For a long-darkened building on Broadway, the Metro Theater still manages to incite sudden outbursts—impromptu manifestos, eager litanies of trivia, all but priestly intercessions—from its passersby. Stand too long gawking at its Deco lettering (one of its M’s was recently felled by a snowdrift), and strangers will materialize out of the passing crowd to debrief you. “And did you know Woody Allen put it in Hannah and Her Sisters?” said a man speaking in skittish syllables and vaguely frantic gestures. “Now it’s just sitting there.”
A year ago, Michael Oliva’s relationship to the Metro was more or less that of most Upper West Siders. He’d lived in the neighborhood for years and often passed the old movie house, which stirred in him the sort of fleeting curiosity chronic to New York life, the swift succession of bafflement and then forgetting. The building sat like a small, smooth gem sunk between the high-rises, a study in jewel tones and streamlined Art Moderne geometry, the twins of tragedy and comedy depicted in a giant medallion smack at the center. But the formerly gilded insides, Mr. Oliva could see, had been gutted. “Not just torn out,” he said, describing the interior. “But it almost looks like it was torn out with violent intentions. It was more than gutting it to make retail space. It looks like 1980s Beirut.”
Then a little over a year ago, Mr. Oliva moved directly across the street. From his top-floor apartment near West 100th Street, he could look straight down at the Metro, glowering like a dark hole in Broadway’s morass of restaurants and retail. That was more or less when it all began, he says, though even he can’t quite pinpoint the mainspring that transfigured him from a curious onlooker to something of a one-man cavalry for the Metro’s cause. “I thought someone should do something about it,” he said. “Then I saw that no one was going to and thought maybe I should.”
Mr. Oliva would like to see the Metro turned into a functioning theater and community arts center, one where audiences could see live performances by night and where students could participate in arts and educational programming by day. First he must raise the funds for the building itself.
A former political strategist (he worked on two different public-advocate campaigns in 2009), Mr. Oliva is the sort of man who can opine about the soul of upper Broadway one minute and coolly dissect that soul into blocks and City Council seats the next. “For the most part, the west side and the east side of the street are different [state] Senate and Council districts,” he said. Pointing to each of the four corners surrounding the Metro, he rattles off the names of their various elected stewards: Melissa Mark Viverito, Inez Dickens, Bill Perkins, Adriano Espaillat. Which complicates the matter of seeking municipal discretionary funds as a nonprofit, he says.
“But what if there was a BID for theaters?” Mr. Oliva ventured. “Then you can get funding from the person across the street because they’re funding Broadway, not just their district. The micro component of the theater is the macro component of this district.”
THE METRO’S HISTORY has been a tumultuous one at best—a stint as a porn theater in the 1970s and ’80s, followed by multiple doomed runs as a revival house and a succession of owners as labyrinthine as a Russian novel. When it was built in 1933, the Metro (then known, somewhat incongruously, as the Midtown Theater) was one of 18 movie theaters lining Broadway between 59th and 110th streets: the Circle Theater at 59th Street, the Regency at 67th Street, the Stoddard at 90th Street, the Olympia at 107th Street, to name a few. With the exception of the Metro, all have been demolished.
Though its facade was landmarked in 1989, the Metro itself has had a few brushes with extinction—or at least, it’s been susceptible to the national brands lurching up the rest of Broadway. Most recently, to much community gnashing, it was almost turned into an Urban Outfitters.
But despite the plentitude of grocery stores and bank branches and retailers, Mr. Oliva objects to the idea that the neighborhood isn’t lacking. First, he underscores the area’s complexity, the fact that the Frederick Douglass Houses on Amsterdam Avenue are a very different place from west of Broadway. Second, he says, the area is entirely bereft of places to gather.
“There’s a school on 100th Street, and what if those kids don’t have a vehicle for anything imaginative not only because the emphasis in schools is on math and science but because so much of that has taken away from arts or anything creative?,” he said, then harked back to his career in political campaigns: “So I can’t elect someone who will give so much money to such-and-such program, but I can actually start my own.”
Of course, even for someone schooled in the political art of “moving some energy around,” as Mr. Oliva calls it, that proves easier said than done. He’s communicated with Rocco Landesman, head of the National Endowment for the Arts and a longtime Broadway producer, but has yet to secure any major source of funding.
“There’s no A, B, C, D,” Mr. Oliva said. “There’s no looking back, as the slogan says. You’re stumbling around and organizing as you go along. And that might be the best way to do this because the traditional routes haven’t worked for this place.”
Broadway’s now dissipated theater district emerged at a time when the huge, lavish movie palaces of the 1920s were giving way to the economy of space and design typical of Depression-era movie houses, when new sound technology was transforming how people experienced film. Appropriately, it was the dance sequence of Duck Soup, a Marx brothers film that opened the same year as the Metro, that Woody Allen’s character watches in Hannah and Her Sisters and that reaffirms his will to live. He sits in the Metro’s upper balcony and asks in voice-over, “What if there’s no God, and you only go around once and that’s it? Well, you know, don’t you want to be part of the experience? … Then, I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
In another era of economic upheaval and technological shift, it’s unclear whether there’s much room on upper Broadway for existential panic and the transportive capacity of art. But Mr. Oliva would like to think that you can look out your apartment window, chance upon a gutted anachronism of a building, and fashion it into something not unlike that old screwball trick, the boomerang jolt back to life.