On the northwest corner of 181st Street and Broadway, the RKO Coliseum boasted to be the third largest theater in the United States, with 3,500 seats, when it opened in 1920. B.S. Moss was involved with the launching of the theater as an entity. The architects were DeRosa and Periera, who designed other movie palaces of that period.
Historically the site of the Coliseum was occupied by the Blue Bell Tavern, which had been a local drinking establishment since colonial days. The Blue Bell was constructed between 1725 and 1730 and had served the public faithfully until the early part of the 20th Century. In 1753, Lieutenant-Governor Cadwalader Colden made reference to the comfortable lodgings and good food of the Blue Bell when the Colden family had taken shelter from a rain storm.
During the American Revolution, the tavern was used by American and Royalist forces (on separate occasions) as a drinking establishment and for court-martials. After the war, local citizens and travelers came back to the tavern.
Over the years the Blue Bell changed hands and was rebuilt. It closed in 1915 and was razed for a forthcoming movie theater. Passers-by could see the remnants of the basement as well as tiles used in the fireplace.
The RKO Corporation was founded in 1929 from the merger of the Orpheum theater circuit (1882), Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Office (1917) and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) (1909). It is one of the oldest of the continuously operating movie studios. During the Golden Age of movies, RKO released an average of 40 motion pictures per year. The 1980s saw troubled times for the major studios. The following decade the film industry saw improved sales and sounded a comeback for RKO.
In its heyday many of the most famous vaudeville acts came to the stage of the Coliseum. The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Edie Cantor, Uncle Don’s Kiddie Show, and Gertrude Berg of televison’s “The Goldbergs” were among the performers who had been there.
In the early 1980s, the theater was made into a triplex. The orchestra seats were one theater and the mezzanine was split up into two theaters. At this time the ornate ceiling could still be seen and appreciated by those who have a passion for nostalgia. The ornate marquee was taken down duting the construction. The theater was later reduced to a duplex by eliminating the orchestra seats and stage to make way for stores such as New York and Co., Bravo Supermarket, Radio Shack, GNC, and Easy Connections. The Coliseum closed due to financial problems and reopened as a quad theater in July 1991.