The Status of RKO Keith’s Flushing

Ordinarily, I restrict what’s essentially local news to posts on social media, but I think you can see that there’s a dimension to this story that will be of interest to vaudeville lovers the world over. I moved to my current digs in Great Neck a couple of years ago, but it was not until recently that I realized that it put me close to one of New York’s last surviving vaudeville venues: The RKO Keith’s Theatre in Flushing, Queens. The RKO Keith opened as a vaudeville house/ movie theatre on Christmas Day, 1928, and its stage was trod by the likes of Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers (who lived nearby for a few years), and Mae West. Naturally after vaudeville folded (1932), it was almost exclusively a cinema, although from time to time, there were occasional live appearances in later decades.

In normal (non-pandemic) times, I pass through Flushing quite frequently. It is a major transportation hub and my ordinary transfer point on trips into the City. In fact, the theatre in question is a five minute walk from where I switch buses. So yesterday, I had an errand in Flushing and I thought I’d pop over and take a look. And this is what it looks like at the moment:

But don’t freak (too much)! Its story is not over. Though it has been closed since 1986 and has been a frequent victim to vandalism, theft of portions of architectural elements, and destruction (both intentional and accidental), it was also landmarked in the early ’80s. It’s currently in the hands of these guys, who promise to preserve and incorporate historic elements of the building into a new structure, which will be (what else?) another luxury housing tower. It’s hard not to share the attitude of this editorial commentator:

Here’s a very good piece on the building’s current status from the Queens Eagle. A lot of the damage has already been done. On the other hand, as the graffiti artist asks, do we need more empty luxury apartments for gangsters to launder money and not pay taxes on? There is another group, called Save the RKO Flushing that advocates restoring it as a theatre, and has been raising money toward that cause. If you support that mission, sign their petition here.