The Audubon Ballroom and Theater, located at 3940 Broadway between 165th and 166th Streets, was opened in 1912 by William Fox. The Audubon was one of the first theaters in the Fox theater group for vaudeville and movies to come to Washington Heights and Inwood.
Wilhelm Fried, a Hungarian-born immigrant, had changed his name to William Fox and purchased a run-down penny arcade in Brooklyn in 1904. He later founded the Fox Film Corporation in 1915. The Audubon had his name emblazoned on the marquee and was a considerable financial investment in which he made sure that income would be forthcoming to repay for the original cost of the building.
Some of the features of the Broadway facade included a three-dimensional polychrome terra cotta design of a boat (representing the Argo of Jason and the Argonauts) with the face of Neptune on it, two faces of court jesters, and icons in the form of fox heads to represent the owner of the building, William Fox. Within the theater were box seats adorned with fabric curtains and Bentwood chairs that were in the art nouveau style. A satyr’s head crowned each box that had been flanked by maidens with diaphanous dresses.
The building was designed by Thomas W. Lamb in association with the Rambusch Studios, which did the interior design of the theater. Lamb combined mythological, iconography and theatrical references for the Audubon. In his career Mr. Lamb designed over 300 movie theaters around the United States. Lamb and the Rambusch Studios would collaborate in the construction and opening of another theater in Washington Heights called the Loew’s 175th Street Theater in 1930.
The 2,368 seat theater was first known as the William Fox Audubon, and then became the Beverly Hills, and finally the San Juan. The theater had top vaudeville acts such as Fannie Brice, Smith & Dale, Wheeler & Woolsey, and Weber & Fields appearing on its stage. In 1927 the theater was the first in the community to have “talkies,” showing “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson.
Upstairs on the second floor was the ballroom used for social occasions and special events. This had a dance floor, tables, booths, and a stage for live entertainment. One of the events held in the 1950s was the New York Mardi Gras Festival, where a King and Queen of Harlem were crowned every year. In 1953, Peter Peterson was crowned King. Also such jazz greats who attended were drummer Arthur Zutty Singleton and trumpeter Henry Red Allen.
Rooms in the basement were also used for special functions. One of these had been used as a synagogue called Emez Wozedek and was there from 1939 to 1983. Shops and restaurants were on the street level. Office space was on the second floor after the ballroom had closed.
The Audubon Ballroom was the site of early efforts to organize the municipal transit workers of New York City. It had become the original meeting hall for the IRT Brotherhood, a union that every IRT worker was compelled to join. One of these attendees was Michael J. Quill, who frequented the meetings and was a hell raiser then as in later life.
In 1934 the Transport Workers Union was organized as the first successful industrial labor union of its kind, and the Audubon became a regular meeting place for the newly created union. A year later Quill was elected President. The union moved its offices and meeting hall to West 64th Street in 1937 because the membership had grown to 30,000 members.
In the early 1970s, the San Juan Theater closed its doors to the public. During the period prior to the demolition of the building, the main floor was used for the Department of Housing Preservation as well as offices for educational facilities for the Latino community.
The building is also used for the Office of Neighborhood Services. Known as the Little City Hall, it became the predecessor of the present-day Community Board 12, but with several differences. For example: the Office of Neighborhood Services had no board members, whereas Community Board 12 does.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X, a Black Muslim minister, participated at a rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity and was assassinated while giving a speech, forcing the Audubon to close its doors. This resulted in the lack of payment of back taxes, and the City of New York was forced to take over the building in 1967. In time, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center purchased the property.
The Audubon property had become a hotbed of political and private groups. The demise of the ballroom was blamed on the Medical Center because it wanted to raze the building for a new medical research center and to attract more jobs to the community. This brought opposition from the African-American groups that wanted the building to remain as a memorial to Malcolm X. According to some, the Audubon Ballroom was of paramount importance as a landmark to the history of the African-American struggle. Preservation groups had unsuccessfully sued to prevent the demolition of the building.
A compromise was made so that part of the original structure would remain and a memorial to Malcolm X would be created. A 12- by 63-foot mural painted by Daniel Galves, a resident of Oakland California, was painted in May 1997 to honor the achievements of Malcolm X. The Malcolm X Museum is scheduled to open in the fall of 2003. There is presently a life-sized statue of Malcolm that can be seen in the Broadway lobby of the building.
The Broadway facade of the building was kept as part of the design for the new complex. During the restoration, the terra cotta facade above the entrance was redone. The head of Neptune, which had been missing for many years, was painstakingly recreated and sculpted in Boston Valley terra cotta by Susan Quimby in 1994. Ms. Quimby relied on a small historic photograph for the re-creation of the head.
When construction was completed, the new building was named the Mary Woodward Lasker Biomedical Research Building. Even though the address is 3960 Broadway, the entrance to the building is on 166th Street between Broadway and Saint Nicholas Avenue. It is a part of the new complex of five buildings that are being constructed by New York (originally Columbia) Presbyterian Medical Center.
As a result of the reconstruction, new stores and a theater, a house of worship, dance hall and union meeting hall had an effect on all that have used it. The Audubon was one restaurant that has opened to the public. Dallas BBQ, Caffe X, The Audubon Bookstore and Chase Manhattan Bank now grace the Broadway side of the building. At 166th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue is Joe’s Pizza and Deli. As a matter of historical note, the Chase Bank was the site of a Buick dealership that closed in the 1960s.
The center is now home to the Harlem-Heights Historical Society and future home to the Malcolm X Museum. Michael Mowat-Wynn is the executive director for the Society and can be reached at (212) 342-7077. The Malcolm X Museum can be reached at (212) 342-7065.