Brooklyn Structure: The Courtroom Theater of Carroll Gardens

Editor’s Note: This post was originally run in 2013 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

Finding and tracing Brooklyn’s old theaters is a pursuit for a lifetime. There are so many changes in the city when buildings are built, modified, demolished or re-used. Several people have made these theaters and their history their passion, and thanks to them it is possible to find and identify theaters in the most unlikely places. Sometimes it is easy when a theater becomes a church. Often the only external change is a cross that replaces the marquee. Sometimes the marquee even stays.

Old Brooklyn theater buildings come in many sizes and mostly on major thoroughfares. That makes sense as they needed to be easy to get to. They are most often found near subway stations or where the old el-trains, trolleybuses and later buses ran. Former theaters have emerged not only as churches, but also as supermarkets, specialty stores and drug stores, bodegas, community buildings, schools and occasionally as garages and gas stations. Believe it or not, the current building, which has been a meetinghouse in Carroll Gardens at 375 Smith Street for years, was a theater.

Brooklyn Architecture 375 Smith Street Court Theater

View of the theater in 1932. Photo by PL Sperr on the New York Public Library

According to theater historian Dario Marotta, the Court Theater, formerly at 551 Court Street, moved to Smith Street in 1922. It showed films and had a house organ that provided a soundtrack for the silent films. There may already have been a theater here called Annette Theater, but there is no documentation to support it. There are documents here that show the court theater.

In the July 1920 issue of The American Contractor, architect Tobias Goldstone and general contractor Jacob Ponedone signed a $ 15,000 contract for a one-story theater at 375-383 Smith Street.

Brooklyn Architecture 375 Smith Street Court Theater

A 1922 poster for “The Half Breed”. Image via Wikimedia Commons

In December 1922, the theater promoted the screening of the film “The Half Breed”, a hot and forbidden love story in the Old West, with the handsome (and “educated”) but half-white, half-Indian tragic hero falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the rich judge, who of course hates Indians because of his cavalry Indian fighting days. The film played popular actors Wheeler Oakman and Ann May.

Our hero gets into great trouble trying to bring the land deed to his Indian mother and is on the run from the law in the complicated process. He never gets the judge’s daughter, but is content with her brave best friend, who loves him but went unnoticed by him because he only had eyes for the judge’s daughter. Typical. In the end, the couple ride together into the sunset, accompanied by bubbling organ music. It was probably better without sound anyway.

Brooklyn Architecture 375 Smith Street Court Theater

The theater had 560 seats and showed popular films and melodramas. According to Marotta, the theater closed in 1929, renovated, and reopened in 1931 with a new screen, seating and a new sound system. That didn’t help too long as it was sold in a foreclosure auction in 1935. It remained a theater until it was finally closed in 1941. By 1942 the building had been gutted, cut open and turned into a neighborhood garage called the Pep Service Station. Her name appears in an ad in the Eagle this year.

Brooklyn Architecture 375 Smith Street

1942 advertisement for the Pep Service Station. Image via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Not much has changed today. The tax photo from the 1980s shows an entrance to the service bay under the decorative Mediterranean-style roof at the front of the building. This has since been closed and the entrance to the service bay has been moved to a different location. In the photo from the 1980s, the signage for “Peps” is still visible. If they still owned it, the garage had been in the same hands for 40 years.

Brooklyn Architecture 375 Smith Street Court Theater Carroll

According to records, the garage was sold to Jimmy Lee in 1992. There is no trace of a theater left, only the strange facade of the part of the building in which the entrance was located. I’ve passed this garage several times and never noticed. Who knew

The owners currently have plans to demolish the building and replace it with a four-story apartment building.

Brooklyn Architecture 375 Smith Street Court

If you’re into old theaters, you’re in luck. Online cinematreasures.org is an invaluable resource for theater buildings old and new. They have as many photos as they can get their hands on, historical and contemporary, and their readers and contributors are some of the most educated on the subject.

One of those occasional contributors, and a man whose books are well thought out in my office, is Cezar Del Valle, whose two-volume compendium The Brooklyn Theater Index is an invaluable resource for these columns. I can well understand the attraction of finding out about these now-forgotten institutions of Brooklyn history and culture. It is really fascinating. There were once hundreds of theaters in our neighborhood; now there are only a handful left. Finding out what happened to them and determining their whereabouts is a worthy hobby.

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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