Growing up, my favorite theater was the Valencia in Jamaica. No mere movie theater, it was an experience, a Hollywood production its own right. Here with my brother Matthew, I first experienced the glorious, magical world of movies.
It wasn’t my first trip to the movies, but it was my first trip to a real movie palace.
That first excursion to the Valencia was on a rainy Saturday afternoon. With not much else to do, off we went to see Shane with Alan Ladd. It had just opened at the Valencia. It was 1953. I was 6. When I had to go to the ladies room, I became so enchanted by the theater, I got lost. The ceiling of the Valencia was called “atmospheric,” a dark distant sky full of realistic twinkling stars.
Not to mention the fountains and strange Rococo architecture the likes of which I doubt were ever seen in a “real” building and certainly never by me, even in my imagination. I couldn’t pull my eyes away and eventually forgot where we were seated in that vast building.
An usher with a flashlight had to help me find my family.
The Valencia was in downtown Jamaica, Queens, about 3 or 4 miles from my house. It opened in 1929 and was the first of the five Loew’s ‘Wonder’ Theaters. Others would be in various parts New York, including Astoria, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. My sister-in-law graduated in the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, twin theater to the Valencia.
The decorations are described variously as a mix of Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian, but that doesn’t do it justice. It was fantasy land, and it was entirely unlike anything in reality. Certainly unlike anything in my reality or experience. The theater was enormous, with seating for 3,554, including a vast orchestra section and several balconies.
Architect John Eberson supposedly based his design on Spanish architecture motifs, using wrought iron railings, ornate tile work, sculpture and murals. I suspect a drug induced hallucinogenic state, but perhaps he just had an amazing imagination.
Its extraordinary combination of brick and glazed terra-cotta outside was purportedly inspired by Spanish and Mexican architecture of the Baroque or “Churrigueresque” period, though I have my doubts about that. Details included elaborate terra-cotta pilasters, cherubs, half-shells, volutes, floral swags, curvilinear gables and decorative finials … and of course within, lay that astonishing “atmospheric ceiling” full of stars.
In 1935, the Valencia began to show double features. By the 1950s, it had become my family’s the “go to” movie theater for a special Saturday afternoon. This continued right through the 1960’s.
The Loew’s Valencia was the most successful movie theatre in Queens. Its location in downtown Jamaica, which was then the primary shopping area in the borough and for Long Island before shopping malls changed all that, combined with the theater’s ability (part of the MGM system) to show new movies a week before any other theater in the borough, made it wildly popular.
As for me, I’d have happily gone there even if no movie were showing. The theater was a star. Just those twinkling stars held me transfixed, hypnotized.
I would stand staring up at it until someone asked me if I was alright. I wasn’t, really. I was lost in the stars.
The Valencia ended its life as a movie theatre in May 1977. Since then, it has been the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People church.
At least it was spared the fate of so many other movie palaces. It was not leveled to make way for yet another cookie-cutter cinemaplex. That’s something.
- Inside Coney Island’s Decrepit Movie Palace (futuregiraffes.com)
- Historic Seattle theater to close (q13fox.com)
- The Palace Theater of Gary, Indiana (sometimes-interesting.com)
- They Tore Down Paradise…And the Movie Theaters of Our Dreams Part 3 (zomboscloset.com)
- A Movie Palace Reborn in Brooklyn (the170.com)
- Lobby Cards: Dealing A Pack of Great Escapes (remindmagazine.wordpress.com)