The Forest Hills Theatre opened on December 5, 1922, and was built by Sheer Amusement Company for just over $300,000. At the time, it was considered the finest community playhouse on Long Island, and at 1,000 seats was the most modern countrywide.
The theater is where Florida resident Paul Noble, a five-time Emmy recipient and television producer, had some of his earliest memories.
“My first memory of the Forest Hills Theatre was being frightened by the witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at the age of three in 1939,” he said. “Then, summer afternoons in the early 1940s at the Ice Cream Matinee for 12 cents with no air conditioning and splitting headaches from the lack of fresh air.”
He praised the façade as “beautifully compatible with the town, and still setting the tone.”
Forest Hills Theatre was designed by Kenneth Murchison, the architect behind Forest Hills Stadium and Baltimore’s Penn Station. The theater was advertised for its ambiance, such as the orchestra’s French opera chairs and a stage with colored electrical effects.
The lobby walls and stairways were built of marble, and it featured a gentleman’s smoking room, ladies’ resting room serviced by a matron, and two machines for producing “moving pictures” and a spotlight.
In its early days, there was a daily matinee at 2:30 p.m. and evening performances at 7 and 9 p.m. Matinee tickets cost 25 cents for the orchestra, 20 cents for the balcony, and 35 cents for loge seats, whereas evening admission ranged from 35 to 75 cents.
North Carolina resident Richard Delaney was born 1936 and raised in Forest Hills. He saw his first movie, “Dumbo,” at the theater.
“At the Saturday Morning Kiddie Shows, the orchestra was filled, but they didn’t allow us in the balcony,” he recalled. “During the war years, I paid 10 cents, and with my friends Michael Mackey and Donald Lev, saw five to eight cartoons followed by a feature film. We came out looking like zombies after being in a theater for six hours.”
A resident orchestra and organist were sometimes embellished by singers and dancers as a prelude to a silent film. The organ was specifically built for the theater by the Smith Unit Organ Company. A 1924 Exhibitors Trade Review called it “one of the finest organs in the country.”
When resident organist Albert F. Brown embarked on a tour, hundreds of residents successfully petitioned for his return.
Some Art Deco touches were added in November 1937, and once again a large celebration was held. Manager Adolpho Caruso invited civic leaders and a fife and drum corps, and festivities included an automobile parade following a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the lobby.
Forest Hills resident M.V. Kemp was an usher in 1981, when it reopened as a twin. The theater would close for good in 1998.
“The manager was a pleasant colorful guy who wore shiny shoes that matched his fancy old-fashioned suits,” he said. “During the premiere of ‘Night Shift,’ director Ron Howard came incognito and sat in the back of the theater to gauge the audience.”
On Armistice Day in 1940, a parade of troops and the Forest Hills Post of the American Legion made stops at Memorial Green and MacDonald Park and the theatre, where 1,000 guests heard speeches by veteran group leaders.
In January 1944, Showmen’s Trade Review reported that the “theatre claims the distinction of being the first house in the New York area to go over its quota in the Fourth War Loan Drive,” referring to a sale of 981 war bonds totaling $59,275.
On March 1, 1926, Forest Hills resident Helen Keller lectured to further the mission of the American Foundation for the Blind and secure local members as part of a countrywide campaign. The blind composer Edwin Grasse was accompanied by organist Samuel Pearce of the Church-in-the-Gardens at the event, while members of the nearby Forest Hills Masonic Lodge served as ushers and aides.
In January 1971, pianist Roger Williams, who recorded “Autumn Leaves,” performed, signed autographs and introduced a computerized method of teaching piano and organ.
NY1 News anchor Roger Clark, who was raised in Forest Hills, was an usher and worked at the snack bar in the late 1980s.
“My favorite part was if you brought a plain brown paper bag to work, you could eat all the popcorn you wanted, since the official popcorn cups were inventoried,” Clark recalled. “I did wind up seeing ‘Short Circuit’ 100 times over a few-week run, but my grand finale came when the band I was playing drums with booked a showcase night at the legendary CBGB’s.
“I asked for the night off, but the manager said no, so I quit,” he added. “His last words to me were ‘you just ruined your career in the movie industry!”