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The Heights Theater

March 20th, 2010 by DavidFreeland

It’s been a while since my last post, mostly because I’ve been occupied with a move to a new apartment and neighborhood.  The neighborhood is one I expect to be writing about on Gotham Lost & Found in the months to come.  It’s a sliver of upper Manhattan perched above the banks of the Hudson in the West 180s and lower 190s, filled with wonderful Art Deco apartment houses, expansive parks and small family-owned businesses – many of which, like Gideon’s bakery, have been here for decades.  Once the enclave was known as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson, on account of the German-speaking Jewish population who called it home during the 1930s and 40s.  Elements of that old-world culture remain, but the area is now being changed somewhat by an influx of younger people – migrants from the Upper West Side and points to the south.

One of the nice points about living here is that it has given me a chance to explore other sections of uptown Manhattan nearby.  Coinciding with this development was my receipt of an inquiry from reader Adrian Allen, who wrote about “a building on Wadsworth Av. between 180 & 181 St.”  Adrian wrote a nice description of the exterior:

The building appears to be an old movie theater or a vaudeville house. On the facade are several “gargoyles” with different facial expressions. The building also has an imprint of a marquee. It is now a clothing store. Please check this building out. It is totally amazing!

I took Adrian’s suggestion and went to the site, located not far from the massive RKO Coliseum movie palace on 181st; the facade is indeed striking:

Heights Theater

It turns out that this building was in fact built as a movie theater, the Heights, which opened in the fall of 1913.  According to my friend Thomas Rinaldi, who wrote a fascinating paper on another of the neighborhood’s surviving old theaters, the Empress (which still contains its original pipe organ!), the Heights’ location was significant: “A middle class neighborhood, Washington Heights was well-suited as a proving ground for the growing film industry, whose strategy was to provide inexpensive entertainment to a mass market.”  By the 1920s, Tom writes, at least five motion picture theaters had opened in the area; most have survived (albeit in altered form) into the present day.

Tom was also kind enough to provide me with a copy of Motion Picture News from 1913, which gives a description of the new Heights’ interior:

The “Heights” theatre is devoted to high-class motion pictures exclusively.  They are projected on a gold fibre screen and are accompanied by one of the Wurlitzer Unit orchestras.  The auditorium is lighted with the indirect lighting system and no side lights on the walls to shine in the eyes of the audience.  Six hundred of the most comfortable seats, carpets in the aisles, brass railings, etc., complete the arrangements of the auditorium.

As Tom emphasizes so well in his paper, the Heights’s history is inextricable from that of its neighborhood.  In later years, it showcased foreign and art films (including Tosca, in 1956), then, by the early 1980s, xxx-rated features.  Today it houses a shoe store.  Whatever is left of the original interior is hidden behind drop ceilings, but outside the decorative work remains intact.  Here’s a closeup:

Heights Theater 2

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15 responses so far ↓

  • Actually, in the 1960s the Heights Theater was an art film house, not a porn film palace. It showed the best of foreign films, and I remember seeing many of them there for the first time (e.g., CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS, MARAT/SADE, etc.). Whoever the proprietor was at the time, he had taste and class.
    The Empress Theater, which I went to in the late 1950s and early 1960s, often showed THREE movies. As a kid, admission for me then was a whopping 50 cents. It showed both new movies as well as older ones, some from the 1940s, so you’d see Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, and Preston Foster, as well as Charlton Heston, Richard Egan, and Ann-Margret. Around 1962 it became a cleaner, classier theater called the Cinema 181, and I remember seeing DR. NO there on its first run. A decade later it was showing Spanish-language films, and had been renamed the Astral.
    There were about ten movie theaters on Washington Heights when I was a boy, and they provided me with some of the greatest joys of my life.

  • what memories.i was born in the heightsand lived there in the 40s and 50s and early 60s.there were 3 movie theatres on one block(181st street) the lane , the gem, and i believe the empress.i spent many a saturday all day watching movies andcoming attractions.bette davis ,joan crawford and judy garland all made appearances there.

  • Do you know which theater was opened first in Washington Heights? My great grandfather, William Landau, supposedly opened the first movie theater in that area of upper Manhattan. I have been trying to figure out which theater that would have been. If you have info to share, that would be great.

    What a fun, informative site you have!


  • The eventful past of its colossal neighbor the RKO Coliseum is featured at NYPL

  • The store Colorina, was the Heights Theater. I dont not know if it ever went by any other name. History shows that the Heights Theater once had regular movies, before they were a Porno XXX venue. I have Photo’s I found online of when it was a XXX theater.

    As for the Empress Theater, it also went by the name of the Astral, which is the name of the shopping mart there now..Sneakers Sweatshirts Jeans & Video games. Yes the organ pipes are still there!

  • The Lane was the 4th theater

  • I grew up in the heights 1955 to 1973. I remember going to the heights theater I saw Easy Rider, Joe, West Side Story there. I went to St Elizabeth’s school 187th street we went to see Tthe Bible there and it was in spanish the nuns freaked out it was hilarious. The theater eventually got the english version and all was well.

  • I love stories about old buildings and what they used to be and what they are right now, and how they changed since beginning.

  • Hi Mr. Freeland,
    Thank you for the information on this beautiful building. Im glad you took the time. How this building survived I dont know. Im glad it stands for all to see the beauty and now the history of its past. Now I have to go check out the pipe organ at the old Empress Theater site. Welcome to the neigborhood. if I come across any other intresting buildings I will take a picture and forward it to you. Again, thank you. Adrian Allen

  • Hi Mr Freeland,
    Thank you for finding out the orgins of the building I inquired about. Im thrilled you found this beautiful buildings history. Sorry Im just get back to you. (11-09-10). I resumed my reading of the Forgotten NY site. I clicked on your link of the Heights Theater and found my request had been answered. Again, thank you. If i come across any other intresting spots, I will take a picture, now that I travel with my camera.
    Gratefully yours,

  • I live around there! I always wondered what it was! the building is so pretty outside.. now I know why!

  • I never new the history behind this building it’s great to know the historic fact of this area of the city.

  • great post as usual!

  • Thanks for the welcome! I will be writing more about the neighborhood in the weeks to come. The Empress Theater is, I believe, on the southwest corner of 181st and Audubon. Like the Heights, it is now a store, but if you go inside you’ll see the original pipe organ still in place in back, along with other features. The Coliseum is indeed one other theater, along with the grand Loew’s 175th Street. I’ll have to ask Tom about the others.

  • oh my! i’ve been living in this neighborhood for 26 years, passed that store a zillion times and always wondered why the architecture was at odds w/ its current use. i’d be interested to know more about the other 4 theatres. well, the empress (where was that?) and (i assume) the coliseum on 181/b’way, and what are the other two…?

    THANK YOU for this delicious tidbit of local history. (and welcome to the ‘hood!)