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Loew's Canal Street Theater May Become Chinatown Cultural Center

By DNAinfo Staff on January 15, 2010 7:20am  | Updated on January 15, 2010 7:15am

The Loew's Canal Street Theater in its heyday.
The Loew's Canal Street Theater in its heyday.
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New York Public Library (left)/Rebecca Lepkoff (right)

By Suzanne Ma

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

LOWER EAST SIDE — On summer weekends, Rebecca Lepkoff remembers holding 15 cents in her hand and lining up to get into the Loew's Canal Street Theater to escape the heat of her Hester Street tenement.

It was 1928, and she was just 12 years old

The enormous movie theater on Canal Street near Ludlow was the center of the neighborhood.

"It was a lovely theater. It was a beautiful theater," Lepkoff, now 93, told DNAinfo. "It was very roomy."

Today, the decrepit theater, which closed down nearly four decades ago, is a warehouse.

But it may get a new life — as a Chinese performing arts center — and once again become the center of an old neighborhood, now largely dominated by Chinese immigrants.

The former movie palace is easy to miss. At first glance, 31 Canal St. looks simply like a shuttered electronics shop.

But look up and you will see a beautiful white façade, festooned by masks, wreaths and griffins.

Inside, the old chandeliers and much of the original terra-cotta details remain, although the seats — which held 2,314 people with 1,481 on the first floor and 833 on the balcony — were cleared out long ago.

Over the next six months, engineers will be surveying the 84-year-old building, which today is owned by Thomas Sung, the founder and chairman of the board of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown.

The building is just one of many locations Amy Chin is scouting out on behalf of a non-profit arts group in Chinatown called CREATE.

The search for a cultural center in Chinatown began after 9/11 with the help of former City Councilman Alan Gerson. CREATE received $150,000 for the performance center from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and should receive an additional $140,000 for the next phase of planning.

"There isn't one place where the Chinatown community can gather for cultural events or performances," Chin told DNAinfo. "This theater is just amazing, sitting there, unused all this time."