Heritage Cinema

The Secret History of the Sunshine Theater

On Friday, after decades of neglect, the Sunshine Theater at 143 East Houston Street will again be put to its proper use: showing movies.

In its storied life, the building (between Eldridge and Forsyth streets, or First and Second avenues, depending on where you stand) has been a church, an immigrant meeting hall, a boxing venue, a nickelodeon, a Yiddish vaudeville house, a hardware warehouse, a graffiti showcase, and an indie-rock playroom; it has stood at the center of daily life for each generation of Lower East Side newcomers. This week, the theater will re-open after a three-year, $12 million renovation by the L.A.-based Landmark Theater Corp. as the third art-house multiplex on Houston (after Film Forum and Angelika), although Landmark claims it will be the only one that is column-free and subway-silent, and the first in the nation to have stadium seating. With five suburban-sized screens and 880 cushy cup-holder-equipped seats, a fancy snack bar, a restored facade and snazzy appointments, two Japanese rock gardens, and a skyway gangplank to neighborhood views, it will certainly be the plushest.

The new screens should be a boon for filmgoers; Variety predicted last month that the Sunshine's opening will mean more diversity, longer runs, and maybe even a revival of revivals. An unsuccessful merger with the Dallas-based second-run chain Silver Cinemas ended in bankruptcy, but Landmark emerged from the wreckage, back on its feet and ready to raise the stakes for Angelika a few blocks away. Like Landmark's other theaters, the Sunshine will be programmed from L.A. Opening-night features will include Kandahar and Behind the Sun; Monster's Ball and Dark Blue World arrive the following week.

Above: an Ad for the grand opening of the Sunshine in 1917
photo courtesy of The New York Public Library
Above: an Ad for the grand opening of the Sunshine in 1917

It's a promising start, but the management has a lot to live up to. "In the same week of December 1909," says cinema historian Judith Thissen, "the audience got a continuous show of short movies and variety acts featuring the prophet Elijah, a 'Signor Pannini,' and Hilda, the Swedish handcuff queen—all on a single bill! Besides moving pictures, a program might also contain comic sketches, dramatic scenes, one-act plays, songs and dances, jugglers, acrobats, or an animal act." * Thissen, an assistant professor at the Institute for Media and Representation at

Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has traced the history of the Sunshine back to the beginnings of the city itself (she wrote part of her dissertation on the place). She believes the earliest parts of the theater were built as a Dutch Reformed Protestant church, which became a German Evangelical Mission church in 1844. It was then probably used as a meeting hall for German immigrants until the turn of the century. Many Germans left the neighborhood after the General Slocum steamboat disaster of 1904, which, until September 11, was the worst fire in the city's history, killing at least 1021. The building's showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the "Houston Athletic Club."

In Rose's day, the neighborhood was the center of the East European Jewish exodus and perhaps the most densely populated place on earth (440,640 people per square mile). Movies were a new attraction, and saloons ran them—in combination with Yiddish vaudeville—to draw in customers. Charlie Steiner, who worked in his father's livery stable on Essex Street, had a better idea: In 1908, he convinced his dad to let him convert the barn into a nickelodeon. Steiner knew Abraham Minsky, the notorious burlesque pioneer, and in 1909 they persuaded Minsky's father, Louis, an Orthodox Russian Jew who made a fortune in downtown real estate, to buy the old church and set them up in business.

With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the "Houston Hippodrome": The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews. Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel's knish bakery, still in operation, next door. According to a memoir by Abe Minsky's brother Morton, patrons used "the racks that once held hymnals [for the] bagels, salamis, and other eatables they brought with them for nourishment during the long program."

By early 1911, Thissen says, the Hippodrome was offering two new Yiddish three-act plays every week, many of which were quickie versions of fare at the better-established Yiddish legit theaters and the People's Music Hall on the Bowery, addressing what she calls "the challenges of Jewish life in the New World: poverty, vice, generational conflicts, soured marriages, broken homes." There were also homegrown and European films with Yiddish intertitles, including Bible pix, gangster sagas, and melodramas, although Thissen has had a hard time pinning down the programming: If a feature was doing less than boffo B.O., Steiner and Minsky would just change the title.

In 1912, they moved their "vaud-pic" two blocks to a 1000-seater on the roof of the National at 11 East Houston, Yiddish theater's most prominent venue, which was also owned by Louis Minsky. It's now a parking lot, not that Louis would have cared; for religious reasons, he never attended.

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