Situated at 108-22 Queens Boulevard, it has tenure as an unofficial landmark since 1942. Some locals speculate that its name stems from its Central Queens location, but rather, the Midway Theatre was dedicated to the courageous Americans in the Pacific outpost Midway Island, and is named after our victorious “Battle of Midway” in World War II.
The Midway was a novelty theater that featured first-run entertainment, Walt Disney cartoons, and up-to-the-minute news. Opening attractions were The Pied Piper, Just Off Broadway, and U.S. Navy’s Technicolor short subject, The Battle of Midway.
It opened as the RKO Midway Theatre, and operations were eventually taken over by Skouras and then United Artists, which operates the theater today.
Scotland-native Thomas White Lamb (1871-1942) is often accredited as “America’s foremost theater architect.” He designed over 300 U.S. theaters, including the RKO Keith’s Flushing Theatre, Ridgewood Theatre, Loew’s 175th Street Theatre, the third Madison Square Garden, and Manhattan’s Hotel Paramount.
Forest Hills is fortunate to have his last theater creation, which was also one of his few Art Moderne theaters, featuring curved corners and sleek, streamlined details. In midst of construction, Lamb passed away in 1942, and architect S. Charles Lee saw it through.
“I’m blessed to be his great-grandson,” said Thomas Andrew Lamb of Kinderhook, NY.
“Lamb lived the American dream, and understood it was within him to create that,” he further explained. “Regardless of one’s social status, he created community spaces where beauty is valued; an indication of a culture. Everyone could walk into his theaters and feel like they belong, which is what he intuitively knew.
“Great architecture lifts the mind and spirit,” Lamb said. “The lives that spent time at the Midway are worth honoring.”
Karen Noonan of Geneva, NY, is the president of the Theatre Historical Society.
“The Midway is a dramatic departure from Lamb's more traditional European Palatial designs, but the clean lines and simple forms show Lamb's wide range,” she said. “The style is certainly indicative of its era; the focus on futuristic design, progress, and technology.”
The stone façade features a curved corner and window on 71st Road, with a streamlined band conveying harmony throughout. A curtain-like accordion exists above the marquee, with an accentuated vertical beacon reading “Midway” in neon lights. This adds a Jazz Age touch on Queens Boulevard.
The Midway was built of concrete and steel, and represented the “last word of theater architecture.”
The grand foyer is oval and features a 30-foot ceiling with domes and a South Beach color scheme. A whimsical winding staircase leads to the mezzanine promenade with its defining picture window, which was originally engineered entirely of fluted glass, enabling an abundance of natural light.
One can visualize how movie-going was fashionable in the 1940s, and how a woman’s dress would conform to the sweeping staircase.
Harold Rambusch was its famed interior decorator. The original single-screen auditorium featured a stepped ceiling, concealed indirect flood lights, and unique Art Deco wall fixtures.
Chairs were oversized and luxuriously upholstered with adequate space between rows, offering a perfect view of the screen. It boasted of having the best sound RCA engineers could devise. For the hard-of-hearing, RCA Sonotone was a free service.
There was also a Hall of Fame, where patrons voted for “Outstanding Star of The Year.” Photos were placed in specially designed panels on each side of the auditorium, and included Bette Davis, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, and Humphrey Bogart.
The Midway offered some personalized features which would be difficult to grasp in today’s mass-produced culture. Patrons would add their address to a mailing list for coming attractions, messages would be delivered to patron professionals at their seat if they were expecting a phone call, and licensed matrons would supervise children. Also offered were a gentlemen’s smoking room and a powder room.
A 70th anniversary Midway Theatre celebration is slated for September 24, the date it first opened. Edward Summer of the New York State Movie Theatre Corridor suggested recreating opening day programming, and holding lectures, a street fair, and offering complimentary popcorn.
Theater Historian Cezar Del Valle suggested showing a series of films from 1942, and questioned if there are any survivors of the Forest Hills Auxiliary or Women's Field Army.
Paul Noble grew up in Forest Hills, was six when the Midway opened, and further provided a classic perspective. For its anniversary, he suggested screening The Battle of Midway short, and recognizing both the U.S. Navy and the Red Cross, whose benefit show opened the theater.
He referenced the early 1940's “sale of war bonds and stamps in the lobby, the playing of the National Anthem at every show, and the great patriotic, nostalgic, and military extravaganzas of the time, Yankee Doodle Dandy, This Is The Army, Pride of the Marines, and cartoons like Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face.”
“Saturday afternoon movie-going meant serial chapters of The Phantom and other comic strip characters brought to life and weekly newsreels, our only way to see war's devastation and great battles,” Noble recalled.
“The first double-feature I recall was Arabian Nights and a Sherlock Holmes thriller,” he added. “The Midway's air-conditioning in those days before home A/C was worth the price of admission.”
With the onset of DVDs and competition by multiplex theaters, Forest Hills and Rego Park witnessed closings of beloved neighborhood movie houses over the last two decades.
The Forest Hills Theatre, Trylon Theater, Drake Theatre, Continental 3, and the Elmwood Theatre were once cornerstones. The majority opened before television, and served as artistic havens for family and friends, away from the reality of historic periods such as The Great Depression and WWII.
Considering a harsh economy and closures citywide, the Midway Theatre must have a recipe for success. Seth Bornstein, Executive Director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation, explained,
“Forest Hills is a very developed community, with a strong middle class base that is attracted to quality entertainment.
“Being located near an express subway and some of the best retail shops in Queens certainly helps make it a destination.”
In 1998, the Midway became known as the United Artists Midway Stadium 9, featuring nine screens and 1,444 seats, which reduced the likelihood of a future closure. It would be difficult to visualize its survival as a single screen 1,933-seat venue today, or even as a twin or quad.
Midway Manager Nick Green takes a strong interest in preserving the dignity and tradition of the Midway.
“I make sure that my staff respects this theater by treating our customers as honored guests of this grand movie palace,” he said. “We show first-run features, and now have a state-of-the-art digital projection system in every auditorium. It projects a pristine, ‘picture perfect’ image and surround sound experience.
“The Midway has been a great escape for moviegoers, and has managed to outlive a lot of beautiful old movie palaces in the area,” Green continued. “It is my hope that families continue to purchase tickets and concessions, so this beautiful building can continue to service Forest Hills for another 70 years.”
“’Meet Me at the Midway is a standard catch phrase,” Bornstein concluded. “The Midway has been a landmark on Queens Boulevard, and I hope it stays that way.”