Cross-posted from Gotham Lost and Found, the blog of David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure.
The other day my friend and literary agent, Eric Myers, wrote to tell me of a new barbecue place he had visited in Times Square, whose ceiling was “all original Art Deco, complete with recessed cove.” Hearing more of Eric’s description, and then comparing it with the location – 171 West 47th Street at 7th Avenue – I began to suspect that the new restaurant, a branch of the Famous Dave’s chain, was utilizing a portion of the old Loew’s Mayfair Theater.
A bit of history: the Mayfair was one of the last movie palaces in Times Square to remain standing and open for business. Early in its life the theater was known as the Columbia, a vaudeville house of 1910 vintage (you can still see some of the Columbia’s original decorations on the building’s exterior), but in 1930 famed architect Thomas Lamb revamped the interior with a striking Art Deco theme. With seating for 2,300, the theater opened as the RKO Mayfair on October 31, 1930, with an Amos ‘n Andy comedy, “Check and Double Check.” In June of 1935 it was taken over by Loew’s and continued to operate as a first-run house; later, as the DeMille, it hosted premieres of big Hollywood films such as Spartacus and Hawaii.
By the early 1990s, the old Mayfair had been triplexed – shoddily, with a partition down the balcony center – and was operating as the Embassy 2-3-4 (the “Embassy 1” was located one block to the south, in what is now the nicely restored Times Square visitors’ center). In retrospect, those days could be seen as the last flowering of old raffish Times Square, and thinking back upon them brings to mind a flood of images: the 1960s-era doughnut shop that once sat near the Embassy 2-3-4, the Metropole cabaret with its vivid orange and green neon sign, the small ad in the form of a decal (stuck to a Plexiglass door) that featured a pre-“Three’s Company” Suzanne Somers, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Times Square during that part of the 1990s was a never-ending sequence of colors and sounds; the action pictures flickering in its movie houses were an extension of the blazing cacophony on the streets outside.
To read more about the Mayfair, check out its page on Cinema Treasures, a fascinating website devoted to exploring the history of these oft-neglected cultural sites: http://cinematreasures.org/theater/501/. In 1998 the theater closed, and its future seemed a giant question mark. For years it existed in a state of dormancy, but when demolition crews were seen carting debris from its interior in 2007, old theater lovers feared the worst. We had already lost virtually every movie palace in Times Square, with the exception of the former Hollywood, now preserved as Times Square Church. Would the Mayfair be next?
Lately, however, remnants of the old Mayfair have been surfacing. Because the office building which housed it remains in use for retail space, and because the theater itself took up so much of the building, new tenants have been forced to either obscure original decorations or highlight them as part of the design. Fortunately, they have chosen to highlight them. Not long ago, I was pleased to discover that a souvenir shop located on the building’s 7th Avenue side had incorporated part of the Mayfair’s vestibule ceiling. And now, Famous Dave’s has unveiled another, larger portion. In between bites of pulled pork, diners can look up and enjoy this view:
There are also some fine Art Deco touches along the ceiling’s edges:
While the Mayfair will never be a theater again – the economic realities of Times Square, not to mention the extensive alterations already performed throughout the space, would render that an impossibility – it’s nice to know that some vestiges have survived, to remind us of the architectural layering that is Manhattan.