A New Era Of Grand Movie Palaces Begins . . .

Queens residents twenty years ago flocked to the grand old RKO Keith’s in Flushing where they saw the very first "Star Wars" film on the big screen ‚ literally under the stars, the ones that shone in the high blue ceiling above the moorish castle design of the vast theater.
Today, not only adults but twenty-somethings look back on the theater itself as part of the magic of the moviegoing experience. Sharing that experience in the days before VCRs with a huge audience in the splendor of the 1920s era movie palaces remain only a fond memory. The RKO Keith’s was eventually forced to give way to the diminished style of the triplex, and eventually in the 1980s closed for good. Allowed to deteriorate over the past decade it stands today like a beached whale at the important intersection of Main St. and Roosevelt Ave. in the center of the bustling heart of Queens.
This week, however, a new era in the moviegoing experience in this Borough will take place not far from the fabled ghost of the Keith’s. This Thursday, a mammoth 71,815 square foot building on nine acres of land at Triangle Plaza of the College Point Corporate Park will open. Housing 12 climate-controlled auditoriums with stadium-style seating, 3,149 custom-designed, deep cushioned, rocking recliner seats with cup-holder armrests, the brand-new College Point Multiplex Cinemas will open with a Hollywood-style ceremony complete with kleig-lights and celebrities such as Montel Williams, Richie Havens, pulitzer-prize author Frank McCourt, actor Werner Klemperer, the Rugrats and Dilbert. On Friday, the multiplex will open its doors to the public and a whole new generation of moviegoers will next week see the latest "Star Wars" in a spectacular 21st century setting — complete with Dolby Digital Stereo Surround Sound.
The opening of this new movie palace makes a major renaissance of motion picture theaters in the Borough that actually began a few months ago with the spectacular renovation of the historic Midway Theater on Queens Blvd. in Forest Hills. United Artists and veteran Forest Hills businessman and entrepreneur Heskel Ellias transformed the 1940s-era theater into a state-of-the-art multiplex, also with a stadium-style seating and Dolby sound, and also the old Continental theater on Austin St. into a modern theater called the Brandon Cinemas that will feature regular movie fare as well as art films. Elias is planning a similar reconstruciton and expansion for the Bayside theater on Bell Blvd.
But the movie boom doesn’t end there. The old Austin Theater on Austin St. in Kew Gardens has just re-opened; the former porn theater re-designed and also offering the kind of art and foreign films previously only available in Manhattan. The future holds much more in store. On the site of the Georgia Diner on Queens Blvd., plans are being made to construct a behemoth of a theater — 30 screens with a seating capacity of 7,450 and 1,000 underground parking places and a new Georgia Diner inside. In this very busy section of the Borough, another major theater is being proposed for an area adjacent to the Queens Center Mall. Sony theaters is planning to sell the Elmwood Theater site to nearby St. John’s Hospital and then building their new cineplex on what is currently parking lot 2 next to the Mall. The City Planning Commission and Borough Hall have formed a committee to oversee the planning fo what could be a major shopping-movie hub in the Borough.
While many local merchants and others are excited about these developments, a number of civic officials and public officials have questioned the size of these proposed projects and how they will affect the traffic and environment in an already congested area. Opposition can kill some of these plans as seen last week when an outpouring of community resistance apparently ended plans by Foreset City Ratner to build a large multiplex at Metropolitan Ave. and Woodhaven Blvd. A work stop order issued by the Buildings Dept. raised hopes among community leaders that the former factory site could be used for a school. But Forest City Ratner Companies and Regal Theaters has high hopes for a new 3,500 seat multiplex in Astoria and is courting local opinion to make the project acceptable to the community.
After a dry decade of Queens theaters like the Keith’s and the Quartet in Flushing being shuttered and empty, others turned into porno theaters like the Astoria, and the remaining being subdivided into tiny versions of their former selves, suddenly there is a burst of movie building on the grand scale. The new College Point Multiplex ushers in a new style of suburban moviegoing, so prevalent and popular in most of America — giant modern theaters surrounded by huge parking lots. Maybe the days of the inner city movie palaces like the Keith’s has passed. And with it, those stars in the sky as well.
"You name it we’ve done it," said Rotundi of his group’s fight to preserve the Main St. and Northern Blvd. theater.
The group established in 1984 has been trying since its inception to come up with several ideas for a constructive use for the Keith’s but the offers have been few over the years, according to Rotundi.
Rotundi claims that a water table exists only two feet below the the basement of the structure and that oil has already permeated the boundary between the lower level and the water.
"The water drains into Levitt Field where Flushing High School plays," said Rotundi who suggested that the damage caused by Huang has had an impact that reaches further than the within the walls of the famed movie palace he owns.
"Huang has ruined the theater, I’ve seen the damage and I know," Adrian Joyce, president of Flushing’s Community Board 7 told The Queens Courier earlier this year and judging from the Flushing developers rap sheet, Joyce isn’t the only one who thinks so.
In March, Huang was convicted on charges that he failed to clean up spilled petroleum and asbestos at the Keith’s.
Pleading guilty to charges related to the oil spill as well as endangering the public health Huang escaped jail time and was sentenced to 5 years probation and a $ 5,000 fine.
The clean-up of the property is underway according to John Watts, a spokesperson for Councilmember Julia Harrison and a member of the Keith’s commission.
Watts claimed that he feels, given the damage done, the building isn’t nearly worth $15 million but he hopes something can be done about the conditions that exist there in hopes that any type of revitalization will help rebuild what "has been taken away from downtown Flushing," he said.
The Keith’s opened in the 1920’s as a vaudeville and movie theater. Stars such as Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, The Three Stooges, Bob Hope and Boris Karloff are among the many performers that have graced the stage there.
The interior of the theatre is the last remaining examples of the "atmospheric" style of design, one which was rarely exhibited by the building’s architect, Thomas Lamb.
Huang has allowed the structure to remain vacant since he bought it and many of the beautiful fixtures and features of the theater inside have disappeared or were destroyed.
Standing at an important geographic juncture, the unsightly bull of its facade is a depressing reminder of the historic glory days of the theater and what its potential could be for downtown Flushing, civic leaders say.

More from Around New York