The End of the Sunshine Theater: A Cultural Loss for New York City

The Sunshine Theater at 143 East Houston street, located between Eldridge and Forsyth streets in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has been an emblematic cultural center since its inception over a century ago.

According to Josh Goldfein, author of “Heritage Cinema, the Secret History of the Sunshine Theater” (2001), the building initially served as a German Evangelical Mission church and a German immigrant meeting hall in the 1840s. By 1908, according to historian Joyce Mendelsohn, the building was converted into the Houston Athletic Club, where boxing, wrestling, and Jai Lai matches were held.

In 1909, the building was transformed into a 600-seat nickelodeon named the Houston Hippodrome. The renovated theater showcased a variety of Yiddish vaudeville acts and films, and opened a restaurant and two snack bars to delight the hundreds of spectators who would come together to enjoy this new attraction.

Cinema historian Judith Thissen stated that from 1911 onwards, the Hippodrome was showing two new Yiddish three-act plays every week that addressed “the challenges of Jewish life in the New World: poverty, vice, generational conflicts, soured marriages, and broken homes.”  Then in 1917, the Houston Hippodrome was renamed the Sunshine Theater.

Sunshine Theater

By 1945 however, the Goldman family took over the lease and closed the theater’s doors. The building was solely used to store the family’s hardware for several decades. It was not until 2001 that the Landmark Theater company entirely renovated the edifice and reopened the theater “as a haven for indie and artsy films.”

In 1917 the Houston Hippodrome becomes the Sunshine Theater.

The Sunshine offered a large variety of first-run independent and foreign films as well as non-traditional studio programming. Jack Foley, Bleecker Street Media’s president of distribution declared that the Sunshine represented an “extremely important cinematic and cultural center for the city,” and a “crown jewel” of the Landmark brand. Yet, 2017 regrettably marks the end of the historic Sunshine Theater. According to the NY Post, the theater has been sold for $31.5 million to the East End Capital and K Property Group, which will transform the theater into a mixed-use development with retail and upstairs office space.

 

Julia Heath

Political science and international relations student in the UK. I am interning for Lower East Side History Project in NYC this summer.

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