The City Concealed: The United Palace Theater

April 21st, 2009

Q&A with: Josh Cohen, producer for The City Concealed

The most recent installment of The City Concealed is about uptown’s United Palace Theater, designed by movie palace architect Thomas W. Lamb, in Cohen’s words: “It’s sort of Neo-Classical Cambodian, with influences of Hindu, Mayan, and Moorish architecture. Gilded and covered in red velvet.”

Why did you choose this theater? Is it the best one in NYC? Is it the best one you’ve seen?

I’ll leave it to someone with a more sophisticated understanding of the architecture to decide whether the United Palace is one of the best in NYC, but I do think it is one of the most unique theaters still in existence, and certainly one of the best-preserved.

We ended up at the United Palace via a circuitous route. We were initially looking into the Victoria Theater (another theater designed by the same architect, Thomas Lamb–he did a lot of theaters, especially in NYC), located on 125th street, just 2 doors east of the Apollo. The style of the Victoria is pretty restrained, especially when compared to the United Palace, but it has a lot of historic importance to the people of Harlem. The Victoria is now owned by the State of New York, and has fallen into ruin. The state wants to sell it do developers, but the community wants to preserve it. It’s a little bit of a controversial issue right now, and the state wouldn’t give us permission to shoot inside the Victoria.

But researching the Victoria led us to the United Palace Theater. And when I went uptown to scout it out, there was no question that we had to do a story on it.


Do they ever still show movies at United Palace Theater?

There are no regular screenings of films at the United Palace, but people do rent it out for special events. Interestingly, the original screen from 1930 (made with actual silver!) is still there. We didn’t visit the projection room in the video, but they still have the old projectors and reels from the last film that Loews screened there, “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Do they have secular events there ever, or is it always events related to the church?

In recent years the United Palace Theater has become a popular venue for rock, hip hop, and salsa music. I know Bob Dylan and Neil Young both played shows there. Lauryn Hill played a concert there during which the theater’s historic organ caught on fire. But I think the majority of the concerts there cater to the local Dominican community.

Where did you find the twins interviewed in the video? (Are they twins?)

We were very lucky to find the Levao brothers. They were very generous with their time, and it was great to hear what it was like growing up in Washington Heights 50 years ago. There’s a passionate community online devoted to the preservation of historic theaters (cinematreasures.org is probably the most comprehensive site)–we connected with Ron and Rich through Cinema Treasures. Ronald Levao is a professor of Shakespeare at Rutgers in NJ. Richard Levao is the president of Bloomfield College. And yes, they are twins.


Watch The City Concealed video on the United Palace Theater and read more about the history of the theater.


Filmmaker Josh Cohen is also working on a film about Bhutan…preview it here.