Monday, March 4, 2013

The Lost 1907 Theatre Unique -- 136 East 14th Street

The facade of the new motion picture theater was unbridled, at best -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
East 14th Street towards the end of the 19th century was a mixed bag.  Pawn shops, “pain-free” dentists, barber shops and saloons vied for the attention of passersby.  In 1884 the expansive Theiss’s music hall was erected at Nos. 134-136 directly across the street from Tammany Hall, much to the consternation of the nearby Grace Chapel.  Theiss’s served liquor seven days a week, boasted an automatic pipe organ and percussion instrument called a “monster orchestrion,” a billiard parlor, bowling alleys, oyster bar, and restaurant in addition to the auditorium.  The upper floors contained hotel rooms, much to the convenience of the prostitutes and their clients who were among the hundreds of nightly patrons.

By the turn of the century the legitimate entertainment district was mostly centered on 23rd Street; the one noticeable hold-out refusing to budge being the staid Academy of Music on the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place.  But a new form of entertainment was about to take 14th Street by storm: the moving picture.

In 1899 Huber’s Museum and Theatre opened at No. 10 East 14th Street.  Within a decade nearly a dozen more nickelodeons would open—each one plastering its façade and the nearby lampposts with colorful and tantalizing posters aimed at luring customers inside.   In 1907 Theiss’s music hall fell victim to the trend.  That year it was renovated as the Theatre Unique, the architectural equivalent of a can-can dancer.

A stereopticon view captures one mother rushing her youngster past the garish theater as men in bowlers pass by.
Competition among the nickelodeons was fierce and the Theatre Unique did its best to attract attention to itself.   The façade was plastered with oversized decorations—story-high plaster torches, trumpeting cherubs, half-nude gods upholding the ends of heavy festoons and spread-winged eagles.  The gaping arched entrance, like a ravenous mouth ready to swallow unsuspecting patrons, was lined with electric lights.  The name of the theater was spelled out in light bulbs along the arch.  In all there were 5,000 electric lamps.  The ticket booth was an ornate mosque-like affair of gleaming, sun-catching brass.

For 10 cents for a seat on the main floor or 20 cents for a box in the mezzanine balcony patrons would enjoy a silent movie.  The auditorium seated 650 and was cooled by expansive folding doors that could be opened to allow air circulation.  Illuminated signs announced the changing entertainment—an innovation nearly worth the dime admission in itself.  

The cost of equipping the theater was $25,000—about $450,000 today.   Once inside, the movie-goer could make a day of it if he so desired.  “It is a continuous performance and thousands are entertained daily,” wrote H. Thurston Owens in The Illuminating Engineer.

But from opening day, the Theatre Unique faced vicious competition.  Views and Films Index noted the cutthroat contest among the theaters.  “In these days of exceptionally keen competition on Fourteenth Street, New York, picture shows on that street must ‘show goods’ in order to be anywhere near the running.”

To compete, Theatre Unique added vaudeville routines in July 1908 and four months later installed the new Cameraphone system which attempted to synchronize sound to the motion pictures.  Talking movies had arrived on 14th Street.  But there was a bigger problem.

The growing cluster of electric theaters along 14th Street meant that there were not enough films to go around, especially considering that Associated films had a near monopoly on silent movies.  In the spring of 1908 Moving Picture World sent its staff to ten theaters.  Nine of these were showing the same film.   That summer the Theatre Unique realized that it was routinely showing the same films as three other theaters nearby.    The managers made a daring move:  they abandoned Associated films and began screening independents.

When the theater erected a gigantic electric sign at the roof line announcing The World in Motion, H. Thurston Owens, writing for Good Lighting and the Illuminating Engineer, took notice.  “These miniature play-houses are so numerous in the larger cities that some special feature of outside illumination has been adopted by the more pretentious as a magnet to attract their patrons—the passing throng.  ‘The World in Motion’ has recently been opened on 14th street, New York City.  It is opposite Tammany Hall, and owing to its size, cost and lavish use of light, commands our attention.”
A 31-foot flashing sign grabbed attention in 1908 -- Good Lighting and Illuminating Engineer, 1908 (copyright expired)
Owens was most impressed with the “upright flashing sign equipped with 1,250 more lamps” which he deemed “is unusual, it is impressive.”   The one-ton sign, 50 feet above the sidewalk, was 31 feet long and cost the theater $2,000 installed.  The showy sign flashed “World in” and the ball of a sun for a few seconds, followed by “Motion” and the sun’s rays.  The boarder was composed of “chasers” which ran continuously around the sign.  While they were at it, the owners ran a border of electric lights under the balcony and along the stage border.

