By Fernanda Martinez
The Metro theater, on Broadway between 99th and 100th Streets, has been closed for 17 years, showing its last movie in 2005. Its facade is landmarked, but its insides have been gutted — for “imminent” occupancy by a tenant who is “very special,” longtime Metro owner Albert Bialek has told the press many times over the past decade and a half (at least). Each time, the deal fell through.
Now, a group of neighborhood residents is seeking to change that pattern, and it’s gaining momentum. The goal of Friends of Metro Theater (foMT) is to see the Metro reopened as “a multi-purpose space with a film component,” said Debbie Rosenberg, secretary of the group. And they’re using social media to gather support, with a snazzy new website and videos like the one below.
“What’s interesting about this is that young people [at foMT] have developed a social media campaign that has liberated the Metro so it has a bigger life,” Rosenberg explained. “Normally, what would happen is, people such as me would make overtures — I raised money to get a structural engineer and then I gave up. Nobody was talking about it anymore. Now, what’s different is that more and more people are talking about the Metro, so now there’s community pressure that’s building.”
The Metro Theater, formerly called The Midtown, functioned as a conventional movie theater since its inception in 1933, except for a brief stint showcasing adult films in the 1970s. The building’s façade, a classic example of Art Deco style, was officially designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1989. In 2005, after a series of different leaseholders (including Dan Talbot who ran Lincoln Plaza Cinemas until his death in 2017), the theater closed for good. And in 2006, its interior, which was not covered by landmark designation, was gutted.
Over the years, there have been many false starts toward reopening. In 2020, Bialek filed a permit for retail space. “Something big is happening at the Metro Theater,” he told West Side Rag at the time. “I can’t give you details, but we’re in advanced talks, working very intensely on it…celebrities involved…and it fits right in with the new zoning regulations – we have no zoning issues. It will be a very special use for the theater, not a theater but something tangential….you’ll like it.”
Bialek had considered doing retail before. The last time concrete plans were discussed, they were to turn the theater into a gym run by Blink Fitness.
Before that, the Metro was supposed to become a new Alamo Drafthouse, run by a theater chain from Texas that serves food. But those plans also petered out in 2013 after the Alamo had done significant renovation work.
In the past, individual members of foMT have attempted to restore and revitalize the theater. In 2019, Rosenberg launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for renovations, and teamed up with an engineer to assess the amount of structural work needed to renovate the interior. After being denied access to the building, Rosenberg said she decided to reevaluate her strategy, and return the money she had raised.
Last Spring, the group launched a petition through Change.org in which they ask New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to “use the power of his office to breathe life” into the derelict theater. As of this writing, the petition has accumulated nearly 3,000 signatures, and the number keeps growing.
When reached for comment on Thursday, Bialek once again told the Rag that he is in “advanced discussions with a major tenant who will be moving to 2626 Broadway imminently.” Additionally, he said that “construction permits [have been] filed with the Buildings Department,” and the tenant is currently waiting on those approvals to begin construction. “I have a confidential agreement with the tenant, so I can’t talk about it,” he said. “But this is not a typical retail tenant. Call me in two weeks,” Bialek concluded.
Craig Sumberg, President of foMT, also recently heard from Bialek that a new renter is looking to occupy the space. Sumberg hopes that it will be a community-minded business, in which case Friends of Metro Theater “will be celebrating with everybody else.” But if the deal falls through, then foMT will “try and create a community-based institution that might take the building back and reopen it.”
Friends of Metro Theater will gather via Zoom on Monday, November 1st at 7 p.m. to share their dreams for the future of the Metro theater, and to inform the community how they can help. You can find more information on their social media channels.