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Online group to help rescue RKO Keith’s

Online group to help rescue RKO Keith’s
RKO Keith’s in downtown Flushing has been closed since the 1980s.
By Stephen Stirling

Once the embodiment of old Hollywood glitz and glamor, RKO Keith’s Theatre has been a ghost that has hung over Flushing for the last decade. But with the aid of social networking, one Flushing native is mounting an effort to bring the former movie palace back from the dead and restore it to the grandeur it once held.

Earlier this year, former Flushing resident Ed Tracey said he was talking to his boss who asked him, “What was your favorite theater growing up?” Tracey, who now lives in San Francisco and works at a comedy club, said he answered almost instantly.

“I said, ‘Oh, the RKO Keith’s in Flushing, hands down,’” Tracey said, referring to the movie palace at the foot of Main Street on Northern Boulevard. “I used to sneak in there all the time in the ’80s to see movies.”

That was when the wheels began turning in Tracey’s head.

“I went online and I looked it up after that and I saw the history of it and that it’s still boarded up,” he said. “And I thought to myself, everyone and their mother is on Facebook now. Why not start a group to at least bring back memories of the RKO Keith’s?”

Tracey started a group on the social networking site earlier this month and the group already has more than 1,300 members, which Tracey said is a testament to the community’s love of RKO Keith’s, which has a storied history that has been tarnished in the last two decades.

A former 1920s vaudeville and movie house, RKO Keith’s closed its doors in 1986. The theater lobby was later landmarked, but was nearly destroyed in 1999 after controversial developer Tommy Huang was convicted of intentionally spilling fuel in the basement.

Attempts have been made to develop the site, at 137−25 Northern Blvd., and plans were approved to turn the theater into a 17−story condo tower with a senior center in 2005.

Plans called for the construction of 200 apartments in the 17−story building, 229 parking spaces, a senior center and a landmarked lobby to preserve the theater’s history, but they hit a snag when the developer, Boymelgreen Development, said the project would not be financially viable if changes were not made.

Boymelgreen put the project up for sale in 2007, but it has yet to find a buyer for its $24 million price tag.

After seeing the response to the Facebook group Tracey started, he quickly got to work. On March 7, he convened the first meeting of the Friends of RKO Keith’s in Flushing, drawing dozens of people.

“If we get some credibility, and we grow the Facebook group, who knows — maybe we can make something happen with this place,” he said. “You see groups on Facebook with 1 million, 2 million people on them. Even if we had 200,000 people, if they each chipped in $100, $200, we could buy the building. That’s just kind of dreaming, but who knows, it’s possible.”

For now, Tracey said the group is in the process of getting better organized, registering as a non−profit and taking things day−by−day. The Facebook group hopes to reach out to celebrities in the near future to get them to join the cause.

“It would be a great story,” he said. “We’ll see what happens, though anything’s possible.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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