Once upon a time, back in the 1980s, a group of people entered a cavernous, darkened building on Flatbush Avenue. A flashlight played around the vast interior, revealing dull glints of gilded faces, flaked with decay...plants sprouting from a black, moldy carpet...sprung velvet seats sifted over with dust. The beam was too weak to illuminate more than a hint of the infinitude of rococo columns and alcoves that lurked in the shadows. We stood on a tour of "Brooklyn's Haunted Places" in the padlocked ruin of the Loew's Kings Theater, one of the original "Wonder Theaters" built to transport New Yorkers into a cinema fantasy world. Opened in 1929 and shuttered ignominiously in 1977, the Kings was almost certainly slated for demolition--if anyone in the drifting and dysfunctional city could summon the will to knock it down. The Spouse and I were a young couple on that tour--new homeowners in Flatbush, a place as steeped in myth as it was marooned in decline.
Flash forward almost 30 years. The couple, still Flatbushers, are back, with their 19-year-old daughter, on the opening night for the gloriously restored Kings. The kickoff concert, fittingly, is another indestructible grand dame: Miss Diana Ross, resplendent in an array of glittering costume changes, belting out her catalog of hits to a rapturous crowd of pure 2015 Brooklyn: Caribbean families, hipsters, diva-worshiping gay guys, and newly minted senior citizens who came here for movie dates and graduations from nearby Erasmus High School back in "the day."
Diana praised the beauty of the space: "I feel like a queen! Can we turn up the house lights?" They never went high enough for me to get any shots that convey the red-and-gold palette, but you get the idea:
The restoration is stupendous. (For a good rundown, go here.) The same vintage as Radio City Music Hall, the Kings lacks its exuberant Deco quirkiness, going instead for a dreamlike palatial vibe.
The original had an Old World patina, which has been painstakingly recreated to yield a slightly sepulchral luxe, a perfect prom palace for funky vampires. Walnut paneling, caryatids, alcoves, columns, spin and overwhelm. Imagine sitting here in the depths of the Depression, watching Fred and Ginger (and a newsreel, and cartoons), shown to your seat by white-gloved usherettes.
Speaking of whom, the Kings team on opening night was terrific, doing a firm and friendly job of herding 3,600 of us--a full house--through metal detectors (alas) and to our cushy seats. They did their predecessor Barbra Streisand proud. I expected the politicos on hand, including Mayor DiBlasio (or, as the Daughter calls him, "Mr. Potato Head") and the irrepressible Marty Markowitz (who never gave up hope for the Kings) to babble at us, but they seem to have gotten that out of the way days earlier at a ribbon-cutting.
Here she is, Brenda from Flatbush (my longtime Interwebs handle), descending the grand stair. As we left, a charter bus was filling up (we joked that they had come from Park Slope). We walked home through the snowy streets, past jerk chicken shops and a pawn broker and the construction pit where a new hotel will soon rise on Flatbush Avenue...past Erasmus, whose courtyard hides an ancient building awaiting its turn at renovation...past the Dutch Reformed Church, whose spire has gazed down on this village intersection since the American Revolution...past its churchyard, where slaveholders rest beneath Dutch-inscribed tombstones. Past and future whirled together (not to mention the sensory overload from having sung "Stop! In the Name of Love" with Diana). I hope the Kings signals the resurrection of a Flatbush as crazily quilted as the one we stopped in and love...and not that it heralds the scourge of gentrification that would drive out the very kind of working folks who dreamed and celebrated in its glorious space all those years ago.