Unless you live in Washington Heights, it’s probable you’ve never heard of the United Palace Theater. I certainly never had, until a friend called me up over the summer to announce he’d won free tickets to a John Legend concert being held there, and I had one hour to make it from my Williamsburg office to the theater’s 175th St. location. United Palace – directly across the street from Dominican greasy spoon El Malecon – is relatively unremarkable from the outside, so I was totally unprepared to step inside and see this:
OMG EXCELLENCE. OPULENCE. DECADENCE.
I immediately became furious with myself for not wearing a head-to-toe Versace print knock-offs + a tiara to the concert. I also began beating myself up for not knowing that this wondrous theater existed. A little bit of research revealed why (aside from the fact that BK and downtown dwellers are often sadly unfamiliar with things happening uptown): until recently, the space had been operating as a church. And I am not particularly churchy.
In it’s original incarnation, however, United Palace was a movie theater. Opened in 1930, it was one of five Wonder Theaters Loew’s built across the metropolitan area to establish itself as THE place to watch movies and be fancy. Side note: I definitely didn’t realize this is what movie theaters looked like during the Great Depression. Seems like kind of a strange contradiction – people living in tenements watching movies in Versailles-level ornate buildings. But, escapism was necessary I guess.
In 1969, United Palace showed its final film (2001: A Space Odyssey) and the next day the Christ United Church took the space over, holding services there for over 40 years. But in 2012, the theater was reincarnated yet again – this time as a nonprofit cultural-arts center. And recently, the center’s Director Mike Fitelson announced plans to reincorporate films into United Palace’s programming, after a successful Indiegogo campaign raised $40,000 for the project.
So if you’re unfamiliar with United Palace, now is a good time to get acquainted. Not only does the venue provide a rare and special film-viewing experience – with its 3,400-seats and a 50-foot screen – it also offers programming that skews heavily toward Latino films, particularly those that cater to Washington Heights’ primarily Dominican community. Already, the theater has screened Trouble in the Heights, Sosua, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 200 Cartas. This Saturday, it will screen the best of the Dominican Film Festival, and on November 1st, right at the tail end of Halloween spooky-season, the Spanish version of Drácula.
United Palace’s return to its silver screen roots is perfect timing for a neighborhood that is in the midst of a creative boom. So bust out your most luxurious outfits and head uptown for a movie-watching experience you won’t get anywhere else!