June 27, 2014 Building series: It used to be a theater 2: Vien Synagogue
Site: Vien Synagogue/ formerly Wilson Theater
Location: 27 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211
In the first installment, I looked at the modest Klausenburg synagogue at 131 Lee Avenue that used to be a motion picture theater. A few blocks away, at 27 Lee Avenue, we have the huge Vien Synagogue that used to be a theater too, but for its story, we need to go back much further in time. In the buildings on its street, there is a long history of being the center of social life, alternating between religious and entertainment centers.
1872: A church is built
The Vien building is often confused with a different building that stood on that block. The Lee Avenue Baptist Church was built in 1872 out of corrugated iron and wood. In 1878, following a fire, its organ was rebuilt.
1881: Church is expelled for liberalism
The church’s pastor was the charismatic and liberal Rev. John Hyatt Smith. Smith was a fierce proponent of open communion, and it got him into trouble with the Baptist association. According to Brooklyn History, “Due to the liberal views of its pastor, the Reverend J. Hyatt Smith, the church was expelled from the Long Island Baptist Association and it was removed from its Lee Avenue Building.” It seems that what happened was the church lost its financial backing and with $25,000 in debt, could not afford to stay in its church. From the New York Times on July 17, 1881:
The recent sale under foreclosure of the Lee-Avenue Baptist Church, in Brooklyn, of which the Rev. Congressman J. Hyatt Smith is Pastor, left that society without a roof over their heads, and with very poor prospects of obtaining accommodations for Sabbath worship. At a recent meeting the proposition of suspending further religious exercises during the Summer months was taken up and voted down. The offer of President Meeker, of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which bought in the church, to lease the society its old building for $35 per Sunday was next discussed, when a member remarked that as there was only $7 in the treasury the difficulty of accepting such an offer was quite apparent. A motion to close with it was put by the Pastor in these words: ‘It is moved that we meet here next Lord’s day at the rate of $35 per week.’ The motion was carried, and today the society will assemble in its old quarters. The meeting then instructed the Trustees to hire a hall, if possible, in which exercises may be conducted in the future.
Smith wrote a book, The Open Book, or Light and Liberty defending himself, and he left his congregation to become a congressman—but not before giving a fiery speech in defense of his position. The speech was covered by the Times:
1882: Remodeled as a theater
In 1882 the church reopened as a theater. It subsequently went through a dizzying array of transformations and was in different hands for different entertainment uses. Music, comic opera, etc. It was: the Lee Avenue Academy #7, Phoebus Theatre (for one season!), and the Lee Avenue Music Academy. The exterior was painted green in “an Iish Jig.” In a book published in 1901 the building’s history is dramatically recounted:
It was built to accommodate the immense congregations that flocked to hear that eminent Bapist divine, J. Hyatt Smith. But changes came, and doxology turned to lighter music when the big church was transformed into a theater. And finally, came a merry Irish jig when some ambitious speculator put on a coat of green paint and made the theater over into a home for comic opera. But the merry jig did not last for long. The comic opera failed to be comic, and the big building was closed and left in gloomy silence to think over its past. There it stood – mutely staring into space, and showing on its face the various conflicting imprints of its history. A touch of its early religious character showed in the tower where once a bell had chimed a solemn invitation to worship. Two bill-boards told of that transition into worldliness – that lapse from reverential orthodoxy into a joyous pursuit of pagan muses; while the green paint remained.
The following is from Brooklyn Genealogy:
The Lee Avenue Baptist Church was located near Division Avenue. The Rev. J. Hyatt SMITH, was the pastor. The edifice was sold and rebuilt into a theatre. It was opened as the Lee Avenue Academy #7, on October 2, 1882, under the management of J. S. BERGER and E.F. PRICE.
“Late the place was known as Corse PAYTON’S theatre. PAYTON had a stock company and played dramas. The leading lady was Etta REED, and Gerard was the leading man.
Hall was the villain.
Later is became a Jewish theatre and finally a moving picture house.
