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; Varietypredicted 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 Kandaharand Behind the Sun; Monster's Balland Dark Blue World arrive the following week.

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.

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.

image
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.

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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