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Loew’s Mayfair Comes Out of Hiding at Famous Dave’s

July 19th, 2009 by DavidFreeland

The other day my friend and literary agent, Eric Myers, wrote to tell me of a new barbecue place he had visited in Times Square, whose ceiling was “all original Art Deco, complete with recessed cove.”  Hearing more of Eric’s description, and then comparing it with the location – 171 West 47th Street at 7th Avenue – I began to suspect that the new restaurant, a branch of the Famous Dave’s chain, was utilizing a portion of the old Loew’s Mayfair Theater.

Famous Dave's Barbeque on West 47th Street, part of the old Mayfair Theater

Famous Dave's Barbecue on West 47th Street, housed in part of the old Mayfair Theater

A bit of history: the Mayfair was one of the last movie palaces in Times Square to remain standing and open for business.  Early in its life the theater was known as the Columbia, 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.  With seating for 2,300, the theater opened as the RKO Mayfair on October 31, 1930, with an Amos ‘n Andy comedy, “Check and Double Check.”  In June of 1935 it was taken over by Loew’s and continued to operate as a first-run house; later, as the DeMille, it hosted premieres of big Hollywood films such as Spartacus and Hawaii.

By the early 1990s, the old Mayfair had been triplexed – shoddily, with a partition down the balcony center – and was operating as the Embassy 2-3-4 (the “Embassy 1″ was located one block to the south, in what is now the nicely restored Times Square visitors’ center).  In retrospect, those days could be seen as the last flowering of old raffish Times Square, and thinking back upon them brings to mind a flood of images: the 1960s-era doughnut shop that once sat near the Embassy 2-3-4, the Metropole cabaret with its vivid orange and green neon sign, the small ad in the form of a decal (stuck to a Plexiglass door) that featured a pre-”Three’s Company” Suzanne Somers, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.  Times Square during that part of the 1990s was a never-ending sequence of colors and sounds; the action pictures flickering in its movie houses were an extension of the blazing cacophony on the streets outside.

To read more about the Mayfair, check out its page on Cinema Treasures, a fascinating website devoted to exploring the history of these oft-neglected cultural sites: http://cinematreasures.org/theater/501/.  In 1998 the theater closed, and its future seemed a giant question mark.  For years it existed in a state of dormancy, but when demolition crews were seen carting debris from its interior in 2007, old theater lovers feared the worst.  We had already lost virtually every movie palace in Times Square, with the exception of the former Hollywood, now preserved as Times Square Church.  Would the Mayfair be next?

Lately, however, remnants of the old Mayfair have been surfacing.  Because the office building which housed it remains in use for retail space, and because the theater itself took up so much of the building, new tenants have been forced to either obscure original decorations or highlight them as part of the design.  Fortunately, they have chosen to highlight them.  Not long ago, I was pleased to discover that a souvenir shop located on the building’s 7th Avenue side had incorporated part of the Mayfair’s vestibule ceiling.  And now, Famous Dave’s has unveiled another, larger portion.  In between bites of pulled pork, diners can look up and enjoy this view:

Remnant of Mayfair Theater

Remnant of Mayfair Theater

There are also some fine Art Deco touches along the ceiling’s edges:

Mayfair Theater Decoration 2

While the Mayfair will never be a theater again – the economic realities of Times Square, not to mention the extensive alterations already performed throughout the space, would render that an impossibility – it’s nice to know that some vestiges have survived, to remind us of the architectural layering that is Manhattan.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • Loew’s operated the Mayfair for nearly twelve years, from June 10, 1935 until April 30, 1947. During that time, the Mayfair showed only second-run double features simultaneously with Loew’s neighborhood theatres. This was the same policy used successfully for many years at Loew’s New York Theatre (Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets), which was demolished in 1935, with the Mayfair becoming its replacement. The Brandt circuit took over from Loew’s, turning the Mayfair into a first-run theatre on August 27, 1947, with 20th-Fox’s “Kiss of Death.”

  • Thanks for the info, Warren. It’s always fascinating to read your commentary, as you are one of the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to our cinematic past! I wonder if anything else remains from the Mayfair, or if what we can see at Famous Dave’s and around the corner in the gift shop is it?

  • I was interested in this article simply because of the reference to Amos and Andy. We used to listen to their radio show on VOUS the American Forces Radio Station here in St. John’s Newfoundland when the American Service people were stationed at Fort Pepperell. VOUS was one of our favourite stations providing interesting comic, msytery and drama shows. Anyway, David, we are all pulling for you and hope that your future endeavours are completely rewarding.

  • Thanks for sharing your memories of VOUS, Art. It sounds like a wonderful station.

  • Thanks for writing, I very much liked

  • I would predict the Mayfair will most likely be transformed into an upscale restaurant as the economy continues to improve. It certainly has a gorgeous ceiling that should be preserved.

  • For a bio of dancer Maxine Barrat (Loper & Barrat dance team, 1940s), I would like to confirm the location in 1941 of the Wm. Morris agency, which represented her. Can you help? Thanks. Kris

  • SAVE THE MAYFAIR
    A HOTEL COMPANY WANTS TO REPLACE IT WITH A HOTEL, IT SHOULD INCORPORATED INTO THE HOTEL IF THEY ARE SMART