Looking Back At The RKO Tilyou Theater And One Of Coney Island’s Founding Families

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RKO Tilyou Theatre exterior

The RKO Tilyou Theater. Built in the 1920s and now destroyed. It represents the rise of Coney Island as an amusement destination. (Source: Cinema Treasures)

The RKO Tilyou is one of those landmarks of Southern Brooklyn that have long been demolished but still live on through pictures and legacy. Originally built in 1926 on Surf Avenue, the theater belonged to a Coney Island family that helped define the waterfront neighborhood as an amusement destination.

The theater’s peculiar name comes from the family, the Tilyous, that opened the cinema. And the story of the theater is intertwined with the Tilyou family, a long line of people that the Brooklyn Museum describe as being “intimately connected with Coney Island as providers of entertainment.”

On the opening night of March 18, 1926, the theater featured vaudeville and the film Three Faces East, according to Cezar Del Valle. He has published two volumes on old theaters in Brooklyn called The Brooklyn Theater Index. There is soon to be a third volume that will feature the Tilyou theater along with many other oldies in Southern Brooklyn.

Cinema Treasures, another site for old theaters, writes this about the Tilyou theater:

This grand old theatre had its heyday in the golden era of Coney Island. It stood one block away from the Shore Theatre and Steeplechase Park, all on Surf Avenue. The Tilyou Theatre was opened by B.S. Moss on March 18, 1926.

The Shore Theater that is referred to above is last remaining theaters of the era still standing in Coney Island.

The Tilyous also enjoyed fame and glory during that time. Their legacy stretches back into the mid-19th century when Peter Tilyou opened a  Surf House in 1865 before Coney Island’s “golden era.” The neighborhood was beginning to transform into a world of amusement. The tavern quickly became a popular waterhole close to the terminus of the first rail line, according to the Brooklyn Museum. Peter’s son, George, went on to open Steeplechase Park in 1897 and the family eventually went on to open the RKO theater along with a Ferris Wheel “and other rides scattered along the beach,” according to Coney Island History.

The account continues:

[George] Tilyou became Coney’s biggest booster and a philanthropist who supported local orphanages, the Catholic church, children’s hospitals, and other charities.

In 1897, George moved his mechanical horse-racing-themed rides into an enclosed park at West 16th Street and Surf Avenue.

George died in 1914 and his children continued to run the park and the various other sources of amusement the family owned. Then in 1964, they sold the Steeplechase Park to a developer who demolished it. Not long after that, in 1973, the RKO Theater was also demolished.

In its twilight, it was running action double features at bargain prices.