The following is from the Brooklyn Eagle, May 21, 1895:
The play house in the eastern district of this city called the Phoebus has closed after a season of one week. It is not its first season, and it is not the first time that it has closed sooner than its managers expected it to. Under its former name, of the Lee avenue Academy of Music—which was abusrd, because it was too long and it never was an academy of music—it met with several failures and changes of management and policy. When it had few rivals in that part of town its fortunes were in the ascendant, but the site, on a quiet residence street, contiguous to only one line of street cars, was against it, and the erection of larger, more modern houses with ampler stage room and appointments and on more populous thoroughfares quickly relegated it to the already too extensive list of second class theaters.
Last week it arose, Phoebus like, in a halo of brilliant promise, remodeled and cleaned. The attraction offered there was stronger than any it had presented in a number of years, but it did not do a terrible deal of business and the sums of money received at the box office were insufficient to properly guarantee the opera company billed to appear next week. As a result the opera company declined to appear. The house is closed. The management makes no secret of the facts of the case and it will be trusted and respected for that reason more than if it tried to throw the blame, so far as there is any, on the performances it had been giving there.
Its growth started to the solemn strains of the doxology; for it was built to accommodate the immense congregations that flocked to hear that eminent Baptist divine, J. Hyatt Smith. But changes came, and doxology turned to lighter music when the big church was transformed into a theater. And finally, came a merry Irish jig when some ambitious spectator put on a coat of green paint and made the theater over into a home for comic opera.But the merry jig did not last for long. The comic opera failed to be comic, and the big building was closed and left in gloomy silence to think over its past.There it stood—mutely staring into space, and showing on its face the various conflicting imprints of its history. A touch of its early religious character showed in the tower where once a bell had chimed a solemn invitation to worship. Two bill-boards told of that transition into worldliness—that lapse from reverential orthodoxy into a joyous pursuit of pagan muses; while the green paint remained, a mortifying reminder of that short but reckless plunge into the giddy whirl of comic opera—that fervid atmosphere of jingling tunes and spangled-tighted chorus girls.But one day the building’s face lost its desolate, retrospective stare. New interests had come into its life. And to a cheerful sort of music there began another transformation. All those tawdry stains of the comic opera were removed, and, with an air of new respect, the ancient temple smiled through a fresh coat of modest brown paint.
Sep 3, 1900: The Corse Payton Theatre Opens
In March of 1900, a colorful fellow by the name of Corse Payton bought the building, then called the Lee Avenue Academy of Music, and completely renovated it for the Corse Payton Theatre. The place was completely altered with the help of “painters, carpenters, upholsterers and scenic artists.” Payton got famous for his 10-20-30 policy. He promised seats for .10, .20 and .30 cents, making the theatre affordable to everyone. If you look at the picture of the theater below, you’ll notice its resemblance to the church – plus fire escapes and a theater hood, as well as its 10-20-30 sign. Note how enormous the inside is, and that it’s a full house!
At the prime of Payton’s career, the theatre was the center of entertainment life. His policy worked. He consistently ran shows and his theatre was one of the most popular in Brooklyn. He himself billed himself “America’s Best Bad Actor” and was for a brief decade a dazzling star. A book was written about him titled The Romance of a Western Boy with all the dramatic elements of a rising star, a man who transformed himself and everyone around him.
1910: A chunk of the theater is cut off
On February 24, 1909, the Eagle ran notices of eminent domain, parts of Williamsburg that would be affected by the expansion of Roebling Street and other nearby streets. A year later, February 1910, the Eagle again wrote about the street widening, this time about its implications on the popular Payton’s Theater. “The fate of the Lee Avenue Academy in the Eastern District, where Corse Payton is at the present time exploiting one of his stock companies, is in the hands of a condemnation commission… The commission is considering the plan inaugurated by the city for the extensions and widening of Roebling Street, as one of the approaches to the plaza of the Williamsburg bridge. Under the plans for the street, one corner of the old academy will have to be acquired. Mr. Payton takes exception. If part of the building is taken, he claims that the seating capacity of the theater will be reduced and that the building for theatrical purposes will be practically worthless.” Payton wanted the city to either buy off the whole building or avoid touching it. For Payton, it was either all or nothing. But he did not get his way and a part of the theater was cut off. In late 1910 he sold the theater to William Fox, although the theater continued to operate for years later under Payton’s name and Payton had an interest in the company that controlled the property. In 1913 a settlement with the city awarded Payton $20,500 in damages.
