Heritage Cinema

The Secret History of the Sunshine Theater

Rose, Steiner, and the Minskys were all feature-worthy subjects in their own right, but the building's next owner was one of the most hated figures on the Lower East Side: Max D. Steuer, the lawyer who one year earlier had successfully defended the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory from manslaughter charges after a fire there, second only to the Slocum catastrophe, killed 146 women garment workers in 15 minutes. Steuer's clients were acquitted after a legendary cross-examination in which he demonstrated that the devastating testimony of the surviving victims, most of whom were Jewish immigrants, had been rehearsed.

During Steuer's time, the theater was a nickelodeon, catering to a younger, poorer, and more ethnically mixed crowd. On February 2, 1913, Steuer had a tragedy of his own: Two patrons died in a stampede after a projectionist saw smoke and proverbially yelled "Fire!" The incident became a cause célèbre, and in its aftermath the city adopted laws requiring greater safety measures, forcing many storefront theaters and nickelodeons to close.

The theater today
(photo: Pak Fung Wong)
The old Hippodrome was directly affected by the legislation, but as a result of the growth of the new Yiddish theater district on Second Avenue, it was also in a prime location. In 1917 Charlie Steiner got the lease back, expanded the capacity to 600, and reopened it as the Sunshine. Thissen suspects the wooden trusses visible in the contemporary Sunshine's top-floor theaters may be from the original church, but Tony Pleskow, the architect for Landmark's renovation, thinks they date from 1917. Don't expect to see any other vestiges of Steiner's work: "The building was stripped of seats and ornament," says Pleskow, although he did find some old liquor bottles in the projection booth.
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

By 1925, thanks to his inventive use of advertising, Steiner controlled dozens of movie theaters throughout Jewish New York. In the early 1930s the painter Ben Shahn photographed the Sunshine; the marquee is clearly visible. But by 1945, the theater was dark again, and the building came into the hands of the Goldman family, who used it for inventory from their hardware business on Essex Street.

"The first time I came in here, it was stacked floor to ceiling with crates of doorknobs and hinges," says Tim Nye, the Silicon Alley scenester who is the motivating force behind the space's latest incarnation, as well as the founder of the pre-Web music bulletin board Sonicnet (now part of MTVi), the Soho gallery/club Thread Waxing Space, and the Jet Set record label. Imperial ambition runs in his family: In the era after Louis Minsky made his fortune, Nye's grandfather, Harold Uris, another Russian Jew, was assembling downtown's richest trove of office buildings. Nye, who could pass for a slightly baked Tom Cruise, adopted the theater after spotting a "for rent" sign nailed on the facade late one night in 1994. At the time, Thread Waxing Space was drawing capacity crowds of 1000 people to shows that featured, say, the music of the Red Krayola, Royal Trux, and Palace Brothers, and the art of Steve Keene. Nye hoped to use the Sunshine to expand.

"We were going to put a broadcast and recording facility in the basement and have live performances upstairs," he says with characteristic confidence. "We excavated 28 feet into the earth. We were going to record everything that happened in the club, and generate revenue by exploiting those rights. But the community board made it their mission to make sure we did not get a liquor license. Without that income stream the investors got extremely nervous." After a few parties in the space, Nye admitted defeat and turned the project over to Landmark; he now calls himself a "passive partner" and is currently working on a sketch-comedy pilot for British television.

Landmark, which operates 52 theaters in 16 other markets, finally has a foot in the door in New York. "It's the only place in the country where you can try to see every film in town and not succeed," says Landmark marketing director Ray Price. To celebrate, they've commissioned a cool poster by Daniel Clowes announcing the opening, which depicts Ghost World's Enid walking to the Sunshine to watch herself on-screen. They're particularly excited about the Sunshine's history. "I keep telling people that Fanny Brice lost her virginity there twice on successive nights," says Price.

The crew at Yonah Shimmel, which has survived even the stunning gentrification of the neighborhood over the seven years since Nye first grabbed the lease, is hoping the new Sunshine patrons behave like Morton Minsky's. "They have café, popcorn, but we have really food," says Alex Wolfson, Yonah Shimmel's manager and eternal counterman. "Maybe we add some sandwiches: tuna fish, egg salad. But we don't make any money from sandwiches. We need people buy knish."

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