Variety, East Village Style
As EV Grieve recently reported, the final credits may be on the way for a movie theater turned grocery store on Avenue A. As the end may be coming for the former Hollywood Theater, we thought we’d take a brief look at another East Village showplace that only recently went the way of the silent screen. The Variety Photoplays Theater on 3rd Avenue between 13thand 14th Streets was never a grand movie palace like the RKO Keith’s, the Loew’s Kings, or the Loew’s Paradise, but for its 90 years of existence it played a notable supporting role in the East Village theater scene as the neighborhood transformed around it.
Though its earliest history is somewhat sketchy, it seems that the original building that housed the Variety Theater at 110 3rd Avenue was constructed as early as 1897. Only 25 feet wide and just under 100 feet deep, it was most likely a store or residence that was altered to convert the space into a two story theater in 1914. As the moving picture craze swept the city in the early twentieth century, nickelodeon theaters sprung up all around the city to cash in and bring the new medium to the masses.
While the Union Square area had served as home to the center of legitimate theater in New York in the late 19th century, as the twentieth century progressed that center moved north, and the neighboring East Village area became a center of ethnic theater and popular theater, movie houses, nickelodeons, and dance halls. The uses of other nearby sites such as Webster Hall, the Yiddish Art Theater, and the Academy of Music/Palladium on 14th Street all reflect this.
The Variety seated 450 and as the Times notes, “first presented groups of two-reelers, collections of individual features, each 15 or 20 minutes long. This was at a period when the feature-length film was still uncommon and films in general were generally considered low-culture — ”photo plays” or not.” In 1930 a balcony, new lobby, and art deco renovations to the original 1923 marquee sign were made by architects Boak and Paris.
Because of its limited size, the Variety never attracted the best first-run films, and by the late 1960s, the Variety — like many other struggling theaters in New York — turned to blue movies to help keep it afloat. By the 1970s and 1980s, the theater screened a somewhat unpredictable mélange of B and/or C-grade films as well as soft and hardcore pornography. The theater space also became a meeting place for gay men. A writer for the Bright Lights Film Journal described the scene when he visited the Variety in 1984:
“Upon entering the auditorium, I saw the movie was playing upside-down. This lasted a good fifteen minutes. Nobody complained or perhaps even noticed… It was like stepping into a time capsule. I noticed four large globe-like lighting fixtures that had somehow survived the decades. The walls were an unremarkable (patched) plaster, but the ceiling was special, composed of patterned pressed tin. There was a single modest balcony. My main memory was of patrons moving about the theater in a constant bustle and streaming into and out of the toilets oddly situated down front below the screen and surely a distraction for anyone trying to watch the film. The room was filled with the continual rustlings and creakings of people on the move. It was more like a mass happening than a movie screening, and in fact I have no recollection of the film at all.”
As the cinematic quality of the films shown at the Variety declined during the 1970s and 80s, so did the reputation of the surrounding East Village neighborhood. The Variety Theater was even featured in the film Taxi Driver. You can read more about Taxi Driver filming locations which happen to be just down the block from the Variety in a previous Off the Grid post.
The Variety ended its run as a movie theater in 1989 when it was closed by the city’s health department, but later reopened in 1991 as a live off-Broadway theater. It ran for more than a decade as the Variety Arts Theater until 2004 when it was closed and demolished in 2005 to make room for a 21-story condominium tower. GVSHP campaigned to get the historic theater landmarked, but the City refused to act.
If you would like to learn more about other historic theaters in the East and West Villages, be sure to visit our theaters page, and if you would like to learn about how you can help preserve the historic East Village, visit here.