My husband and I had the good fortune recently to visit one of the magnificent wonder theaters designed for the Loew’s theater chain in the 1920s: The Valencia Theater. Located in Jamaica, Queens (and now used as a church), this wonder theater was once referred to as a “movie palace” and you can see exactly why the second you step inside. It is breathtaking!
Nowadays, as a New Yorker, you’re mostly just happy if your movie theater doesn’t have bed bugs, so it’s hard to even imagine what it must have been like to see a movie in a theater as grand as this. Sitting in one of the 3,500 seats, with lights twinkling softly in the ceiling as if they were stars in the sky, you would have certainly felt like you were transported to another world.
And that was the whole point of the wonder theaters! Our tour of the Valencia was conducted by Sister Forbes, the current secretary of the church that purchased the Valencia and now uses it as their place of worship. As Sister said, the wonder theaters were designed to be “atmospheric”–to set a mood and to make you sit in wonder and awe of all that surrounded you.
There are five wonder theaters in the NYC area that were all built for the Loew’s theater chain, and all are still standing nearly 100 years later. The Valencia was designed by architect John Eberson, who designed close to 100 other movie palaces across the United States. And the Valencia was designed with its owner, Loew’s founder Marcus Loew, in mind. Apparently, Loew means “lion” in German, and all throughout the Valencia, you’ll see lion heads that Eberson had incorporated (pretty much everywhere) into the theater’s design. (Loew was also the founder of MGM studios, which if you recall, has a roaring lion at the start of all its films.)
The Valencia opened in January 1929, along with the other NYC movie palaces, after construction started in June 1928. That’s a pretty quick construction period! The first movie to be showed there was “White Shadows in the South Seas”, featuring Monte Blue. Throughout the early ’30s there were also stage shows and eventually, the theater started showing double features. It was the closest theater to Long Island, and it would often have movie premieres and show first-run movies a week before other theaters, making it a popular destination for movie-goers.
As time went by, though, and as more people started getting personal TVs and VCRs and smaller theaters continued to pop up, the massive, 3,500 seat theater could no longer draw the crowds needed to sustain the Valencia. And so in the ‘70s, it officially closed and began to deteriorate before the Tabernacle of Prayer, a Pentecostal church, purchased it for the grand sum of $1 in 1977 and its congregation began to restore it to its current, beautiful state.
What you see in the theater now is fairly consistent with its former look and feel. One major change can be seen in the “angels” that line the top of the theater. They were originally naked Greek gods and goddesses, but when the church bought the theater, the preacher didn’t think that would exactly be appropriate, so wings and robes were added to turn them all into angels instead. The carpet and seats have also been replaced over time and the organ was removed years ago, but the original orchestra pit, lighting fixtures, and projector room still exist and the various balconies and terraces built into the theaters walls are all still there as well (the beautiful chandelier in the theater was not original but makes for a lovely addition!)
Amongst the intricate designs on the ceiling and walls, the theater also features bright red, green, blue, and gold colors (which the church repaints every couple years) that are said to be true to the original colors of the theater. And despite the other four NYC-area wonder theaters having gone through multi-million dollar renovations, the Valencia’s renovations have been fairly limited over the years and it remains in excellent shape today. In 1999, the Valencia also received landmark status by NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, preventing any changes to the exterior of the building.
During our tour, we were charmed by Sister Forbes and the rest of her staff, who all volunteer their time to show guests their beautiful place of worship. There were three groups who visited the day we took our tour, and despite the fact that we were about 60 people altogether, it hardly felt crowded in the theater. Sister gave us a rundown of the history of the theater while sitting right in the middle of it, and then later she took us throughout the various lobbies and up into the balcony, from which the view is certainly even more incredible. Our entire group lined the balcony in single file and there was still plenty of room to spare as we admired the stage and the details along the walls and ceiling.
There is no way that I would want to keep this place a secret because it is truly magnificent. And you can go see it for yourself! Sister Forbes is happy to lead regular tours, and you can find one through New York Adventure Club, Untapped Cities, and various other organizations throughout NYC. Or you can always join Sister and her fellow congregants on a Sunday for one of their services because they seem like a pretty welcoming group of people! Regardless, I highly recommend taking a trip out to Queens to see this spectacular theater because I can promise you it is a trip you won’t soon forget.
Have you ever been to the Valencia or one of the other four wonder theaters in the NYC area? Let me know what YOU thought the first time you stepped inside!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- The Tabernacle of Prayer for All People: 165-07 Jamaica Ave, Queens, NY 11432.
- PRO TIP: The address above is for the store next door to the theater because if you just Google Map the Tabernacle, it will send you to an address a couple blocks away.
When to Go
- Tours are offered at various times throughout the year. Visit with New York Adventure Club, Untapped Cities, or another local tour group.
- You can also join the Tabernacle on Sundays for services.
- Or test your luck and stroll by sometime to see if their doors are open!
Tips for Visiting
- No food or drink is permitted in the theater, so finish anything up before heading inside.
- If you’re driving to Jamaica for a tour, give yourself plenty of time because parking in the area is a challenge. And note the tip above regarding the address!
- Please be courteous and refrain from taking photos while Sister is talking. She will give you plenty of time to take as many as you want once you start your way up to the balcony and after the tour as well.
- During your visit, in every space, be sure to look up, look down, and look all around because you don’t want to miss anything! There are a lot of details to take in, and some are in unexpected places.
- The church accepts donations at the end of the tour if you’re so inclined to help them out.