Monday, January 25, 2016

The Lost Sheridan Theatre -- 7th Avenue and West 12th Street

A policeman stands on the streetcar tracks in front of the Sheridan Theatre in 1922, while a blurred traffic agent pauses by his manual Stop and Go traffic sign.  Architecture and Building, December 1922

In 1920 motion picture theaters had evolved from converted halls and old stage theaters to lavish “palaces.”  Max Spiegel had been in the liquor business before Prohibition forced him to find another profession.  He became manager of a burlesque show and, when that proved successful, he erected the Strand Theater on Broadway at 47th Street.

Before long he was building or acquiring burlesque or vaudeville theaters throughout New York and New Jersey.  When he purchased the Fitzgerald Building, at 43rd Street and Broadway, he gained a legitimate theater already in the building—the George M. Cohan.

In 1914, Seventh Avenue had been extended south through Greenwich Village.  The new thoroughfare cut through existing, diagonally-positioned blocks resulting in some odd triangular lots.  One of these was bounded by Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and West 12th Street.  Now, in 1920, Max Spiegel laid plans for another, lavish theater for that plot.

Arthur Hosking took this photograph of the site a month after the plans were filed from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In April Spiegel’s architects, Reilly & Hall, filed plans for a two story “brick, limestone and terra cotta theatre.”  The plans called for an auditorium capable of seating 2,500, and the building was projected to cost $400,000.  Max Spiegel told reporters that there were two important points to note about his Sheridan Theatre—“it is to be a motion-picture theatre and that it is being built without opposition from residents in the vicinity.”  His would be the first motion picture theater built south of 42nd Street.

As the structure neared completion on August 7, 1921, The New York Times remarked “Months were spent in investigating other theatres that the accumulative study might result in the latest and finest temple for the silent drama.”

Reilly & Hall’s elephantine design for the exterior gave no hint of the lavish interior.  The red brick mass, supported by a rusticated base, was relieved by stone bands.  Pilasters and a balustrade along the projecting entrance allowed the architects to tag the building “Colonial.”

The interior, however, was palatial.  The Times reported “There is a sixty-foot dome over the auditorium which perfectly reflects the idea and style of the Italian Renaissance carried out in Georgian green, ivory and gold.“  Two staircases of white Alabama marble led to the mezzanine.  The auditorium was lavishly-ornamented in what Architecture and Building called “a strong Italian Renaissance feeling and coloring.”

The 60-foot wide dome mentioned by The Times was further detailed by Architecture and Building, which said it “is exceptionally well carried out and owes its origin to the dome in the palace Mattei di Giove in Italy.  From its center was suspended a crystal chandelier which could change colors as the auditorium lighting changed.

The Sienna marble on the mezzanine level, where the men's and ladies' restrooms were located, was in reality, painted plaster.  Architecture and Building, December 1922
Spiegel spared no expense on outfitting the Sheridan Theatre, right down to the restrooms and lounges.  “The main lounge is below the auditorium and is treated as an Italian living room with tapestries and antique Italian furniture,” reported Architecture and Building.  “Two Carrara marble drinking fountains recessed in the walls of the foyer with illuminated glass domes are simple and well executed.”

Architecture and Building, December 1922
By the time the theater opened on September 19, 1921 construction costs had risen to $700,000—more than $9.25 million today.  The elaborate stage equipment cost an additional $40,000 and the impressive organ—a must-have in silent movie theaters—another $9,400.  Of the 2,700 seats, 1,200 were in the balcony.  The New York Clipper noted “the front rows are forty feet from the screen, doing away with objectionable close-up views.”  Another notable innovation was reserved seating.

Silent movies required musical accompaniment.  Along with the Austin pipe organ was a small orchestra, under Musical Director Walter J. Davidson.  As a matter of fact, when the theater opened the musical entertainment was nearly as important as the film.

The New York Times reported on the opening night of the “newest and most pretentious motion picture house,” saying “The opening program follows the fashion of the Broadway houses, combining motion pictures and music.  First comes the ‘Poet and Peasant’ overture played by the orchestra, and then George Dale, tenor; Dorothy Bell, soprano, a quartette and the Serova Dancers in songs and dances.”

Finally the two films—a short and a feature—were screened.  “The first picture number is entitled ‘Sheridan Greetings’ and includes an interesting bit entitled ‘Here and There in Greenwich Village,’ photographed by Wilbur Finley Fauley.  The featured photoplay is ‘Disraeli,’ with George Arliss in the title role.”

Sadly for Max Spiegel, his aggressive business expansion coupled with a staggeringly-expensive Sheridan Theatre ended badly.  Although his theaters were doing well, he had overspent.  The stress of his financial condition caused a nervous breakdown just over a year after the Sheridan opened.

On December 20, 1922 the New York Clipper advised “Involved in financial difficulties to the extent of $1,000,000, Max Spiegel theatre owner and operator, is confined to a sanitarium in Stamford, Conn., where he was committed last week…on the application of his brother, Leon Spiegel.”

Spiegel had stopped at a Hartford hotel when he broke down.  “His condition was very serious, and he was carried out of the hotel to a train which bore him to New York on a stretcher.”

