gleamingly restored details - cherubs, chandeliers, murals - loom eerily from the shadows, "that's when I'll move forward with the restoration." Beyond hanging the "For Rent'' banner, they have not formally advertised the theater's availability, preferring to spread the word more quietly.
Acknowledging the historical value of the site, Mr. Lieblich said his first choice would be to reopen it as an entertainment venue, though not as a single-screen movie theater; people don't see movies in 4,000-seat theaters these days. Mr. Lieblich mentioned concerts, live shows, plays, dancing and comedy as some possible uses. And he is promising not to touch anything of historical value. "We're treating it like it's a piece of gold,'' he said. "It's gorgeous, irreplaceable."
Still, Mr. Lieblich did not reject the possibility that the theater might be used for big-box retail space, a move that would require covering, though not destroying, much of the interior décor.
Mr. DeCesare questioned the approach of the new owners. "Their agenda is to make it a profitable piece of real estate,'' he said, "without any regard for the historical character of the building.''
Such a move would undoubtedly unsettle the legions of Bronx residents who remember the old days. Martin A. Jackson, a co-author of "The Bronx: Lost, Found and Remembered, 1935-1975'' (Back in the Bronx, 1999), counts himself among those who saw films like "The Ten Commandments'' there in the 50's and 60's. "The Paradise was the big date destination," Mr. Jackson recalled. "You looked up, and it really did look like the outdoors. It was the kind of thing that overwhelmed a middle-class person in those years."
The memories of those who attended the Paradise in its last years are far less positive. "By the time I got here, it was falling apart," said Loretta Weeks, a 37-year-old nurse's aide who moved to Fordham in 1986 and saw one movie there. "It was really dirty. Horrible. I never went back."
But regardless of their memories of the place, people are curious. Fred Martinez, the security guard who has been watching the entrance for the past three years, says he gets dozens of inquiries a day from passers-by. Entrance is theoretically forbidden, but Mr. Martinez, who used to attend movies there himself when he was growing up in the Bronx, has been known to let people in if their tales ring true. He even gave a guided tour to a Florida couple in their 60's who came to show the place they met to their grown son.
Other sneak in. On Wednesday, two utility employees who were working nearby slipped into the building during a break. They had heard from co-workers that the once-great cinema was torn up inside, and they were astonished by what they saw.
"I don't have words to explain it," one of the workers said after emerging onto the Grand Concourse. "The balcony is breathtaking. I'm actually upset that I'm back in the street."
The restoration, after a brief halt, was a success. Read the story and visit the Loew's Paradise Theatre official Web site:
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