MAY TAKE THE THEATER. Plans for Roebling Street Widening Cuf Off a Corner.
The fate of the Lee Avenue Academy in the Eastern District, where Corse Payton at the present time is exploiting one of his stock companies, is in the hands of a condemnation commission, composed of Samuel F. Whitehouse, Arthur C. Salsion and George Beattys. This commission is considering the plan inaugurated by the city for the extension and widening of Roebling street, as one of the approaches to the plaza of the Williamsburg Bridge.
Under the plans for the street, one corner of the old academy will have to be acquired. Mr. Payton takes exception to the scheme. If part of the building is taken, he claims that the seating capacity of the theater will be reduced, and that the building for theatrical purposes will be practically worthless. That is the crux of the whole argument, which involves the playhouse, and the condemnation commissioners will have to judge accordingly.
Mr. Payton, who is the owner of the house, is not objecting to the plan if this commission will agree to take the whole building. That is the only condition upon which he will consent to the plan. With him it is all or nothing, because he feels that the usefulness of the structure as a playhouse will be destroyed if part of the building is taken.
PAYTON TO LEAVE ACADEMY. William Fox Will Take Charge with a New Stock Company.
Corse Payton will close his stock company season at the Academy of Music on Aug. 27, and on the following Monday William Fox, who acquired the lease of the Academy last season will begin a stock season there. When Mr. Fox leased the big theatre from the owners it was his intention to conduct it as a motion picture and vaudeville house. The success of Mr. Payton’s stock venture there has caused him to organize a company to be conducted along the same lines.
For stage director of this new company Mr. Fox has engaegd J. Gordon Edwards, of the last five years in charge of the Suburban Gardens, St. Louis. Edward Lynch will be the leading man and Priscilla Knowles the leading woman.
Others in the company will be George V. Riddell, John J. Kennedy, De Witt Newing, Victor Brown, Anna Hollinger, Corinne Cantwell, Florence Gerald, and Alice Riker.
The first play offered will be ‘The Girls I Left Behind Me.’
NEARLY $647,000 AWARDED FOR ROEBLING ST. WIDENING. Lawyer Magner Heads List With $43,000—Corse Payton Gets $20,500, F. L. Schmidt, $34,500, and the Iroquois Club $25,000—No Allowances for Land in Bed of Street—Re-port Will Be on File for Thirty Days in Order That Objections May Be Entered and Hearings Held.
After waiting two years, owners of property affected by the Roebling street widening proceedings were to-day informed of the awards made by the Commissioners. The report, signed by Arthur S. Somers, Samuel S. Whitehouse and George D. Beattys involves Roebling street, as widened, from Broadway to Division avenue; the Public Place, bounded by the easterly side of Roebling street, Division avenue, and Lee avenue; and Taylor street, as widened, from Lee to Bedford avenues. The total of the awards is $646,890.
1910: Still Payton’s, but the glory days gone
The building, much reduced and now very dated, continued to operate for the subsequent years and run ads regularly in the Eagle for performances. Payton even returned in 1913 for a performance of “The Liars.” It now also served as a fight club and motion picture theater. In 1921 Payton filed for bankruptcy:
The same fate has fallen to the lot of the other theaters in Williamsburg. The old Lee Avenue Academy, destined later under the management of Corse Payton to be probably the first successfully operated stock house on the 10-20-30-cent plan, is now alternately a moving picture house and a fight club. The famous Amphion Theater on Bedford avenue and South Tenth street is running as a cheap vaudeville house.
CORSE PAYTON BANKRUPT. 10-20-30 Cent Stock Company Pioneer Has Liabilities of $9,000.
A petition in voluntary bankruptcy was filed in the Federal Court yesterday by Corse Payton, the actor-manager, who confessed to liabilities upward of $9,000 and no assets. Among the creditors mentioned in the petition are the Liebler Company, $534; American Play Company, $807; Armory Theatre Company, $554; and Klaw & Erlanger and the Belasco Play Company, tho whom he owes unknown amounts.
Mr. Payton was the first to invite his audience to take tea with his company after the performance, a fashion which afterward was adopted by playhouses in Harlem. He ran his stock company at the old Academy of Music, playing to as high as $6,000 a week, and he has done other notable stage things since he left his home in the West to travel with a circus. He owns, or used to own, a fine bungalow in Far Rockaway.
