Flushing Town Hall wants Huang’s RKO Theater

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Flushing Town Hall is looking to purchase the rundown RKO Keith’s Theater at the foot of Main Street from Douglaston developer Tommy Huang, the cultural center’s executive director said.

“We are trying to see if we could facilitate some sort of consortium that would benefit the community,” said Jo-Ann Jones, executive and creative director of Flushing Town Hall. “There are a lot of organizations that are looking for space.”

Jones said the cultural institution has written the goal of acquiring the landmarked theater into its strategic plan after discussing the possibility during the last year.

The Flushing Town Hall’s bid to acquire the RKO Keith’s comes as its owner, Huang, is embroiled in a lawsuit over its possible sale to another corporation.

On July 26, 2001, Huang’s RKO Delaware Inc., drew up a contract to sell the theater to Lester Dworman of the Bentos Company for $15 million. The price was subject to adjustment based on various factors, including the renovation cost, which was to be determined by the closing of the deal on Nov. 15.

But in papers filed with the State Supreme Court in Queens on Nov. 28, Dworman asserted that Huang’s company failed to extend the sale deadline after Dworman’s group discovered the property had numerous unsettled violations.

Of the 40 violations on the building — 39 from the city Department of Buildings and one from the city Environmental Control Board — only five had been settled as of Nov. 20, Dworman’s complaint said.

According to the Buildings Department, the number of still unresolved violations had dropped to seven. as of Monday.

They stem from Huang’s purchase of the building in 1986. The city had previously declared the theater’s lobby and grand staircase a landmark, preventing their destruction. Inspections after the purchase showed Huang had damaged the lobby, and work halted a year later.

In 1999, Huang was convicted on a felony count of ignoring asbestos contamination in the theater and for spilling hundreds of gallons of fuel oil in its basement. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

While the lawsuit with Dworman remains unsettled, the state lifted the probation sentence from Huang in January, said Brad Maione, a spokesman for state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

At the beginning of 2002, Huang also began to repair the theater. He dropped his $39 million lawsuit against the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and put down a $40,000 security deposit with the commission to allow him to make repairs.

Just a few months ago, the Flushing Town Hall, located a block east at 137-35 Northern Blvd., faced dwindling attendance after Sept. 11 and a 12 percent budget cut.

But the world is now looking much brighter for the hall.

“We’re back on the upswing,” said Jones. “We’re finding that the public is returning. We got some substantial grants.”

The largest grant, $750,000 recently obtained from the Carnegie Corporation, just happens to be identical to the deposit the Bentos Company was asked to pay on the property.

In considering the theater, the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, which runs the Town Hall, hopes to repeat the success it had with that building.

In 1989, the city took over Town Hall, built in 1862, which had fallen into disrepair. A year later the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts submitted the winning proposal to manage the hall. By 1999, the renovation was completed, and the center is now home to a theater and art galleries.

The project cost $8 million. Just to buy the RKO Keith’s could cost Flushing Town Hall nearly twice that.

“It’s certainly on a larger scale,” said Jones.

Huang’s lawyer in the RKO Delaware case, Kevin Tung, said the developer was open to selling the property to anyone.

“If anybody comes in with the money, we’ll close,” he said.

While Dworman’s complaint said the Bentos Company had put down the $750,000 deposit, Tung disputed the claim.

“All I know is that they have not left a penny with us,” he said.

Dworman’s lawyer did not return phone calls for comment.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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