Rare Footage Of Loew’s Oriental Allows You To Explore The Lost 86th Street Theatre [Video]

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For much of the early 20th Century, opulent movie theaters dotted the borough of Brooklyn. We see can their ghosts every day on the streets, as we walk under the marquees and past ornate facades. These intricately carved relics of a different time can be found attached to the well-preserved Loew’s Valencia movie palace in Queens and Flatbush’s Loew’s Kings Theatre — which was recently painstakingly restored to its former glory.

However, few know that we once had such a architectural gem right here in Bensonhurst. Loew’s Oriental Theatre, which opened at 1832 86th Street in 1928 and closed in 1995, now houses a Marshalls department store.

I moved to Bensonhurst as a 10-year-old girl, and the old Loew’s Oriental building had always captured my imagination. Large and imposing, it did not seem as if anything else was going on on the upper floors, and the utilitarian blandness that is common to nearly every Marshalls in existence also suggested at something hidden — something greater. Finally, almost a decade and a half later, I decided to investigate this building — anything that unique and that imposing had to have been pretty cool. I did realize that it was a movie theater; however, nothing could have prepared me for just how much beauty had once been there — and how much mystery would still remain.

Loew’s theaters were all created with a unique theme in mind, and a great deal of thought went into the construction of each one. The Loew’s Valencia and Loew’s Kings were two of the stunning Wonder Theatres, as they were sometimes called. With a capacity of just under 2800, the Loew’s Oriental was not as large as any of the Wonder Theaters that are now carefully cared for by conservationists, but it was still nothing to sneeze at. When the theater first opened, it had featured opulent Middle Eastern inspired design motifs and imagery.

Courtesy of Brooklyn Theatre Index/Facebook

Loew’s Oriental in its heyday (Courtesy of “Brooklyn Theatre Index”/Facebook)

Photographs of the interior from around 1970s and 1980s show it with a brightly painted exterior, where it is now a drab white – back then it was also red, and blue, and yellow. The only clear shots I could find of the interior were the black and white photos from when it first opened, but only one look at the lush potted plants and plush couches, and the elaborate mosaics on the walls sends one’s imagination spinning. Just how colorful was it? Did the interior match the colors on the exterior? What was it like?

Desperately, I searched for more photos, more information, more anything about the Loew’s Oriental, and found a goldmine in the comments section of Cinema Treasures. While internet comments are rarely fully reliable sources of information, I did find a couple fascinating anecdotes about the Oriental. Most commenters remember it as being the most beautiful movie theater in the area, echoing mentions of the stunning tile floors, a marble staircase to the balcony floor, grandiose arches and domed ceilings, and elaborate decor in a “Moorish” motif. One commenter even claimed that there had been a sculpted dragon in the ceiling!

The Oriental opened a month after the death of Marcus Loew, the founder of the Loew’s brand and visionary behind the exotic and elaborate Wonder Theaters. Several of the comments on the same thread noted that the Oriental once housed a memorial plaque (8) in his honor, which has now been moved to the Loew’s located in Lincoln Square. Loew had died without seeing the Oriental, or any of the Wonder Theaters finished, which is quite a pity because all of them were unique architectural masterpieces.

Photo courtesy of Theatre Talks

Photo courtesy of Theatre Talks

It is also known that the Loew’s Oriental had at one point been home to an organ, as there are records of one; it had been a Robert Morton three manual, 13 rank organ. There are also stories of a grand piano being located in the lobby of the theatre when it had first opened, but that one unfortunately cannot be confirmed.

I’d spent a few hours looking, until finally, I found it — a video of the Loew’s Oriental (above). Taken on the night it closed, it was everything a video taken with a handheld camera in 1995 would be — grainy, shaky, and definitely not Instagrammable. But after a couple hours of staring at the same ten black and white photos, it was like a burst of color and life. The ceilings were unimaginably high; Middle Eastern style archways rose up from the side walls and into the ceiling. Research on other Loew’s “atmosphere” theaters suggests that ceilings in these movie palaces were often painted to look like a night sky, and would have stars projected on them to create a feeling of being outdoors, in a beautiful exotic locale. Just looking at the shots of the theater’s interior, it isn’t hard to imagine sitting in one of those large seats and looking up at a twinkling night sky. Stunning tile work and unique murals also make an appearance in this video. There were also closeup shots of the stage and screen — which is designed to look like a window to another world.

It’s not certain just how much of the theater interior remains; it’s quite obvious that the Marshalls retail space does not take up the entire first floor of the theater, but without having worked there, I can’t say for sure how much of the space is also used for storage or employee needs. Some comments on Cinema Treasures suggest that all you have to do to get into the balcony area is to ask to use the bathroom and then sneak upstairs; which explains why the employees will now tell you to go down the block if you ask them for a bathroom. We do know that the orchestra level is completely gutted, as is the lobby and anything that was downstairs. At least some of the upstairs balcony remains unused, though it’s impossible to tell how much of it is preserved, and what state of (dis)repair it may be in.

What's left of the historic Loew's Oriental. (Photo: Google Maps)

All that’s left of the historic Loew’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Google Maps)

It is a great tragedy that the unique Loew’s Oriental is no longer a part of our neighborhood; and it is a greater tragedy that we do not have a dragon looking down on us while we shop. Though there has recently been a push to preserve the interiors of many old historical buildings, the Oriental missed out on that by a couple of decades. It is a great loss to our neighborhood, but we can only hope that in the future whatever may be left will be salvaged.

Did you ever visit Loew’s Oriental in its heyday? Share your memories of this lost landmark in our comments section.

  • Traveler

    I wish the theater stayed.

  • Sean F

    I grew up going to the Fortway Theater, but I’ll never forget rushing to the Oriental after school to catch the opening day screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The Oriental was a much nicer theater, and it felt like being at a big movie premiere. That was also the day that I discovered that I wasn’t the only Trek fan in Xaverian, and it cemented a bunch of relationships that last to this day.

  • Jen

    I grew up going to the Oriental. I remember wanting to see “The Godfather”, but I was only 14. So I went with a couple of my girlfriends,we were all about the same age. But we could not get in, they told us we were to young and it was an R rated movie. Imagine our disappointment.

  • Nadirecur

    How sad and lovely. I appreciate the level of commitment and depth of investigation that went into this piece. I think I’d prefer that movie theater over the Marshalls that’s there today.

    Sometimes you can tell when a building in Brooklyn used to be a movie theater. Some businesses have obviously kept the movie theater marquee, like Annie Sez/Mandee on 18th ave and the Great Wall supermarket on Ft. Hamilton and 68th. I wonder what those places used to look like too.

    • Sean F

      The one on Fort Hamilton used to be the Fortway Theater. I don’t recall it being as nice as the Oriental, but it was a fine theater. When I was a kid, they even had occasional live shows there – I remember a Looney Tunes Live show there. Some info can be found at http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/5876.

  • Loretta Alirangues

    Thanks for this article. It’s amazing to me that 1995 seems like a long time ago to the author when it seems like yesterday to me! I was in my mid-30s at the time, and I wasn’t surprised when I heard the theater was closing. I remember it being fairly well kept through the 70s and early 80s. By the very late 80s, the lights in between showings were kept very dim so you couldn’t see the state of disrepair – broken seats, dirty and torn carpets, faded and peeling paint. There were sections of seats that were closed off for repair and I remember coming back months later and nothing had been done. Maybe those seats were repaired before the theater closed. I’m not sure, because I hadn’t gone there in years at that point. I do remember not being happy when the balcony was cut off from the rest of the theater and made into two theaters so that it was now a triplex. Right there, that ruined the look of the main theater. Thanks for the memories!