United Palace Begins New Role as Uptown Arts Center

By Sandra E. Garcia on Jan 11th, 2013

The gilded stage at the United Palace.

The well-preserved stage at the onetime 175th Street Theatre, now home to the United Palace Center for the Arts. (Photo by Mike Fitelson)

The 175th Street Theatre, one of a chain of deluxe Loews theaters designed for vaudeville shows, opened in Washington Heights on February 22, 1930, with “Their Own Desire”, a talkie starring MGM’s first lady of the screen, Norma Shearer. “Times Square entertainment closer to home,” was its slogan.

Eighty-two years later the renamed United Palace has become a cultural center for the community. Its first high-profile offering: on February 11, Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda will bring his Tony- and Grammy-winning musical “In The Heights” to the theatre with many of its original Broadway cast members.

With its intricate gilded interior and oriental-influenced decorations, the United Palace never lost its luster.

It remained well-preserved thanks to the years that it served as a church for Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter’s congregation. Reverend Ike, as he was more popularly known, purchased the palace in 1969 for $600,000 and held his “Prosperity Now” services there.

Since Reverend Ike’s death in 2009, the United Palace has belonged to his son, Xavier, whose dream was to create a cultural center uptown. Eikerenkoetter is  funding its first year of programs.

“Since I took over I really wanted to expand the function of the palace,” said Eikerenkoetter, a minister currently working with the Youth Rhythm Arts Alliance in *Southern California.

“This gives us another way to provide for the community, by opening the Palace up to them.”

“He gave me a mandate that he wanted the physical building for a cultural center in Washington Heights,” said Marianne Houston, executive director of the International Theatre and Literacy Project, whom Eikerenkoetter tapped to help with the search. “He wanted a place where you can say, ‘This is very high quality arts and education for young people.’”

“I want to see the palace become an uptown center for indigenous dance and arts and drum,” Eikerenkoetter added.

Houston rounded up local artists and community leaders last December to announce plans for the United Palace, and began searching for an executive director.

Through community contacts she met Mike Fitelson, who’d spent the last 10 years as editor in chief of The Manhattan Times. He came aboard as *director of programming for the United Palace Cultural Arts Center in May.

“Basically all this stuff that Xavier had been thinking about and wanted to do, was the groundwork that I’ve been laying up here for the last 10 years,” said Fitelson.

While the United Palace Cultural Arts Center has presented few programs to date, Fitelson says work continues behind the scenes.

“We’ve been incorporated in New York *State,” said Fitelson. “We’ve started opening the doors to the community to figure out how this location can benefit everyone.”

For now, the United Palace hosts The Harmony Program, which trains 25 grade-school children in classical music five days a week after school, and the WHIN Music Project, created by David Garcia to build “a new youth orchestra composed of local kids with prior musical training,” said Fitelson.

Not so long away the uptown community was organizing to purchase the Coliseum on 181st Street, another old movie theater, to restore as a cultural center.

Local resident Jeff Hoppa walked by late last year and noticed that the Coliseum had shut down. “I felt it wasn’t fair that the only movie theater within walking distance was closing,” he said.

Hoppa, a visual artist, told his six-year-old son Luke about the Coliseum. “That’s not fair, I want to see movies there,” Luke replied.

The remark led his father to launch Save the Coliseum, organizing meetings through a Facebook group. “Luke saw his very first movie at the Coliseum,” he recalled. It was an Easter movie, “Hop,” and Luke loved it.

“He lit a fire under me,” said Hoppa.

Community members began meeting at Le Cheile, a restaurant steps away from the corner where the theatre had stood since 1920. Washington Heights and Inwood residents packed the eatery, forcing many to stand.

As they discussed what might happen to the soon-to-be-empty theatre, the idea that stuck was a cultural arts center, a place uptown artists could rehearse, screen movies and stage plays and hold after-school kids’ art programs, like those of The People’s Theatre Project.

Though they were unable to acquire the Coliseum, residents were pleasantly surprised by the United Palace’s initative.

“The United Palace is an amazing and magical place, and I want to be able to take Luke there and watch his eyes get big as he sees that staircase with those elephant lamps at the end,” said Hoppa. “He’s a theatrical kid.”

Fitelson said he’s ready to awe the community.

“We are about programs and events that can pick you up by the shoulders and lift you up,” said Fitelson.

The new cultural center may also help spur other local development.

“I see a lot of growth in this neighborhood in the last five years,” said Community Board 12 member Michael Diaz of his ever-changing neighborhood. “It will not be overnight, but this is very promising.”

When the United Palace hits its stride, “The Heights will also be able offer many great things for people who do not live here,” said Diaz. “Everyone can head uptown.”

CORRECTION: The article originally misstated the location of the Alliance, Mr. Fitelson’s title, and where the United Palace Cultural Arts Center was incorporated.

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