Historic North Park theater soon to reopen



This historical photo, estimated to be from the 1920s or ’30s, shows the North Park theater on Hertel Avenue.

 

For years, patrons of Hertel’s North Park theater collected a long list of gripes and wishes, most of which they set aside out of love for the art films (and unbeatable popcorn) for which the space was known. Decades of neglect under Dipson’s management compounded the theater’s problems. By June 2013, the ceiling was crumbling, the seats were stiff, the heating pipes were cracked, and the men’s bathroom — accessible only up a tall flight of stairs —robbed many older patrons of their favorite movie house. This disrepair led to Dipson’s departure in June.

Behind the locked and papered doors, new owners Tom Eoannou and Michael Christiano, along with veteran theater manager Dr. Ray Barker, have been hard at work tackling two decades’ worth of repairs. They are hoping to reopen the theater in January 2014, with fundraising tours slated for December.

The North Park, formerly part of the Shea’s empire and one of only two surviving Beaux-Arts movie palaces built by architect Henry L. Spann, could in recent years have been described as charmingly shabby. However, the cave-dark interior hid many cultural gems – for example, a massive recessed dome depicting sporting classical figures, painted almost a century ago by Raphael Beck, most famous for designing the logo for the Pan-American Exposition.

“It’s always been there, but it hasn’t been showcased,” Barker says. “At times Dipson was more concerned about their lighting bill.”

In recent months, an art restorationist has been working pro bono to bring back Beck’s golden glory. The old seats – put in on Sept. 1, 1939 (the day Hitler invaded Poland), begrudgingly accepted despite their discomfort and lack of leg room – still sit on the wings of the theatre. The center section has been completely torn up, with new seats on the way. The owners tested scores of seats for comfort, and opted to keep the decorative metal wings that flanked the old rows as a nod to the building’s history. The seats on the wings will be replaced pending funding.

Other improvements are at or near completion. The building features entirely new lighting, repaired heating, and a men’s bathroom on the first floor. The old one will remain upstairs, for nostalgics who savored the two-flight trip.

Old patrons will be surprised to find a polished marble floor in the outer lobby — something that for decades sat hidden under a threadbare red carpet. In the inner lobby, they’ll find a new concessions area, with a planned matching marble countertop. The old concessions stand was removed, making room for premiere seating and space for events, although butter-lovers can rest assured that the popcorn recipe will remain the same.

Outside, the classic but cracked and peeling marquee has been repaired by none other than Buffalo-based FlexLoom, the scions of the family that originally installed it in 1940, using the original tools, materials and even sockets.

Like the refinished Raphael Beck dome, the near future of the North Park is looking bright. Already, according to Barker, more than 20 couples have approached the owners about hosting weddings in the theatre. Music acts are eyeing the space, which might soon be the recipient of a New York State grant for further renovation. Barker listed new proposed uses, but was quick to point out, “The heart and soul of the theatre is going to remain art films.”

Patrons eager to get a glimpse inside might be in luck: Barker floated the possibility of a “champagne social,” perhaps as soon as New Year’s Eve.

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