His stock companies have appeared in nearly all the famous plays. He is known as the originator of the 10-20-30-cent shows. In explaining this he once said that as he had thirty actors in one of these three-price playhouses the charge was practically a cent an actor, which he considered very cheap.
Payton died in 1934 at age 66. In his obituary, the New York Times reports that he had to abandon his theater when the BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) line cut a line through his balcony. I could not find anything to support that, and some theater critics have suggested that Payton invented it to explain his decline, but my guess is the New York Times incorrectly reported the 1910 street change that cut off a piece of his theater and misappropriated it to the BMT. In any event, he was a colorful man and a part of the area’s history, and he was remembered to have earned $100,000 in his heyday, while there were times he didn’t know when his next meal would come from. But, says the Times, he was not particularly worried about it anyway and his wit became legend!
“Many Stars Began With Him. Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Bert Lytell, Fay Bainter, Mary Miles Minter, Richard Bennett, Ernest Truex and many others served their apprenticeships in his company.
“During these years, when money was rolling in and the name of Corse Payton was familiar to every one on Broadway, Frank Ward O’Malley, Winnie Sheehan, Roy L. McCardell, Louis Leon Hall, W. A. Mortimer, Joseph E. Gerard and Wilson Mizner were his boon companions. Countless legends have grown up about their exploits and witticisms.
“Tad, the late cartoonist, generally is credited with having fastened on Mr. Payton the title, ‘America’s best bad actor,’ but some authorities credit Maurice Costello. Mr. Payton began to feel proud of his description and used it in his billing.
“The Lee Avenue Theatre had to be abandoned in 1915 when the B. M. T. ran an elevated line through its balcony. He then moved to the Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street and invited Manhattan’s first string critics ‘to stone the first cast.'”
1918: The building to be razed and a new theater built
From the Brooklyn Theater Index, from the Weekly Chat we have an announcement that the building that was first a church, then a theatre of many names, hands and performers, will finally be demolished. “The old Payton’s Theatre is being razed and in its place will be constructed a three-story building. There will be two stories and a moving picture theatre on the ground floor. Solomon & Sons are erecting the new structure which will cost in the neighborhood of $100,000.”
June 7, 1919: Our Theater opens as Roebling Theater.
A modest notice in the Eagle announced that the “new building was begun some eighteen months ago and the lessees, Messrs. Meyers and Schneider, have spared no expense in making it an up-to-date theater… A symphony orchestra has been assembled.” This theater building, although well furnished and built to accommodate 1000 people, did not garner the same attention because it was only a motion picture house that ran first run theaters. It did not have live performances and the theater no longer held the center of the entertainment sphere the same way.
“NEW THEATER TO OPEN. The new Roebling Theater, at Lee ave. and Roebling st., will open tonight on the site of the old Lee Avenue Theater in which Corse Payton and his associates used to hold forth. The new building was begun some eighteen months ago and the lessees Messrs. Meyer and Schneider, have spared no expense in making it an up-to-date theater. H. Jacobs will be the manager of the new Williamsburg house and first-run features will be presented. A symphony orchestra has been assembled.”
I know several people who still remember the Wilson Theater, both when it was in use as well as when it was boarded up and empty. Marty Frankel who lived in Williamsburg and went to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, told me that the theater admitted yeshiva students on Saturday for free, with the expectation that the religious students who could not pay on Saturday would return afterwards to pay. Marty says prizes were raffled out all the time and on the one occasion he went on Saturday, he won a football, and was left in a bind when he had to figure out how to get it home. In contrast to the Model’s Theater which was small, this theater was the motion picture house of his childhood.
As you can see, the synagogue could accommodate 300 male and 434 female persons on the first floor, and 126 female but no male persons on the second floor.
Aprox 2000: Vien renovates the floor
For many years, the Vien synagogue had a slanted floor, a remnant of its theater days. Many remember praying or studying when the floor was still tilted and the synagogue resembled an auditorium. Even today, many elements of the building still reflect its theater’s past. The aerial view shows a round back, and from the back of the building you can see the stage doors. I would guess that some of the beautiful interior design dates back to its theater days. But with the most recent Vien Rabbi, the floor was renovated and leveled.