Walking through Central and East Harlem this morning I was reminded of this real beauty of a theater at 116th Street and Fifth Avenue. Today it is used as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith; and, if its exterior is any indication, it is in excellent shape.
Although I had seen the theater on earlier walks, this was the first time I stopped long enough to notice some truly striking decorative features, which include a row of lions’ heads above the first story. Note the whimsical interplay with the statue of an owl that someone, in more recent years, has placed at the base of a pilaster (there is a second owl on the other side).
The lions, jaws gaping to reveal fearsome teeth, remind me of those which decorate the facade of another Harlem theater, the 1903 Alhambra, on 125th Street at Seventh Avenue. New York buildings have a curious way of revealing their histories through the accretion of layers, and this one is no different. Although hard to see in the photo below, the words “Mount Morris Theatre” are just perceptible, in faded outline, along the frieze below the cornice.
Here’s a brief history I’ve uncovered this afternoon: Named, evidently, in honor of nearby Mount Morris Park, the theater appears to have been built around 1912, at a time when the surrounding neighborhood was largely Jewish (although one New York Times account indicates that the building was actually owned by the Ancient Order of Hibernians). Likely it opened as a vaudeville playhouse, although it was showing films as early as 1917, as evidenced by a Times notice from January of that year, advertising the outrageous silent star Alla Nazimova in “War Brides.” Later in 1917, a member of the Institutional Synagogue, which held services in the building, used the stage as a platform from which to denounce the Russian Bolshevik movement. In 1934, the Mount Morris (by this time no longer owned by the Hibernians) was shut down by the city’s zealous License Commissioner, Paul Moss – reportedly because it owed its film projectionists $1,500.
At this point, the excellent website, Cinema Treasures, is helpful in letting us know what happened next. According to one contributor, in August of 1934 the old Mount Morris reopened as a Spanish-language theater, the Campoamor; later it was known as the Cervantes, Hispano, and Radio Teatro Hispano. The first performer there was Argentinian tango idol Carlos Gardel (actually, he was born in France; sadly, he would be killed in 1935 in a plane crash). The Campoamor also played a role in the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz in New York. The website Cuba Now explains that Alberto Socarrás, a great flautist born in Cuba in 1903, opened at the 116th Street Campoamor in 1934. Excelling in Cuban dance music as well as jazz and blues, Socarrás also performed at Harlem landmarks such as Connie’s Inn and the Apollo Theater (on a bill with Bessie Smith). As such, he helped forge a key relationship between the Cuban and U.S. musical cultures, one which would flourish in the decades to come.
By 1936, when the Campoamor was rechristened the Cervantes, it was, in the words of the Times, “the principal Spanish-language cinema house in New York.”