The Sheridan Theatre continued under its manager, Morton B. Blumenstock, who expanded the repertoire with live entertainment.  In June the following year he announced that “Starting early in September the Sheridan Theater in Greenwich Village, will show a series of one-act plays, with a cast of singing artists, in conjunction with the usual run of pictures.  The New York Clipper reported “The plays will be presented with full scenic equipment and under the direction of Edwin T. Emery.  Plays from the old English and French authors will be presented.”

A bit of excitement was caused in the balcony on the night of January 9, 1924 when off-duty policeman George B. Dumont intended to take in a film.  As he removed his overcoat, his service revolver fell to the floor and discharged, firing a bullet into Dumont’s heel.  The New York Times reported “The policeman was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

In 1926 the theater was taken over by the Loew’s chain, which renamed it the Loew’s Sheridan.  The following year the first full-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences was screened here—Warner Brothers’ “supreme triumph,” The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson.

Anthony F. Dumas created a depiction of the 12th Street elevation in September 1931 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The theater was the scene of much fanfare on January 4, 1930 when a bronze plaque was affixed to the fa├žade, commemorating the site of the house where George Clemenceau lived for six months in 1870.  The former Prime Minister of France led his country through the First World War and French citizens and French-Americans would gather at the spot for years, laying flowers and holding small ceremonies on Clemenceau’s birthday.

Greenwich Village artist Edward Hopper painted his Sheridan Theatre in 1937
The Sherdan Theatre played a major part in the sensational 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder case.  Cashier Cecelia M. Barr was first hired by the Loew’s chain in 1916 and was transferred to the Sheridan when Loew's it took over.  At 9:30 on the night of Sunday, November 26, 1933 Richard Hauptmann stepped up to her window and threw a folded $5 bill at her.  The film that night was Broadway Through a Keyhole, a gangster movie written by Walter Winchell.

Cecelia Barr later recounted “He took the bill out of his watch pocket and threw it at me.  That naturally made me look up—the way he did it.”  Other factors made her take notice of Hauptmann.  He was late for the screening—she was even counting her receipts, not expecting anymore patrons—and although it was a cold night, he wore no overcoat.  The third reason, other than the tossing of the bill, was the way it was folded.  “The bill was folded in eight parts as if it had been taken from a watch pocket.  I had to unfold it myself,” she later testified.

The collection of circumstances led Cecelia Barr to distinctly remember the man among the 1,500 patrons that night, and to describe him to Federal authorities.  The oddly-folded bill was one of those marked by the FBI and provided as ransom in the Lindbergh case.

Five years later The New York Times reported that Cecelia had earned $1,000 of the $27,000 reward money for Hauptmann’s conviction.  New Jersey Governor Harold G. Hoffman described Cecelia Barr as the “quite remarkable cashier.”

photo from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Throughout the 1950s the Loew’s Sheridan Theatre was the scene of “Christmas Motion-Picture Parties” for underprivileged children.  Over 5,000 children were entertained here annually.

With dwindling audiences as television began keeping motion picture audiences home in the 1950s, the Sheridan managers got creative.  On June, 15, 1957 the first of the “Music for Night People” jazz concerts was initiated.  That first performance was a memorable one—with Billie Holiday the headliner.

Two days later The Times reported “Jazz concerts successfully invaded new territory at midnight Saturday when 2,500 people packed Loew’s Sheridan Theatre in Greenwich Village to hear a program headed by Billie Holliday and the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

The newspaper gave the chanteuse a mixed review.  “Miss Holiday, making one of her rare New York appearances, was not always in full control of her voice.  But once she had worked away a tendency toward thickness and lumpiness, she sang with a quiet passion that was deeply moving.  She reached her peak on three of her established favorites, ‘God Bless the Child,’ ‘Don’t Explain’ and particularly on ‘Billie’s Blues,’ a song that was delivered with raucous gaiety in her early days but now has evolved into a dark-shadowed, brooding plaint.”

For the next few years the Loew’s Sheridan Theatre would present some of the most recognized artists in the jazz field—Dave Brubeck Quartet, and Jean Sheperd, for instance; and the premier of Alonzo Levister’s jazz opera Blues in the Subway on September 28, 1958.

It was not enough to make up for the faltering ticket sales, however.  In the early 1960s the balcony was closed, the first hint of trouble.  Finally, in 1969, the last film was screened and the doors were closed for good.  St. Vincent’s Hospital, directly across the avenue, purchased the property.  Announcing the intention to construct a nurses’ residence, it demolished the movie palace.

photograph by the author
The hospital changed its mind and the triangular plot remained vacant until being planted as a neighborhood garden.   Later a boxy brown facilities structure was erected in part of the plot, and most recently a public park was installed along the Seventh Avenue side.  For most, the memory of the lavish silent movie palace that contributed to the ruin of a theater mogul and the capture of one of the nation’s most notorious murderers has faded away.

many thanks to Simone Weissman for suggesting this post.


  1. Used to see movies there, probably1966-1968. Nice memories

  2. Replies
    1. It was in reference to the nearby Sheridan Square. Incidentally, Spiegel built the Sheridan Square Theatre, a live theater, simultaneously.

  3. For the record, "The Jazz Singer" was not the first full-length talkie. Only the musical scenes had sound. The rest of the movie, dialogue cards were used. It did have synchronized sound for those scenes but it was primarily a silent film.