Q&A: Matthew Wolf of Kings Theatre

Q&A: Matthew Wolf of Kings Theatre

In March of last year, Matthew Wolf moved back to New York from Philadelphia to become the first executive director of Kings Theatre, but his new office was an absolute catastrophe. In 1977, after nearly 50 years in business, the space — one of the four Loew’s Wonder Theatres that still stand in the city, two of which are now churches — shuttered. The next 38 years brought looting, mold, and property damage. Now, after a multimillion-dollar public-private partnership, the restored result is something you’d expect to see in France, not Flatbush. Reopened earlier this week, Kings Theatre is unlike any other venue in Brooklyn: a long-dormant marvel from Brooklyn’s forgotten theater district, restored to fit the borough’s new future.

While Wolf took Bklynr on a tour of the theater, we spoke to him about its past, why he believes now was the perfect moment to reawaken the old place, and what we can expect to see in the coming months.

After seeing this place, it’s extremely hard to imagine what it looked like before the redevelopment began. What was it like restoring something so old and wrecked?

It’s a historic restoration, so everything needs to go through a process. But we moved fast: on my second or third day, we had already taken down the scaffold across the main stage. The plaster was significantly damaged; you can tell from the old photos that you can find online. So we took these latex molds in the places that were in good shape and recreated the plaster. Everything’s painted by hand. Literally the workers would scrape paint layers off to find the microscopic components of what the original paint was. With the exception of two panels, all of the wood was the original salvaged wood from the theatre. Most of the chandeliers are the original chandeliers that were restored in Brooklyn. They’re about 1,800 to 2,000 pounds — they were pretty much the only lighting fixtures that weren’t stolen, because, in pictures, there was a ton that were just pulled off the wall.

The curtains are not exact replicas but they’re based off photographs of what was here before. We have the original marble, too. The carpet is new, but it’s based off of the original pattern. Obviously it was covered in black mold. We added permanent bars that will eventually have craft beers, hard liquor, and soda. We were able to salvage several pieces of the original furniture; the last house manager of the theatre had it, and she’s 109 years old, so she donated it and we’re restoring it. In the far northwest corner of the theatre, the ceiling collapsed because the roof was open. So all of the plaster on that side had fallen through the mezzanine and onto the floor. It was Massive destruction.

But inside of these walls is ultimately a brand new, state-of-the-art fire system with all new electrics. One of the key points of the theatre is that it’s a historic restoration, but new power and new plumbing had to be installed. The seats are 19 to 22 inches with nice legroom. All of the floor underneath the seats is a new concrete pour. With the movie theatre aspect, the point is the sightlines. Let’s say you have a tall guy sitting in front of you. Now, the reality is you’re up a couple of inches. And we have a sound system installed that’s going to blow the doors off of this place.

That enormous focus on restoration is interesting to me. Nowadays, we see so many buildings in Brooklyn, and the city at large, get demolished rather than restored. Why was that not the idea here?

I think, ultimately, people have to realize that that was part of the discussion. The theatre closed down in 1977, and it was one of those things where there were several different plans to revive it. But it fell into disrepair. The city had some champions for the project, like former Borough President Marty Markowitz, and I think he always had a vision for this theatre. But ultimately, Brooklyn itself kind of told the story.

You had a borough that, when I moved to Smith Street in Boerum Hill in 1999, which is where I live today, there was nothing on Smith Street. Then it became one of the hottest restaurant areas in the city. The expansion kept continuing. BAM was an incredible catalyst for showing that art can happen in Brooklyn. And then when you had some other things, like the Barclays Center, which proved that Brooklyn was a marketplace for this type of thing. The Nets coming back, the Islanders coming in; all of these things really happened, so the truth is, right now is the right time for the Theatre. Brooklyn has created a marketplace for entertainment for itself. It is the largest growing borough in the city. Huge, massive development — in Downtown Brooklyn, how many hotels do you have now? It used to just be the Marriot. Now there’s the Sheraton, the Hamptons Inn, and five-star places. Same with Williamsburg: when I was here in ‘99, Williamsburg was a seedy artist place. Now... it’s not Williamsburg.

So, the genesis of Brooklyn, I think overtime, never had a 3,000+ seat venue. As Brooklyn developed, the game plan with this theatre was to create a destination point in Flatbush, the center of Brooklyn. The churches, the Modell’s, used to be big time theatres. This used to be the Theatre District for Brooklyn, especially because it’s centrally located so it can serve all of Brooklyn. So it all just sort of happened, and I think right now was the right time. Brooklyn doesn’t have a Beacon Theatre or a theatre underneath Madison Square Garden. And quite frankly, I don’t even think these are competitive venues, because the Beacon is on 72nd and Broadway, and this is in Brooklyn, where you have 3.5 million people. We have two free parking lots so people from Queens and Staten Island can get here very easily. It’s not just about Brooklyn; it’s about the boroughs. Western Long Island, too, has a place now of this size.

