Curtain rises

Hold the craft cocktails and pricey artisan nibbles, the main draw of this theater is the building itself

The main theater has an impressive gold dome

Whether it’s through craft cocktails, gourmet dining or reclined seating, Manhattan movie theaters are trying hard to impress their guests and stand out from the crowd.

But the Village East Cinema at 181-189 Second Avenue is not particularly awe-inspiring, nor does it look historically important, at least at first glance. Its black-and-white marquee is not worthy of an Instagram post, and you’d be hard pressed to find an artisan snack. And yet, the theater has interior landmark status and a flawless screening room that we’d wager would put the city’s other modern theaters to shame.

If you find yourself catching a film in the Village East Cinema’s most famous (and largest) screening room, cast your eyes upward before the lights dim, and you’ll find a glamorous gold and turquoise dome with a gilded six-pointed star and a chandelier. Ornate tiles surround the chandelier, and the screen is framed by the original and lavish decoration.

The neo-Moorish space was built in 1926 by developer Louis Jaffe for Maurice Schwartz, a popular Yiddish-speaking actor and his theater company.

“I like to think of him as the George Clooney of the Yiddish theater,” said Daniel Allen, an architect and a principal at CTA Architects, the company that was brought in to restore and repair the ceiling of the main auditorium, known as the Jaffe Art Theater.  

Cast your eyes upward before the lights dim,
and you’ll find a glamorous gold and turquoise dome.

After decades of use as a Yiddish theater and later for off-Broadway productions, burlesque, dance shows and concerts, the space fell into disrepair during the 1970s. It closed in 1988 and was converted into its current movie theater incarnation in 1991. During the bad years, the ceiling leaked, Allen said, causing much of the damage.

However, the stage surround didn’t need to be touched, nor did the theater’s balconies. The ceiling’s center dome was in good shape and is thought to be original, but the surrounding ceiling tiles were a big problem. The 3-by-3-foot plaster panels are hung by burlap and wires from a metal grid.

“That was the part that had deteriorated rather badly,” said Allen. “Pieces of it had been lost. There were places at the back of the theater where you could actually look up and see the joints opening up between the panels.”

To make the necessary repairs, CTA first erected scaffolding right under the ceiling. “For a couple of years, they still showed movies underneath the scaffolding, and it’s a movie theater, so no one really cares that much if they look up and they see darkness,” said Allen. But eventually, things got so bad that they had to shut the theater down and restore it.

CTA architects worked with EverGreene Architectural Arts and reinforced and strengthened the entire ceiling with a layer of resin and fiberglass.

Since the space had been intended as a venue for singing and playing acoustic instruments, the team had an acoustic engineer determine whether the soundtracks of today’s movies were doing any damage to the ceiling.

To measure this, a movie that featured Katy Perry singing was turned up to an unspeakable volume, said Allen. “We had to do that over and over again while the acoustic engineers monitored vibration sensors to be sure that Katy Perry wasn’t destroying the ceiling, and it turns out she wasn’t.”