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RKO Keith’s theater showcases industry’s past

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There is a rare jewel in the heart of downtown Richmond Hill trying to make a comeback as a theater and cultural center for the southeast Queens neighborhood with the help of local historians, its owner and tenants.

The RKO Keith’s Theater at 117-09 Hillside Ave. originally opened March 22, 1929 as part of the Orpheum chain of cinemas started by Benjamin Franklin Keith and his partner, Edward Franklin Albee. It is just one of many historical buildings Richmond Hill residents are trying to resurrect as they try to revitalize their neighborhood.

Efforts to restore the building are being considered and, according to history teacher Carl Ballenas, the site lends itself to being a major attraction for people from all over the city.

“It’s just waiting to be dusted off ,” said Ballenas, who grew up in Richmond Hill and teaches history in Jamaica Hills. “It’s incredible [the theater] has survived; it is from an era that is long gone.”

There is another RKO Keith’s in downtown Flushing, but it is in poor condition because the former owner, Tommy Huang, neglected the structure and was convicted of damaging the property. Parts of the interior are landmarked by the city.

Boymelgreen Developers, a Brooklyn firm, purchased it in November for housing and stores.

Ballenas said the Richmond Hill theater, originally called the B.F. Keith’s theater, is the only one of its kind in Queens with most of its original architecture and equipment intact.

“So much is still original, the drop cloth, the backstage machinery, the chandeliers, the dressing rooms, even the marquee in front,” said Ballenas, who wrote a report on the theater’s history. “Everything is all there.”

Benjamin Franklin Keith, known as the “father of American vaudeville,” according to Ballenas, partnered with Albee to make the Keith-Albee syndicate, which opened a chain of vaudeville theaters throughout the northeastern United States in the early 20th century.

Albee eventually partnered with Joseph Kennedy’s Hollywood film company in 1928 after Keith died in 1914 and formed Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO) Studios and converted the vaudeville theaters into the Orpheum chain of cinemas, Ballenas said.

Edward Albee, the renowned playwright who wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” is the adopted grandson of Edward Franklin Albee.

The theater’s co-owner, Bob Wooldridge, has lived in Richmond Hill for more than 30 years and is a member of the Richmond Hill Historical Society. Since purchasing the theater more than 20 years ago, he has run the annual bingo nights and flea markets that have taken the place of movies at the theater.

The RKO Keith’s Theater forms the triangular downtown of Richmond Hill that includes Lefferts Boulevard and Jamaica and Hillside avenues. Preservationists, including the Richmond Hill Historical Society, have been pushing to make the area a historic district, following their recent victory at making the nearby Republican Club building a city landmark.

Wooldridge said he is trying to partner with several other organizations, including the Museum of Sound Recording, to help restore the glory of the theater. The museum, run by its co-founder Dan Gaydos, rents the top floor of the theater and is already bringing in antique sound-recording equipment and setting up exhibits to attract people to the site.

Gaydos said he and his volunteers plan to take advantage of the vast unused space in the theater, which seats 2,500 people, to complement the museum’s collection, incorporating recording equipment with hands-on, engaging exhibits. They are also planning a café with performance space, workshops, theater productions and big band nights.

Wooldridge said he sees the partnerships as a way to secure the theater’s future.

“It really wouldn’t be that difficult [to restore],” he said. “It would just cost a lot of money.”

Wooldridge said hundreds of people come to the theater noon and night to play bingo and buy goods at the flea markets. He said some reconstruction has already taken place after a movie studio filmed the motion picture “Guru” and transformed part of the upstairs portion into an apartment.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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