Before you became executive director, how much knowledge of the theatre did you have?

I didn’t know much. It was put on my radar a couple of years ago when I was working in programming at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, where I lived and worked for 5 years. But I had worked with ACE Theatrical Group (who’s in charge of restoring the Theatre) in the past, when I was working for Live Nation. So it was just from being out and hearing that they were developing the Theatre that sparked my interest. I think Philly is a really good city to come from, because it’s 50 percent minority. I always thought it was funny because the minority totals more than the majority, so it’s an irrelevant term. But in Philly, I spent a lot of time trying to reach out to the communities that were there, like the African-American community. And that was one of the important things about this theatre: constructing it so that it could offer popular programming, but also programming for the communities that live in Brooklyn and the surrounding areas. Obviously Brooklyn is very proud of Brooklyn, and Philly is also a very neighborhood pride kind of place.

So once you heard about it, what happened then? How did you end up becoming its executive director?

I was recruited and I applied. I went through an interview process, and had to talk about my past experiences and how I would approach reaching out to the communities. Taking my practice over the years to what works and what doesn’t work. That’s always been key. Trying to figure out new and different ways to approach New York because we’re Brooklyn. I always had great relationships with the local unions. I had longstanding relationships with agents and promoters, so we work with the Live Nations, the Bowery Presents, and the like. When you’re managing a theatre, sometimes you self-promote, too.

Obviously it varies by the show, so you have to be versatile, like handling an Orthodox Jewish show versus Crosby, Stills and Nash, versus Annie. I try to look at programming comprehensively, so we’re trying to do engagement by engagement to focus on what’s missing. We do a lot of research into what’s going on. In terms of the layout, we will lose some seats, depending on the show. For a rock concert or a comedy show, you’ll have people front and center stage. For artists like Sufjan Stevens, this is going to be great because of the proximity. When you talk about Annie, you have a set and stuff that could be happening up stage left, so we may end up not activating these seats, or, if we do, everything else will be sold and we’ll put them up as ‘obstructed view.’

And, on that note, your programming is already stacked. The sign outside says that Diana Ross — the inaugural show — was sold out. What has the reaction been from artists and entertainers toward the Theatre? Have entertainers said, ‘Oh, a theatre in Brooklyn, we have to play there!’? Sufjan Stevens makes sense because he’s a local voice, but someone as far reaching as the Moscow Ballet is something else.

It’s been a long process of making sure people come out and see what we’re doing. It’s a process of a couple of artists making bold choices to be the first to come and play here. When you think about Diana Ross and Sarah McLachlan, they could’ve gone to Beacon, but they chose to come here. We’re always going to be eternally grateful to them for making that decision, and I think they’re going to be rewarded the second they come in here.

Before it closed, it seemed like the theatre left such an imprint on this neighborhood and the borough. What are your hopes of regaining that stride?

Historically, this theatre has meant a lot to this community. It was active for so many years. So many times, I hear people say, ‘Oh, I graduated from there.’ When we were having our interviews come in, for a lot of these younger interviewees, their parents have been here. People are aware; different generations have different memories of the space. It’s been such a positive message for people to see this coming back. We’ve been greeted with an enormous amount of support. We’ve employed locally. We’ve tried to make sure the people who live here get to be a part of this theatre, whether it’s the bartenders, front of house staff, or the box office. Our program itself, we’ve got reggae, Broadway, family shows, indie rock. We’ve got so many shows we’re about to announce in the next week. We’re going to have more indie bands, more Latino shows. We’re trying to work with the Orthodox Jewish community and the faith-based communities to have shows here.

It’s not necessarily theatre; ultimately, it’s more of a venue. This is Brooklyn’s premiere, 3,000+ seat venue. Like I said, the programming here is going to be focused on live entertainment, so it’ll be music, comedy, Broadway plays, the Moscow Ballet. It’ll be all of those things. To a large extent, we, as the venue, try to create the vision of what it’s gonna be, but it’s not always us. It is the Moscow Ballet. It’s the Broadway touring shows. The Live Nations. The Orthodox Jewish promoters. The small reggae and SoCa shows. Those types of things, all of those people, have a voice in what this theatre’s legacy is going to be.

John Surico is Bklynr’s interviews editor. His work has appeared in the New York Times, VICE, and elsewhere. He also runs Potluck Magazine with his friends.

Jason Bergman is a freelance photographer and videographer. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Bushwick.

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