Stepping out of the 175th Street subway station and into the United Palace Theater feels a bit like time travel. The 87-year-old vaudeville stage-turned-movie-house-turned-church-turned-community arts center features some of the most beautiful features of any venue in the five boroughs. Like the recently-restored Kings Theater in Brooklyn, the United Palace features soaring ornate ceilings and first-rate acoustics, along with a calendar of modern acts like Iggy Pop, Sigur Ros, and Bob Dylan. But unlike the King's, there's been no recent multi-million dollar renovations. The place has been kept in sparkling shape all these years.
In the late 1920s, the Loews Corporation set out to build five "Wonder Theaters" across New York City. "They built theaters in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Jersey City, and for whatever reason they chose this block as the theater location for Manhattan," Mike Fitelson said. Fitelson is the Executive Director of the United Palace of Cultural Arts, a nonprofit group currently operating out of the 3,000 seat complex.
From groundbreaking to opening, it took Loews only 13 months to build the massive 3,000 seat building at the corner of 175th Street and Broadway. But the timing was bad. "It opened in February of 1930 after the stock market crash, in a completely different world than what they had envisioned. The world had changed, and no one was quite sure what would happen to vaudeville, to movies, to entertainment," Fitelson said.
The theater managed to survive as a single-screen movie house until 1969, when Reverend Frederick "Ike" J. Eikerenkoetter, a prosperity preacher from South Carolina, purchased it for $600,000. He paid cash.
"When he preached here on a Sunday, 5,000 people were here in this 3,000 capacity theater," Fitelson attests. "His take on the bible was 'God is the king, we're all children of God, and so we're all royalty.'" Banners with Ike's sayings—all of them warm and encouraging—still hang in the lobby of the United Palace Theater. Eikerenkoetter's ministry maintained the building; his son, Xavier, is now the owner, and has worked to turn the Palace into a community arts hub that includes dance studios and theater classes in addition to a calendar of booked movie screenings, concerts, film shoots, and weddings.
This month, the city is due to declare the exterior of the theater a preserved landmark (the inside remains a private religious space), and while Xavier Eikerenkoetter in the past called the process "draconian," Fitleson sees the process as one that will accomplish the number one goal of keep the theater standing.
"The building has always survived on private funding—why would we now want to go through city bureaucracy, in order to do something like paint the building? Most importantly it ensures that this community will always have this temple."