Lin-Manuel Miranda Reawakens the Wonder at United Palace

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Audience members in the lobby of the United Palace. All photos courtesy of Amy Lee Pearsall.

On an otherwise quiet Sunday this past weekend, an exuberant line for admission stretched around the block on West 175th St., awaiting entrance into the massive United Palace, one of Loew’s five historic Wonder Theaters. Opened in 1930 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the opulent entertainment complex originally served as a movie and vaudeville house. In 1969, it was purchased by prosperity televangelist Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II (Reverend Ike) and preserved for the use of his congregation. The United Palace House of Inspiration — under the leadership of the Reverend Ike’s son, Xavier — continues to act as guardian of the Palace. The arts are still alive here, however. Xavier wanted to open the theater to a larger community, so he launched the nonprofit United Palace of Cultural Arts (UCPA) in 2012.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda receives a bon voyage note from the audience at United Palace.

The Palace’s return to glory seemed imminent on Oct. 16 as uptown hero Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced a screening of the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins to a full house. This was the first screening at the United Palace to use the theater’s new DCP projector, donated by Miranda. The event kicked off the UPCA’s Indiegogo campaign, Reawaken Wonder in a Timeless Movie Palace, which seeks to raise funds for an improved sound system and pave the way for additional programming. The event also served as a bon voyage for Miranda, who is temporarily relocating to London to shoot Mary Poppins Returns. At the end of Miranda’s onstage introduction, UPCA Executive Director Mike Fitelson surprised him with cards flashed from the audience that read, “Goodbye Lin-Manuel. Don’t stay away too long.”

And now: 5 Questions UPCA’s Mike Fitelson Has Never Been Asked…

Mike Fitelson from United Palace channels Dick Van Dyke.
Mike Fitelson from United Palace channels Dick Van Dyke.

So how did you get Lin-Manuel Miranda to donate a new digital projector?

I’m in California, it’s December 26, around ten o’clock in the morning California time. It’s Luis Miranda. He says, “Hi…Lin wants to donate to United Palace. How much is your new projector?” I tell him it’s $100,000. Luis tells me Lin’ll give us $25,000. Click.

So we start thinking, OK, we have this seed money. How are we going to go from here…to here…with all this other stuff we’re doing? I get this anonymous manila envelope in the mail. It’s a poster from the Criterion Collection. They’re re-releasing all the Star Wars movies. Do we want to show the original Star Wars series? I think — that’s it! I call Criterion; we get the dates locked in; Criterion calls back. They’re like, “Sorry, we’re not going to be able to do this release.” Turned out Alamo Drafthouse cut a deal and pretty much put the kibosh on everything.

Lin-Manuel Miranda announces a screening of "Mary Poppins" at United Palace.
Lin-Manuel Miranda introducing the screening of Mary Poppins at United Palace.

So there we were with no big plan, $75,000 short for the projector. Lin walked away from Hamilton in July. The Miranda operation fires up again, and I start getting phone calls for a GQ shoot here for Lin and a series of PBS promos that Lin’s going to do for Great Performances, and then Luis was being honored for the Dominican Day Parade. I start talking with the Mirandas and figuring things out. Then I read the Rolling Stone article, where Lin’s talking about doing the cantina music for Star Wars, and he says in the article, “Ask the thing you want to ask your hero while your hero is in front of you…you may never get that opportunity again.”

When you get a chance to ask for what you want, ask for it.

So after the GQ shoot, I’m tagging along with Lin down the hall to the dressing room, and we’re talking and I say, “Lin, so I read your interview in Rolling Stone. You said when you get a chance to ask for what you want, ask for what you want. Why don’t you finish what you started and buy the projector so we can do all this wonderful stuff?” Lin says, “Let me ask my wife.” A week later — after he’d asked his wife (and his sister for good measure) — I get the email: “Yes.” So we’ve got the projector. Now we need sound.

United Palace Theater's Moorish ceiling.
The elaborately decorated Moorish ceiling of the United Palace.

Tell us about the crowdfunding campaign that you just kicked off on Indiegogo. What’s the vision here?

The “Wonder” comes from the fact that we’re one of Loew’s five Wonder Theaters. As for the vision, there are four phases: Phase 1 is to get the audio for the stage in place ($150,000). Phase 2 is surround sound for the balcony ($50,000). Phase 3 is surround sound for the orchestra ($50,000). And Phase 4 is to repurpose one of our existing Christie projectors for the foyer and to hire a movie programmer. We need someone who can organize programming that justifies 3400 people coming together at the same time to see something amazing. We have the orchestra pit, the screen, and the seats. We’re going to have the technology. We want people to have the opportunity to walk in and be blown away by what they see, hear, feel, and experience just being in this ambiance. We want to give cinema that home in New York City.

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United Palace Theater audience members head to their seats from the foyer.
Audience members head to their seats from the foyer.

What use are you seeing for the foyer?

The foyer seats about 100 people, very intimate. It’s like watching a film in this little jewel box. We did a live-to-projection event on a 16-foot screen with Miguel Malla playing jazz to Spanish cartoons from the beginning of the medium, which was a lot of fun. We’re very interested in doing more Spanish-language film programming. We did the Dominican Film Festival here in June and had a tremendous turnout. There’s just a ton of stuff we can do.

What’s slated in terms of programming from now until the end of the year?

We’ve been dabbling with our lobby series. We started a series we called “Origin Stories” back in March. We had tango. Word Up Books came and did a spoken word thing. We had a Pacific-Islander dance night. The idea is to program that foyer space on Monday nights. Tuesday nights, let’s get locals in and do an intimate, hundred-seat experience for folks. Like The Uptown Collective, who will be coming in to do The UC Review on Oct. 24.

Mary Poppins at United Palace Theater
A live dance number was performed as part of the intro for the Oct. 16 screening of Mary Poppins at United Palace.

On Oct. 30, on the main stage, we’re screening Juan de los Muertos, Cuba’s first zombie movie, with English subtitles. It’s kind of a Cuban spin on the Shaun of the Dead ethos, and it’s an allegory of Cuban politics. We’ll have a zombie transformation station for anyone who wants to come early and get their zombie on. We’re planning on a talk-back after, with a zombie panel. And The Hip Hop Nutcracker with MC Kurtis Blow is coming back for two shows on Dec. 3. Lou Lumenick is coming in on Dec. 11 to introduce a screening of The Wizard of Oz. That will be subtitled in Spanish and will have a talk-back with Lumenick and Tiffany Vazquez, who hosts on weekends for Turner Classic Movies. And we’ll be wrapping the year up with a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life with Donna Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen.

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So I have to ask…what’s next?

Around the end of the year, we switch gears and start talking about the restoration of the original Wonder organ. We’ll do a demo as much as we can with its existing pipes on Dec. 18. Next year — when we’re successful, we’ve raised a lot of money, and the surround sound is in — we screen 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was the last film shown here in 1969. And, of course, there will be more. Stay tuned!