The Reborn Kings Theatre: A Reputation Grows In Brooklyn

Thom Duffy
Kings Theatre

From where Jason Isbell stood, center stage at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, the gilded architectural glory of the restored 1929 former movie palace was overwhelming. 

The singer looked out on a sweep of 3,100 plush seats, filled with his fans at this sold-out Feb. 3 show, and took in the theater’s extraordinarily ornate interior, originally inspired by the Palace of Versailles and the Paris Opera House.

“What a beautiful room!,” exclaimed Isbell -- a remark he’d repeat onstage before the night was over.

One of the finest songwriters of his era, Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, brought their current tour to Brooklyn a week after winning Grammys for best Americana album for The Nashville Sessions and best American roots song for “If We Were Vampires.” (Opening the show was James McMurtry, who counts Isbell among his most fervent fans.)

The Kings Theatre was not just another tour stop.  “I’ve been excited about this show for awhile,” Isbell told the audience.

“We booked this show at the Kings Theatre because it really is an amazing venue,” says Isbell’s agent Andrew Colvin of The Billions Corporation.  “We were very intentional in having Jason play there.”

Exactly three years before Isbell’s show, on Feb. 3, 2015, the Kings Theatre re-opened with a gala performance by Diana Ross, before an audience that included New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, his wife Chirlane McCray and former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who championed the renovation project for years.  

After welcoming moviegoers for decades -- ”It was one of those grand old movie palaces,” wrote Barbra Streisand, who grew up in the neighborhood -- the Kings Theatre closed in 1977, and for decades was an abandoned, derelict mess. The property was seized by the city of New York for unpaid back property taxes.

Today, three years later after its rebirth, the Kings Theatre has become a vital venue within the New York region, and has earned a reputation that has spread far beyond its home turf on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

“The word is getting out,” says Tyler Bates, general manager of the Kings Theatre. He notes that artists as varied as David Crosby, the Pixies, Bj√∂rk and Amy Lee of Evanescence have praised the room’s ambiance, while promoters and agents have shown similar enthusiasm. “People are having a good experience and understand the beauty of it, and we’ve got good supporters among promoters,” says Bates.

Planning for the restoration of the Kings Theatre began in 2009.  Once work began, the multi-year $95 million project involved a partnership of city, state and private entities, tapping state and federal tax credit programs.  The New York City Economic Development Corporation teamed up with the Kings Theatre Redevelopment Company -- a consortium of the ACE Theatrical Group, Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group and the National Development Council, a non-profit that promotes investment in low-income communities.  (ACE was acquired in September 2015 by Britain’s Ambassador Theatre Group, which kept the ACE management team and added the Kings Theatre to its roster of some 50 venues worldwide and now manages the Kings Theater).

Bates, who has been GM of the Kings since January 2017, has live music in his blood; his father, Tom Bates, was director of production for renowned Boston promoter Don Law. His resume includes work with Live Nation, AEG, the Barclays Center and the live music arm of Communion Music, an independent artist development company. 

Bates’ experience and relationships have helped him draw shows to the Kings, which operates as an opening house, available for all promoters. Bowery Presents has booked shows by Father John Misty, the Shins, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tegan and Sara and St. Vincent. Live Nation has brought Bob Weir, Jill Scott, Dion and Ronnie Spector, Kirk Franklin and the double-bill of the Temptations and the Four Tops. Goldenvoice/AEG Live has presented Sigur Ros and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, while Madison House Presents/AEG Live has promoted Lauryn Hill and others at the Kings.  (All shows were reported to Billboard Boxscore).

But to serve Brooklyn’s deeply diverse population, the Kings Theatre presents much more than the kind of rock and alternative acts typically booked by larger promoters. Family shows are a mainstay, like the Hip Hop Nutcracker, featuring Kurtis Blow, which played the Kings in December. Audiences from the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, nicknamed Little Odessa for its concentration of immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine, came to the theater Jan. 21 for singer/songwriter Stas Mikhaylov. “We had Russian translators in the box office,” says Bates. Russian comedian Maxim Galkin already has a Nov. 10 date booked at the Kings.

Other upcoming events illustrate the diversity of the theater’s booking strategy: a multi-artist comedy bill is set for Valentine’s Day; the Israeli singer Gad ElBaz will perform March 4; boxing legend Evander Holyfield’s company will bring the first of at least four boxing matches to the theater March 10; Jamaican hip-hop star Sean Paul will rap for fans March 22 and alt duo MGMT plays the Kings Theatre on March 24 -- during a New York City run that also sees the band play Brooklyn’s Brooklyn Steel March 25 and 26.

MGMT’s split booking highlights another change for the Kings Theatre since it opened in 2015: increased competition in the New York market. Brooklyn Steel debuted in East Williamsburg neighborhood in April 2017. AEG Presents and Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, which operates the Barclays Center, are renovating Webster Hall in Manhattan’s East Village. And BS&E anticipates reopening the Brooklyn Paramount in downtown Brooklyn in the winter of 2018-2019, following renovation plans announced in 2016.

However, the Kings Theatre has the advantage of a larger capacity than those venues. And the word-of-mouth enthusiasm of artists might be its best calling card. “About to play my favorite venue in NY for the first time ever!,” posted Lee of Evanesce on Instagram last November. “There is nowhere on earth I’d rather end our first tour of #synthesis and celebrate release day! BROOKLYN!!!!!!”

Audiences encounter the grandeur of the Kings as soon as they enter its 70-foot-high lobby, with its walnut-lined walls and hanging chandeliers. When available, a Ambassador Club VIP ticket package include expedited entry, discounted pre-show drinks, in-seat food and beverage service—and M&Ms imprinted with the Kings Theatre logo. Yet, beyond the competition for touring acts and audiences, the Kings Theatre has to surpass a higher bar of success, because of the public and private funding behind its restoration, including federal historic tax credits and new market tax credits. 

Was the $95 million investment worth it?  The economic development results say yes.

The Kings Theatre “has been a catalyst for Flatbush Avenue,” wrote Daniel Marsh, president and CEO of the National Development Council, one of the partners in the venue’s redevelopment, in an op-ed published in December in Crain’s New York Business. (At that time, during the debate over tax legislation, Congress considered killing the federal historic and new market tax credits, which helped fund the theater’s renovation. Both programs survived, with some modifications.)

The National Development Council reports that, in addition to the 500 construction jobs created during its renovation, the Kings Theater has created 55 permanent jobs -- with 35 percent of its employees living in the surrounding Flatbush neighborhood, a traditionally working-class area that’s distinct from Brooklyn’s gentrified districts. 

On Flatbush Avenue, across the street from the theater, Choice Hotels International has a new hotel under development. That business will join national brands including the Gap, Nike and the Crunch fitness chain in the neighborhood.  Less than a half-mile away from the Kings, a redesigned Flatbush Caton Market is due to re-open in 2020 with space for 40 vendors and 255 units of affordable housing. New stores and developments are bringing new jobs, visitors and economic development to the Flatbush community, according to the National Development Council.

“It’s not often that we can make a direct connection between our tax dollars at work and a night on the town enjoying a live show, be it Diana Ross, Wilco or the Hip Hop Nutcracker,” wrote Marsh of the NDC. “But that is precisely what Kings Theatre is -- a truly wondrous example of effective tax policy.”

And, to think, musicians just think the Kings Theatre is beautiful.