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Uptown Artists Mobilize to Return Film to United Palace

By Nigel Chiwaya | May 15, 2013 10:48am | Updated on May 16, 2013 10:29am
  The United Palace will attempt to raise $40,000 in 40 days to bring film back after 40 years.
Uptowners Work to Return Film to United Palace
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WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Film critic George Robinson couldn't help but marvel as he looked around the inside of the United Palace on a recent visit.

Despite living in Washington Heights for more than 30 years, Robinson made his first trip to the West 175th Street building Monday.

"This is absolutely a gem. It's a fantastic theater," said Robinson, who pointed out the space's sight-lines and raved about the building's intricate carvings.

But Robinson, who works for "The Jewish Week" and hosts a Washington Heights film class, was doing more than just taking in the building's grandeur — he was looking toward the future, and envisioning the possibility of watching a movie at the Palace and even hosting a film class there.

"To be able to give this back to the community as a movie theater would be a huge thrill," he said.

Catching a film at the Palace may become a reality for Robinson and other movie and arts lovers. Later this month, the Palace will begin an ambitious effort to return film to the 83-year-old building.

"We're going to try to raise $40,000 in 40 days to return film to Palace for the first time in 40 years," said Mike Fitelson, director of programming for the United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA), the theater's arts non-profit arm.

The effort began Monday after Fitelson and more than two dozen residents met in the Palace to discuss strategies. Several prominent members of the uptown arts scene, including Veronica Liu of Word Up Community Book Shop, Michael Diaz of Juan Bago and O, Led Black of the Uptown Collective and Mino Lora of the People's Theater Project, showed up to brainstorm.

Lora, whose organization has partnered with the UPCA and Word Up to host a youth theater project in the United Palace, was ecstatic about the opportunity to bring film back to the 3,400-seat theater.

"To see film in this space for me would be an unbelievable experience," Lora said. "It's such a great space to showcase the talent of our young kids and our community members."

The United Palace has a winding history. Built by the now-defunct Lowes Cinemas as one of five "Wonder Theaters," it operated as cinema until 1969. The dwindling interest in film led to the Palace's sale that year to the late Rev. Frederick "Ike" Eikerenkoetter II, whose church maintains the building to this day.

The United Palace has taken several steps back toward theater arts in recent years. The UPCA launched last year and has scheduled theater and music acts from around the neighborhood and the city.

Last year, the Palace dipped its toes back into film, drawing 200 people to a June screening of "To Be Heard." In January, the building  hosted a screening of the indie film "Trouble in the Heights."

With significant word-of-mouth promotion, more than 700 people showed up for the screening.

A rented projector was used in those events. To return film to the Palace on a full-time basis, Fitelson says the building will need to purchase two projectors — at a cost of $16,000 — of their own.

They will also need to clean the building's 50-foot silver screen, which could cost another $2,000.

Purchasing their own equipment — including computers, a projector operator and other miscellaneous costs — will allow the UPCA to rent the building out for film events, Fitelson said, opening up new revenue streams.

The Palace won't be the place for blockbuster action-flicks, however. Fitelson said the building will host indie films and film festivals.

"We still have to figure out what kind of films would work," Fitelson said. "Certainly children's films and documentaries are up there. I think local filmmakers have the most to gain."

In speaking with supporters at Monday's strategy meeting, another idea came to Fitelson: one that might seem out of place for a building that still operates as a church.

"Imagine a horror movie festival here?" Fitelson asked.

The Palace can look to Word Up, which raised $60,000 to open a new book store in January, as a model and for motivation.

However, Fitelson said the campaign's success will be determined by the tenacity of uptown residents.

"We need 100 people to show up and send an email to 50 friends 10 times," Fitelson said.