WARREN G. HARRIS

Warren G. Harris stands where the entrance of the Sunnyside Theater used to be.

This is what the entrace used to look like.

The splendid interior of the Sunnyside Theater

(All b/w photos and ads courtesy of Warren G. Harris)

They even had basketball as part of the opening act!

The old 43rd Street Theater at Greenpoint Avenue

Warren in front of the Halal Chinese Restaurant on Greenpoint Avenue, where the entrance of the 43rd Street Theater used to be.

The doors of the old Bliss Theater are still the originals…

…but the Egyptian-style murals have been painted over with demure nature scenes.

Ad for the opening of the Bliss Theater and for its magnascopic screen

Center Cinemas: the only Sunnyside theater that is still operating

“When I was a kid I always thought that Bliss was the happiness and joy you’d experience from going to a movie.”

Warren G. Harris has been interested in movies and cinemas for almost as long as he can remember. The author of nine critically acclaimed biographies of some of Hollywood’s most famous stars, Warren began his immersion in the subject in the Sunnyside Theater at the tender age of five. When his grandmother took him to see a movie starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, Warren got lost in the movies—quite literally.

“In the midst of the movie I had to go to the bathroom. Coming back into the auditorium, I got lost,” he reminisced one recent afternoon as we sat in the movie section of the Sunnyside library. “It was so huge, I didn’t know where I was at. An usher came over and held his flashlight over my head and walked me up and down the aisle until my grandmother spotted me.”

Warren’s fascination for the world of films continued unabated. He read his grandmother’s movie star magazines and, as “a walking encyclopedia,” he provided information on movies for the children in his neighborhood. He lectured on the history of movies in high school—“The teacher gave me such a dirty look”—and wrote a report on a book that was made into a movie. (“She thought that was awful also.”) While in college he worked as an usher at Jamaica’s Valencia Theater, and later became a publicist for Paramount. Eventually he began writing biographies, most notably about Sophia LorenCary GrantClark Gable and Carol LombardAudrey Hepburn and other stars. Today Warren contributes the results of his ongoing research to cinematreasures.com.

With its 2,000 seats, its crystal chandeliers and an interior architecture reminiscent of the Renaissance, the Sunnyside Theater was magnificent. Opened in 1926 in what has now become Rite Aid’s parking lot on Roosevelt Avenue and 52nd Street, it was demolished in 1960 to make space for an A&P Supermarket. Now the only reminder of the site’s glamorous past is the seven-foot pitch of the parking lot: the upward slope from the theater’s stage to the seats in the last row.

In the 1940s Sunnyside, once a major shopping hub that attracted people from all over Queens, had four movie theaters operating concurrently. Seedy Center Cinemas on Queens Boulevard is the only one that has survived.

Each of the four Sunnyside theaters had its specialty: Center Cinemas was the first one in Queens to show exclusively foreign movies; Sunnyside Theater featured Vaudeville acts, dance teams, acrobats and even basketball teams to lure visitors to movies that may have not been that good; 43rd Street Theater, which still stands on Greenpoint Avenue, showed movies after they stopped playing in other theaters, giving visitors an opportunity to catch up on what they might have missed; and Bliss Theater on Greenpoint Avenue and 46th Street distinguished itself with its Egyptian-style interior architecture and its “magnascopic screen,” a screen that expanded for special effect.

“When I was a kid I always thought that Bliss was the happiness and joy you’d experience from going to a movie,” Warren remembers. Later he learned that the cinema was named after the Bliss family, who was instrumental in settling the area. The Bliss Theater building, which still flaunts 2,000 seats, a stage and balconies, was bought by the Jehova’s Witnesses in the 1970s. They painted over the splendid Egyptian-style murals that featured nudity with a demure landscape perhaps more fitting for the theater’s new function.

The glorious days of movie theaters—fittingly referred to as palaces—are long past, and today Warren rarely goes to the movies. Instead he rents old movies at the library. Multiplexes are “like shoeboxes divided into nine sections,” he says. “One of the enjoyments of seeing a movie is about seeing it with a lot of people, hearing and seeing the reactions of the people around you. If you go into those little theaters you don’t have that.”

In the podcast Warren talks about his first experiences in Sunnyside’s movie theaters in the 1940s.

Listen to Warren’s interview