Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meet the Neighbors: Landmark's Sunshine Cinema

Our "Meet the Neighbors" series continues this week with an introduction to Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, which has a surprising history.

The Sunshine Theater c.1930
Image Courtesy the NY Public Library

Located at East Houston and Forsyth Streets, Sunshine Cinema has been a much-loved venue for independent and foreign films for ten years. What's surprising is that the building itself has actually been a neighborhood gathering place since before the advent of cinema.

Originally built as a Dutch Reformed church in the 19th century, the building at 143 East Houston Street has had many lives. In 1908 it began a career in show biz when it was transformed into the Houston Hippodrome, a neighborhood vaudeville house featuring three-act plays, costume operettas and variety acts for local Yiddish-speaking audiences. Patrons purchased knishes from Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery down the block to snack on during a performance.
For Lower East Siders, Yiddish Theater was a cornerstone of neighborhood life.  Jewish American singers like Sophie Tucker and Belle Baker were known as vaudeville's "Red Hot Mamas". They rose to stardom singing ragtime and torch songs like "My Yiddishe Mama" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies"--but it wasn't all 'schmaltz'. The red hot mamas also delivered risque and humorous numbers like "Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love," and "Last of the Red Hot Mamas".

Sophie Tucker c.1913

Belle Baker c.1916



Time marched on and vaudeville's heyday ended. For nearly half a century, the auditorium was used as warehouse space for Semel Goldman Hardware. For a time in the mid-1990s, it was rented out for sporadic independent rock concerts, before Landmark Theatres bought and renovated the building. On December 21, 2001, Landmark opened its modern, five-screen art house behind the Sunshine's classic façade.

Sunshine Cinema today
But the more things change, the more they stay the same: with the return of theater audiences, the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery is once again selling their famous knishes to moviegoers. Pick one up the next time you head to the movies for a taste of the vaudeville era and the original Jewish Lower East Side!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.