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Old NYC theater
facing wrecking ball

Old NYC theater
facing wrecking ball

It opened in 1916 as a vaudeville theater called the Ideal and closed a few weeks ago as the Playpen, a seedy porno emporium on the ragged rim of Times Square. It now faces the wrecking ball despite a last-minute attempt to rescue it.

With few theaters dating from the early 20th century still in existence, one of Gotham's oldest ''shouldn't be sacrificed for the sake of progress,'' said Michael Perlman, a self-appointed preservationist who wants to keep the building's beaux-arts facade--with its curved central arch, pilasters, statues, and other ornate features--by incorporating it into a new building or moving it to another location.

This is a ''culturally and architecturally significant structure, and we hope to preserve this gem for future generations,'' he said.

Perlman played a key role in the recent rescue of Manhattan's 74-year-old Moondance Diner. The neighborhood icon escaped demolition when a couple bought it off the Internet and moved it 2,100 miles to a new home in western Wyoming.

But there appears little or no chance of anything similar happening to the Playpen, which was doomed when partners headed by Tishman Realty Corp. acquired the property on Eighth Avenue at 44th Street in July, reportedly for a new high-rise building. The group said Thursday it was ''currently exploring development options.''

Unlike other historic theaters in the area that have been saved and renovated, the Playpen was never given official landmark status that would prevent its being destroyed.

''We gave it the old college try,'' said Anna Levin, who chairs the local community board's land use committee. ''This was looked at three times but we were completely rebuffed by the City Planning Commission.''

The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission also studied the issue and decided the building ''did not meet three necessary criteria--architectural features, history and cultural contributions to the city,'' said the agency's spokeswoman, Lisi de Bourbon.

''We feel that is a major point, and if it had been landmarked we would have felt differently about it,'' said Tishman spokesman Richard Kielar.

As it is, he said, the company is preserving some ''architectural elements'' from inside the building, including plaster cameo figures of goddesses that date to its early days. It also has arranged for ''high quality photographs'' of the facade and other notable features, to be displayed in the new building's lobby as a link to the past, Levin said.

''It's a charming vestige of the old Eighth Avenue but not the most distinctive piece of theater history,'' she said in a phone interview.

During its near century of life, the brick-fronted theater operated under at least eight different names, including Esquire, Squire (twice), Cinecitta, New Cameo, Cameo and Adonis, each reflecting a particular kind of screen fare--from Italian- and Russian-language films to Hollywood B-movies, Scandinavian skin flicks, and gay movies.

In the 1940s a partial ceiling collapse injured 19 people but, according to The New York Times, went unnoticed by patrons in the front rows, who thought the noise was just ''weird sound effects'' of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors.

Located on the fringe of the Times Square district, the theater was excluded from an extensive 1990s project in which sleek new hotels and renovated theaters transformed the midtown blocks where sex shops and other marginal activities had flourished since the post-World War II era.

The effort, spearheaded by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was praised by some New Yorkers as a rebirth of Times Square but criticized by others as a ''Disneyfication'' that destroyed its traditional character. Disney decided in the mid 1990s to renovate the New Amsterdam Theatre. Its success with the theater, first as the home of The Lion King and now housing Mary Poppins, brought other family entertainment to West 42nd Street, including Madame Tussauds and several large movie chains.

Both sentiments were apparent in responses to a recent Times story on the demise of the Playpen, with its racy advertisements of ''Live Girls'' and private booths to ''preview'' porn films.

''It's so sad to see adult spaces disappearing in this city as homogenization flattens all that is unique under the guise of 'family friendliness,''' one person wrote. Said another: ''Make way for another tourist-oriented wholesome enterprise. I'd take Billy's Topless any day...''

''People!'' chastised a third. ''It's a dump.'' (Richard Pyle, AP)

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