“This is probably the largest amusement hall of its kind in the world, and is a shining example of the advertising value of light,” said the magazine.

The innovations paid off and the Theatre Unique was among the successful motion picture theaters along 14th Street.   Its choice of films was the subject of disfavor by The Evening World in December 1912, however, when the newspaper railed against violence in film.   The World insisted that violent films resulted in violent or criminal behavior and on December 2 pointed out one instance.  “A moving picture of a burglary, witnessed by sixteen-year-old William Gumpel of Jersey City, made such an impression on the mind of the boy that he resolved to copy the pictured crime.  He induced his chum, John Semonditch, also sixteen, to join him in attempting to chloroform and rob Mrs. Mary Schroeder, a widow, of No. 1023 Summit avenue, Jersey City.  To-day both boys are prisoners and have confessed.”

The newspaper complained, “More lurid and sensational than the blood-and-thunder dime novels of the past are the films and posters of the cheaper moving-picture shows which have come to take their place in New York City.”   Although young Gumpel did not witness the motion picture that prompted his short-lived life of crime at here, The Evening World did not overlook the Theatre Unique.

“In front of the Theatre Unique, No. 136 East Fourteenth street, an eight-sheet poster across the entrance shows the one-eyed giant Polyphemus lying tied on the ground, while Ulysses and his men are ramming a flaming, sharpened stake into his eye.  Then to make the scene the more vivid, the head and eyes of Polyphemus, with the flaming and sharpened stake about to be plunged into it, are shown in an enlarged insert in one corner of the poster.”  Children, reported the newspaper, “were present in large numbers.”

The insinuation, perhaps, was that the small children would rush home and plunge flaming stakes into the eyes of their nannies or schoolmates.

Soon the Theatre Unique would hook repeat patrons with the weekly serial films; an added attraction to the feature film.   On December 27, 1915, a nearly-full page advertisement in The Evening World described “The Girls and the Game” which opened that day.  Starring Helen Holmes, “the fearless film star,” it was touted as “the Great Railroad Film Novel.”

Patrons would have to return fifteen times to see the entire “story of railroad and finance, love and adventure.”  The ad promised “this tremendous photoplay positively eclipses anything ever offered.”   Costing $500,000 to produce, it offered “splendid photography, picturesque settings and gorgeous costumes in this great motion picture work; but in addition to these, you will see stupendous scenes involving great daring, the risk of lives, and tremendous expense.  Helen’s leap off the bridge is one instance; the collision scene in which a whole train is shattered is another.”

A year after audiences thrilled to the dare-devil theatrics of Helen Holmes the end of the line came for the Theatre Unique.  Just as progress had replaced Theiss’s music call with the motion picture theater, it was about to topple the old nickelodeon.   On August 27, 1916, The Sun reported that William Fox intended to erect the largest moving picture theater in the country—a 5,000 seat venue which would be outshone by only two other amusement centers, Madison Square Garden and the Hippodrome.

Fox’s proposed theater would require the demolition not only of the Theatre Unique, but of the Dewey theater and another three-story building; along with a row of seven buildings along 13th Street.

But progress did not stop in 1916.  Today on the site of Theiss’s music hall, the Theatre Unique, and Fox’s gargantuan motion picture palace stands New York University’s red brick Palladium Hall, a residence hall for 960 students.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. I am sorry to once again say, "Great post", but it is. We need more superlatives for your wonderful, fascinating work.

    Were you able to uncover any photos of the interior of the Theatre Unique?

    1. sorry. I would love to find interior shots of the theater but, so far, no luck

  2. Now you need to follow up with a post on the Palladium which itself unfortunately fell to the wrecking ball for NYU's dorms

  3. Great post. I agree with magnus, but every post I read is great. I never miss a post. I'm sorry to see that another intriguing building is gone. Ah, progress.

    I'm curious about the interior as well. It also sounds like the serial "the girls and the game" would have been fun to see. I wonder if there are any prints of it out there.

  4. Your blog is wonderful; isn't the last photo of the Con Ed building, across the street from that block on 14th? Text would lead one to think it was the NYU building, I think, and Palladium Hall nowhere near as attractive.

    1. You're absolutely right. Another reader pointed that out as well. My photographer was simply pointed in the wrong direction! I removed it, we'll get the right building posted soon. Thanks for that.

  5. Interesting how no one seems to be interested in the designers of such a "unique" theater. ---Christopher Gray