East 116th Street in “El Barrio,” East Harlem, is one of my favorite Manhattan thoroughfares because of the life that seems to pulse from every storefront and window. A sign jutting from a row of stately 19th century townhouses advertises “Lupe, Spritualist Reader & Advisor,” who is also described as a “profesora en espiritismo.” Dental offices proclaim extractions and other services offered “con gas,” while the steady heartbeat of salsa and Latin jazz emanates from glass-fronted record shops, filling the streets with music.
Architecturally there is much here to admire, including this lovely old theater (now Regine’s clothing shop) at number 176.
I’ve passed this theater a number of times and have longed to investigate its history. My first stop, after taking this photo this morning, was to visit cinematreasures, which can always be counted on for well-researched information. According to the site, Regine’s was once the Cosmo, a venue for not just Spanish-language films but (like the Campoamor Theater profiled in an earlier Gotham Lost and Found post) live performance as well. In fact, one Cinema Treasures contributor recalls seeing great Latin artists such as Celia Cruz and Tito Puente here, some time before they crossed over to a wider public and began performing at larger venues such as Radio City Music Hall. As we’ve seen with so many of New York’s performance spaces, the Cosmo resonated with the culture and spirit of the community that surrounded it.
My next step in researching the Cosmo was the page for 176 East 116th Street on the NYC Department of Buildings’ Building Information System. According to the “NB” (for “new building”) entry there, the permit for the theater was applied for in 1920, which means that the building would have been completed by 1921 or 1922 (and a certificate of occupancy, also available for viewing on the site, dated January 1922, confirms this). A perusal through the New York Times historical archive (not free, I’m afraid) reveals something of a tumultuous history, including a fire, two robberies (including one in which the thieves used acetylene torches to melt the burglar-proof safe), and a shooting within its first two decades of existence. According to Cinema Treasures, the theater continued to show action and Spanish-language movies until it closed during the middle 1980s.
Today nothing of the interior is visible, although I suspect that some original decoration survives beneath the expansive dropped ceilings. The facade remains extremely well-preserved, as can be seen in this photo:
We’ll continue our exploration of East Harlem’s theaters within the coming weeks!