Now playing at the Commodore Theater in Williamsburg: Spider-Man.
But probably not for much longer. The blockbuster movie could be the 1921 theater's last hurrah, because the owners of the art deco building are in the process of selling. While the current shareholders refuse to name the buyer, their attorney says his clients have signed a sale contract.
Responding to rumors that the Commodore's new owners plan to tear down the theater and build a yeshiva school on the property, a group of local residents and elected officials have asked the city to dub the building a landmark, to help preserve it as a neighborhood cultural center. Al Gorman, the shareholders' attorney, would not indicate what the new owner plans to do with the space, only saying that his own clients decided it was no longer profitable to show movies there.
“There's no cultural center in the area that works with youth and artists,” says David Pagan, executive director of Los Sures, a local community development group. On behalf of five other local nonprofit groups, Assemblymember Vito Lopez and City Councilmember Diana Reyna, Pagan submitted an application to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in February to have the old theater landmarked. The commission is currently considering the proposal and has yet to schedule a public hearing. Landmark status would limit the changes the new owner could make to the theater.
Pagan hopes the building's cultural history will speak for itself. Designed by the architecture firm Groneberg & Leuchtag, the Commodore was built as a one-screen movie house in 1921. Today, in addition to playing first-run films, it hosts the Williamsburg Film Festival, Puerto Rican and Dominican concerts, local forums, and school graduations.
If it were up to the North Brooklyn Arts Coalition, as the group of nonprofits has named itself, they would use the Commodore as a cultural arts center for the largely Latino neighborhood–housing exhibition studios, filmmaking classes and live music and dance performances.
After getting wind of the yeshiva plan over the winter, they submitted a proposal to the owners to do just that. But their bid came too late, says Gorman. “We were really far along with this other transaction,” he says. “We really felt a moral commitment because we had gone so far with the negotiations.”
So now the group hopes Landmarks moves quickly. At least one historian is not sure how much luck they will have. Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theater Historical Society of America in Elmhurst, Illinois, says the space's moderate size–1,427 seats–and little-known architects could work against it. “It would be a stretch to find anything really significant on that particular building,” he says.
Still, landmarking supporters hope history and sentiment win out. “That was my theater growing up,” says Evelyn Cruz of Bushwick. “I wish I had the millions of dollars needed to purchase it.”