By Louis Imbert
Orlando Lopes goes to the movies every Monday at 1 p.m. at a $2 classic films show, the week’s cheapest. But his pleasure is always limited, not because of the film, but because of the venue. Invariably, he sees movies in a multiplex. That is the problem. Lopes hates them.
He loves old theaters. He is obsessed with Brooklyn’s 1920s movie palaces with Renaissance-style terra-cotta facades. He knows everything about the 3,000-seat and one-screen venues from the 1950s. A 54-year old retired movie theater manager, he spent eight years amassing information about them, listing every theater in Brooklyn’s history, marking maps, collecting pictures and programs: leaflets advertising the week’s movie and staged vaudeville song and dance shows in the 1930s, pets tricks or comedians. He counted more than 500 theaters. He still wonders if he missed one somewhere.
Lopes says it’s a childhood thing. “I enjoyed the movies so much,” he says, “It got into my blood.”
A short, seemingly anonymous single man dressed in full black, Lopes is one of the most tenacious members of the Theater Historical Society, an organization created in 1969 to preserve the memory of the old movie palaces, which would all soon be closed.
Over the years, Lopes turned himself into a living database, dreaming of publishing his research one day. But his own book never came out. In fact, last year, Cezar Del Valle, Lopes’ fellow member of the Theater Historical Society, published the second of three volumes of a complete Brooklyn Theaters index. Lopes says he started his researches earlier than Del Valle, and the publication of his Index came as a surprise. Lopes carries around cardboard boxes filled with documentation in the back of his car, a testimony of his fieldwork and dedication.
Lopes bought his first ticket to the movies at the Granada Theater on Church Avenue, in 1966, when he was 10 years old. At 15, he was hired at the candy counter there. He worked as a ticket seller, a doorman and an usher. “Even when I didn’t work, I would pop in and watch the movies, any movie: westerns, comedies, musicals. I didn’t pay for it.”
Lopes grew up in Lefferts gardens, ten blocks south of the East Flatbush theaters, in a two family row house with four brothers and sisters. “He needed more adventure and fun than his parents could provide,” says Lopes’ niece, Jessica Briguglio, 38. “It wasn’t like today, when we bring kids everywhere. They stayed at home. ” So Lopes found escape and entertainment in the movie palaces.
He remembers it well. “When you went there in the 1960s,” Lopes recalls, “you were transported to a majestic place. You left your troubles outside for a couple of hours. Then you were on the streets again.”
In 1974, Lopes started working a few blocks down on Flatbush Avenue at the Beverly Theater. He got his first manager job there the next year. Then his own golden age of movies came to an end.
In 1975, five theaters stood almost side-by-side on an eight-block stretch of Flatbush Avenue. By 1979, four of them had closed. They were too big, too expensive to repair, they had only one screen and TV had already won the game. The last survivor, the RKO Kenmore, remained until 1999, when a shooting inside persuaded the owner to shut it down. The neighborhood had grown rough over the years. “The candy store had barb wires,” says Lopes.
That same year, Lopes started wandering around in Brooklyn, counting the theater’s ghosts, one by one. He knocked politely on doors and sometimes discreetly sneaked in abandoned buildings. Most of the silent nickelodeons, the five-cent silent-movie operators, had long disappeared; especially the early ones from the 1910s, which were clustered around high traffic crossroads, with plain benches where people sat staring at white sheets hanging on a wall. Among their successors were movie palaces with 1000 seats and more, done up in the style of France’s Versailles, mixing Mayan style with Moresque and anything pompous enough to create ambiance. Many of these were turned into churches, stores or warehouses in ensuing years. Lopes talked priests and storeowners into letting him in. He took hundreds of pictures. He stored, captioned and classified everything.
This kind of amateur research is a genre in itself, according to Richard Sklenar, director of the Historical Theater Society. One of the Society’s founders did it in Chicago. Another one listed every Los Angeles theaters street by street. “I have no idea what drives people to do lists like this,” says Sklenar. “Why do people start collecting things?”
Actually, Lopes doesn’t only collect buildings, but also everything related to movies. He has about 1000 DVDs at home and 700 VHS. He gathers characters’ figurines – “he’s really into Star Wars,” says his niece, Jessica Briguglio. “Any gift he gives us is movie related: he buys me Disney watches.” Lopes says he doesn’t really know either how it started. “I only wanted to know how many theaters there was” in Brooklyn, he says.
After eight years spent answering this question, Lopes has turned back to his childhood on Flatbush Avenue and focused on a single theater, his favorite, the Loew’s Kings. He wants to write another book about it. There, Barbra Streisand and Sylvester Stallone started their career as ushers. There, you could watch a movie in 1929 with 3,976 other people in the same room, plus one organist, who played a Robert Morton Wonder Pipe Organ, a sound effect reservoir for late silent movies.
The Kings closed in 1977. The city seized it to repay back taxes. Last year, it signed a $70 million agreement with a Houston developer, ACE Theatrical Group, to renovate and operate the theater. It is planned to reopen in 2014 and stage 250 theatrical performances, concerts and community events a year.
Lopes, who moved to Long Island years ago, plans to settle back in the neighborhood when the Kings reopens. He didn’t try to contact Streisand or Stallone for his book, “I don’t think they would talk to me,” he says. He recorded stories from former employees, running into some in his neighborhood, meeting them at the Theater Historical Society. He gathered his own memories and another few boxes of documentation. He’s just waiting for his opening chapter, the day when Flatbush Avenue got one theater back.