On a recent Saturday, 25 members of the Philadelphia Church of Universal Brotherhood, an African American Seventh-day Adventist congregation, gathered in the ornate lobby of a 95-year-old former movie palace in Brooklyn for their weekly Sabbath service.
Surrounded by columns and a gold-painted plaster frieze of griffins and vases, the attendees sang exuberant, hip-swaying hymns, accompanied by drums, a synthesizer, tambourines and even a cowbell. The fellowship was palpable, and the voices so strong that the force of their collective music seemed to belie the congregation’s meager numbers. But when the collection baskets were handed around, the limited number of hands to pitch in for badly needed building repairs was manifest.
“The lack of funds has really kept us back, because we’re not rich,” said D. Liendra Jeffries, the church’s octogenarian senior pastor. “We’re trying to negotiate a deal so we can do something with the building.”
The former Cameo Theatre, designed in an Egyptian-inflected Art Deco-style, was a cinema until 1974.The spelling was changed to Kameo in 1924. It is not protected by landmark status.Credit…John Freeman Gill for The New York Times
The building in question, the church’s home since 1975, is the former Loew’s Kameo on Eastern Parkway near Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, a 1,400-seat theater with a snazzy, Egyptian-inflected Art Deco facade of vibrant, multicolored terra cotta. Pieces of that facade and other masonry have fallen off the building in the past few years, prompting the church to erect a sidewalk shed to protect pedestrians. And in a peculiar example of life imitating art, real plants are growing out of a decorative band of terra-cotta leaves on the structure’s cornice.
Whether the building, which the church consecrated as the Philadelphian Sabbath Cathedral, will survive at all is very much up in the air. The church has been besieged by developers and builders, according to F.E. Roy Jeffries II, the institution’s leader and son of its senior pastor. Church leadership is now weighing whether to repair the building or tear it down and build something larger, such as a six-story apartment house.
“We might do a land lease that includes the air space,” said Pastor Jeffries, a dapper 69-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard. “But we’re not going to sell.” In any scenario, he insisted, the church would continue its ministry at that location.
Originally known as the Cameo, the buff-brick theater was built in 1924 on land that Samuel Wolfman, a developer, had purchased from the city, which had obtained the property for construction of the subway beneath it. To design the cinema, Wolfman’s company chose Harrison Wiseman, a prolific, Manhattan-based theater architect.
An Ohio native, Wiseman would soon design two noteworthy theaters on the thriving Yiddish Rialto of Manhattan’s lower Second Avenue: the stunning Moorish Revival-style structure on East 12th Street now known as the Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater, a landmark, and the 2,800-seat Commodore Theatre, near Sixth Street. (In 1968, the Commodore became the legendary rock venue the Fillmore East, which for three boisterous years hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Who.)
Wiseman’s Cameo facade was an exotic film-world fantasy with an Egyptian flavor, probably influenced by Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, which had set off a wave of Egyptomania in the design world. Running along the top was a terra-cotta band of stylized Art Deco women’s faces, suggestive of theatrical masks or muses, each one sporting a smart Cleopatra hairdo. From their eyes shot angular beams of green light evocative of film projections.
The Cameo opened on Feb. 9, 1924, with the melodrama “The Lullaby,” starring silent-film beauty Jane Novak. In June, the cinema began showing movies under the open sky in a 1,500-seat roof garden.
The theater was one of two — along with the Rolland, a neo-Moorish-style Yiddish stage venue at St. John’s Place — that Wiseman designed on Eastern Parkway. The two have had similar histories. Both were built in the 1920s for owners who themselves lived on Eastern Parkway. Both have vividly colorful, terra-cotta Wiseman facades. And both were repurposed for religious use, when churches scrambled into the theatrical shells like hermit crabs and made themselves right at home. Since the 1950s, the former Rolland Theatre has been the Holy House of Prayer for All People.
In its first year the Cameo was purchased by Marcus Loew’s theater chain and rechristened the Loew’s Kameo. At the star-studded opening gala, fans swarmed the playhouse to ogle Johnny Hines and other screen idols; hundreds were turned away. Among the celebrities, noted The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was Ernest Hilliard, who, though “one of the most despicable villains in screendom,” looked “as harmless as the kitten who sat licking its lips in the lobby.”
By the 1950s the Kameo had grown tatty, but its showy interior still held substantial allure. “It had a skyline of minarets and fake Moorish stuff,” recalled Mark Jacobson, who used to watch movies like “Creature From the Black Lagoon” there with his granduncle Gus, a projectionist at the theater. “And the artifice was set in front of the fake sky in a way that gave you the sense that there was a vast city surrounding you set against the twilight of this other world that probably never existed.”
Mr. Jacobson also got a look behind the theater’s artifice. “I would climb up this little catwalk, and the booth would open up and my uncle would be up there reading The Daily News with a half-eaten chicken sandwich lying around,” he said. “It kind of shot the fantasy.”
When the church purchased the property from Loew’s in 1975, the theater was a mess. “We were in love with that building, oh man, because we bought it with our hard-earned money,” said Liendra Jeffries, the senior pastor. The church paid $110,000 in cash, she said, because racially discriminatory redlining by banks made obtaining a loan impossible.
Cleaning the building was grueling. “Loew’s had guard dogs they let run free in here, and they defecated,” said Pastor Jeffries. “We had to wear boots and overalls and masks and use bleach to clean the whole sanctuary.”
The church reupholstered the seats, whitewashed the plum-colored tapestries in the recessed wall arches and — as the senior pastor said — “we hired a Greek painter who painted over all the naked ladies in the ceiling and turned them into angels.”
Today, the sky-blue-and-gold auditorium is in decent shape, although the ceiling has collapsed in an upstairs stairwell landing, another area has mold, and the building needs repointing. High above the auditorium, the projection booth serves as a breathtakingly untouched time capsule. A rusted cabinet for film reels remains in place, one door marked “Sat Nite.” A vintage spotlight points out a square hole in the wall. And a midcentury Norge icebox bears a message in Magic Marker: “This Refrigerator Is the Personal Property of Men in Booth.”
The building’s terra-cotta facade also remains mostly intact, at least for now. Susan Tunick, author of “Terra-Cotta Skyline,” a history of architectural terra-cotta in New York, said that few city theaters with such vivid polychromatic decoration survive. “It’s unusual for this period to have that much color and a hybrid architectural style,” she said. “It’s very quirky, so it would be very sad to lose such a richly colored terra-cotta building.”
But the structure is not a landmark and can be demolished as of right. Indeed, only one Brooklyn theater with multicolored terra-cotta facade ornament — the 1908 Peter Jay Sharp Building at BAM — enjoys landmark protection.
Even if the church does not raze the former cinema, the Art Deco faces may be stripped from its facade. “If we can change them into angels or replace them with figures that are spiritual, we might go that route,” said Pastor Jeffries. Art Deco is worth big bucks, he has been told, and movie industry people have offered to buy that row of terra-cotta visages. “Anytime we’re ready to get rid of it,” he said, “they’ve left their cards.”
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