Have you ever visited the United Palace Theatre? The venue, which first opened in 1930, is an upper Manhattan icon, filled with architectural and artistic history that may not be obvious at first glance. As you gear up the 76th Tony Awards ceremony, let’s take a moment to appreciate the theatre, and the history making precedence of the first Tony Awards ceremony held within its hallowed halls.
The United Palace was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, a Scottish born architect known for his lavish “movie palace” designs. A prolific architect, Lamb designed more than 300 theatres throughout the world, including Broadway’s James Earl Jones Theatre. Outside of the United States, Lamb’s work can be seen in Canada, England, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad, Honduras, Sweden, South Africa, Japan, India, and China, with many of these locales influencing his designs for the United Palace.
Described by David W. Dunlap as possessing a design style that was "Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco," the United Palace is a temple to excess intended to uplift audiences from the despair of the Great Depression. Lamb considered theatres to be palaces for the average person, to be enjoyed by all; thus, the United Palace has an ornately designed terra cotta facade that can be admired by anyone who walks past the building, which takes up an entire city block.
Lamb worked closely with Harold Rambusch to design the interior of the United Palace, relying on Rambusch’s reputation for maximalism; Rambusch also designed the interiors of the Roxy Theatre, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Honeycomb masonry and golden plaster work are considered the United Palace's signature motifs.
The United Palace was one of six theatres dubbed the “Wonder Theatres” chain, with splendidly ornate movie palaces constructed in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Jersey City, New Jersey. All of the theatres featured at least 3,000 seats, and then state-of-the-art air conditioning throughout, encouraging audiences to take refuge from the summer heat at a screening. When the United Palace opened, more than 5,000 people attended the opening day festivities, with 1,000 additional admirers parading up Broadway to view the theatre.
The theatre was originally named Loew’s 175th Street Theatre and it was owned by the cinema chain Loew’s Theaters, Inc. It presented films, as well as some of the final vestiges of vaudeville. Seating more than 3,400 people, the United Palace was home to many classic film screenings hosted by some of Hollywood’s most popular stars, including Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Roy Rogers, and Eleanor Powell. In one memorable evening in 1939, rabid fans stole Garland’s hat from her head.
But as time went on, and with the advent of television, running an independent movie theatre became more cost prohibitive. By 1969, the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre was on the verge of shutting its doors. The final screening was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then a miracle happened.
Televangelist Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II and his wife went to the final evening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969, and they fell so in love with the theatre that they came back the next day with $600,000 in cash to buy it. The sale happened quickly, and Eikerenkoetter II renamed the Loew’s Theatre into the United Palace. He preserved the majority of the original architecture (with a few additions), and turned the space into the headquarters for the United Church Science of Living Institute. Following his passing in 2009, the space was again repurposed as an all-inclusive community space, housing both the United Palace of Spiritual Arts and United Palace of Cultural Arts programs, which offer non denominational spiritual services, and community based arts programming throughout the year.
Since 2007, the United Palace has served as a live performance venue, hosting performers such as Bob Dylan, Adele, Neil Young, John Legend, Vampire Weekend, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Lenny Kravitz, Mumford & Sons, Bad Bunny, Eddie Vedder, The Smashing Pumpkins, Jackson Brown, the Allman Brothers Band, Arcade Fire, and Kraftwerk. As the fourth largest venue of its kind in Manhattan, the United Palace has also hosted a number of large productions, including the Ballet Hispanico, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Dominican Film Festival.
In 2013, the United Palace went back to its roots by hosting regular public film screenings, thanks (in part) to the advocacy of Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. Fresh off his first Tony-winning musical In the Heights (which is set in the neighborhood surrounding the United Palace), Miranda donated $100,000 to the theatre, ensuring the venue could buy new screens and projection equipment. He has remained a fierce advocate for the space, and the Miranda Family Foundation continues to support the United Palace.
In recent years, the United Palace has become a favored location for film and television productions, with its golden color palette and size lending itself to grand onscreen moments. The Politician, John Wick 3, Saturday Night Live, and Quantico have all used the space in recent years. Even the Broadway backstage musical drama SMASH took notice, using the lobby as the location for fictional musical Bombshell’s opening night.
In 2016, the United Palace was designated a New York City landmark, preserving its grandeur for future generations. As you settle in to witness the 76th Antoinette Perry Awards, enjoy the “ornaments, colors and scenes” described by Lamb as “particularly effective in creating an atmosphere in which the mind is free to frolic and becomes receptive to entertainment.” It has been quite the theatrical season, and we all deserve a night of fun and frivolity!