Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Loews Mayfair

It's not just the secret porno theater at Playland Gifts that makes the block of 7th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets a treasure trove of old Times Square for casual urban archaeologists. There's much more here. On my recent visit to the block I came upon some artifacts from the lost Loew's Mayfair theater.

NYPL, c. 1935

The marquee is gone, yet the terracotta remains, tucked up behind scaffolding and giant billboards above what is now the Phantom of Broadway souvenir shop.

But it's the interior that is most exciting. Like the nearby fossils of the lost Automat hidden in plain sight at another souvenir store, you can find bits and pieces of the Mayfair's lobby here. Right inside the door, look up through the cacophony of TV screens and glittery T-shirts--the ceiling is painted with stars and carved with scrollwork.

Each decorative spear comes down to a pointed church-like window, from which people must have looked out from the mezzanine years ago.

And each former window has a lavish grill, now used to house a ventilation system. Today the mezzanine is for storing stock and selling sports memorabilia. Mannequin heads in Yankees caps peer down on the tourists.

Upstairs, in the sports souvenirs section, the decorative scrolls of the mezzanine grills continue on a fragment of banister that might once have led to the balcony.

Here, the ceiling is painted black and obscured by hanging lights, making it hard to see the carvings.

At Gotham Lost & Found, author David Freeland discovered more parts of the Mayfair around the corner, inside Famous Dave's Bar-B-Que restaurant.

The Mayfair was originally a big theater, with a marquee that went from 7th Avenue and around along 47th Street. Writes Freeland, "Early in its life the theater was known as the Columbia [click for pic], a vaudeville house of 1910 vintage (you can still see some of the Columbia’s original decorations on the building’s exterior), but in 1930 famed architect Thomas Lamb revamped the interior with a striking Art Deco theme."

NYPL, c. 1935

At some point, the theater's massive marquee was cut down--the corner of 7th and 47th given over to a Fruit Drinks stand, a necktie store, and other businesses--so that the only piece of marquee remained at the entrance, where the Phantom of Broadway souvenir shop stands now.

c. 1954

Many photographs exist of the Mayfair's exterior corner where the impressive wraparound billboard announced the movie of the moment. Photographers must have loved it--especially when it featured a three-dimensional spectacular, like this one starring the buxom Jane Russell.

c. 1955

There aren't many images of the theater taken after the 1950s. When the Mayfair became the DeMille in the 1960s, photographers seemed to lose interest. But it does turn up, here and there, in general shots of the block.

In this rare photo of it as the DeMille it is squeezed between a karate school (formerly a billiards parlor) with Showtime topless go-go girls on the first floor and an electronics store. There's the original 1910 vaudevillian terracotta that remains hidden under billboards today.


Finally, the Mayfair was chopped up into a triplex and became the Embassy 2-3-4, where in 1979 you could see The In-Laws, Dawn of the Dead, and Love at First Bite. By that time, it also housed a little doughnut shop, and its neighbor (the former karate school formerly a billiards parlor) had become the XXX Show Follies Center.

c. 1979

The Embassy was one of the last of Times Square's long-running movie houses to remain open, finally closing in 1998.

Amazingly, through all these changes, through many renovations and guttings, those artifacts still remain--the scrollworked ceiling, the grills, the bit of banister--all leftovers from Thomas Lamb's 1930 design, ghosts from another city.

photobucket, 1993


David Freeland said...

Great piece, Jeremiah - you've traced the chronology of this cinematic survivor brilliantly!

Bowery Boogie said...

Wonder if that preservation was intentional.

Ken Mac said...


ShatteredMonocle said...

Speaking of Thomas Lamb, the interior of the United Palace is one of the most stupefying things in all of NYC.


standupcoward said...

Excellent work and post as always.

Marty Wombacher said...

Great post today. I love how you're finding pieces of the past in today's landscape!

Laura Goggin Photography said...


Dammit, now I'll have to go back to Times Square! I never go into any of these souvenir shops, but now there's a reason to check these places out while there's still some history left. I need a new naked lady lighter anyway...

Claribel said...

Wow! I wasn't familiar with Thomas Lamb and discovered that his firm also designed the RKO Keith's in Flushing, Queens, which was a beautiful theatre. A local group fought for landmark protection of the theatre, but with no success. That's wonderful that the United Palace is so well preserved because it is definitely stupefying. Thanks for the link, ShatteredMonocle!

Lamb also co-designed the Ziegfield. I love these art deco houses, they hark back to a time when going to see a movie was an experience in itself. Definitely superior to streaming films on your laptop to avoid today's movie crowds with their cell phones ringing, etc.

Thanks for sharing the intense multiple personalities of Times Square! It'll be fascinating to see what she looks like in another 30 or so years. I'm routing for less Disney, more panache. :)

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks all.

David, somehow i bet you've been there before me. Goggla, definitely go--i never go into these shops and then it occurred to me that maybe something is there. i suspect that, because these shops open up fast and put so little money into renovating, they inadvertently end up preserving the past. it costs money to rip out useful banisters and plaster over decorative ceilings!

Jeremiah Moss said...

oh yeah, more to come on this block's history...and thanks, Shattered, for the link. gorgeous stuff.

roadsidewonders said...

You knocked another one out of the park. Love this post!

Eric Myers said...

Famous Dave's Barbecue around the corner on 47th St retains much of the original Loew's Mayfair auditorium, including the proscenium. It's more of the Mayfair than we've gotten to see in thirty years, and a great example of adaptive re-use. They serve pretty damn good 'cue, too!

While in the neighborhood, check out the HA! comedy club on 46th just east of Broadway. Go down the stairs from the sidewalk to the basement level, and you'll find much of the original 1930s Hungaria restaurant intact, including ornate vaulted ceilings, black-and-white tile floors, and a Streamline Moderne staircase out of an Astaire-Rogers film.

Eric Myers

Richard Aaronson said...

My Dad likes to quote a sign that he says hung in the Mayfair Donut Shop: "As you ramble on through life brother whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole." Is that a well-known reference or unique to him? RDA (Atlanta, GA)

Anonymous said...

I worked as a projectionist at the DeMille until the fire in 1974. The night before the fire I converted the projector gates to 70mm for the run of That's Entertainment, which was supposed to open the next day.

Joseph Angier said...

Great post. Do you know anything about the Mayfair showing films in the "Spoor-Berggren" 65mm format, around 1930?

Mr. Peepers said...

I just read that this theater was where Frankenstein premiered in 1931! what a shame it was cut up and junked like this...

Melanie said...

I know this blog is a few years old, but I felt drawn to comment. My Grandfather and Grandmother met in this theater. He was a projectionist and she was an Usherette! He continued to work there after they were married. He also commuted from NJ in the 30's and 40's, long before the rush to the burbs. Thanks for showing what has become of this landmark theater.