Murray Hill Theater

by Tim Gilmore, 3/14/2014

There’s a certain feeling in a big house when the party’s over and the rooms are empty. I don’t mean loneliness. It’s a kind of peace in which the ghosts of everyone who’s gone home keep walking about in their own absence and laughing and sipping drinks.

There’s a similar feeling in a church after the congregation’s gone and the worshipping is over. When the singing and preaching is done and the building is empty, you’re alone with the place. You can feel all the ceremony imprinted on the walls.

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But my favorite eerie feeling of this triad is the ghostliness of a theater after a show. I love to imagine that every act of art and entertainment the theater has hosted has left some historical and cultural residue on the walls, the stage and the floor that slopes down toward it, the high ceilings. If you approach it just right, it will speak to you, almost imperceptibly, a faded watermark on old paper.

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Visual metaphor: when the light shines just right on the black walls behind the stage, you see the barest palimpsest of dancing skeletons underneath the paint. The skeletons have been dancing since the Murray Hill Theater was an Industrial Goth nightclub called The Dungeon for little more than a year in 1994.

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The building opened as a movie theater in 1949 and ended as a dollar-theater showing second-run movies like Home Alone 2 and returns of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

According to a Christian blog called Smorgasblurb, Tony Nasrallah, scion of a wealthy Jacksonville tobacconist and property development family, parked outside the theater in 1994 and was horrified by the abuse The Dungeon had wrought on the building.

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But Chris Chancey, author of the blog piece, says Nasrallah was even more disturbed by the thought of all those “young people wasting their life away in bondage to sin and death.”

Nasrallah, namesake of the Nasrallah Building and Whiteway Corner at Park and King Streets at the center of hip and historic Riverside’s restaurant and bar scene, had a beautiful wife, two children, a prosperous real estate business, and plenty of money, until a plane carrying his wife and children crashed in Denver in 1987, and his kids were among the 26 passengers who didn’t survive.

The death of his children made Nasrallah feel angry at God, but his need for psychological and spiritual healing eventually brought him back to Christianity.

Chancey’s blog says God had given Nasrallah money and wealth, which he understood he should use to purchase the Murray Hill Theater and devote the building to God as a cool space for Christian kids to hang out.

So for 20 years, the Murray Hill Theater operated as a “Christian rock” club, with a record store and café attached. People who didn’t fit that demographic—young Baptists insisting that they too were cool—passed the theater regularly and respected its age and history without feeling welcomed inside.

I’m certainly not a Christian, though I was raised in a strict Southern Baptist household, and though I recoil at the notion that God gives his followers money (and the concomitant inverse judgment of the rest of us), I respect Tony Nasrallah’s suffering, and I respect the psychological and spiritual conclusions to which his needs brought him.

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But I also stand tonight in the empty theater and try to feel every Christian rock and “Straight Edge” punk band who’s played here, and every discount movie shown here, and every 1950s movie that played here—surely Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the campy sci-fi B-movie filmed along North Florida’s St. Johns River, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I also stand in the beautiful desperate crowds of kids in 1994 who danced to bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy while masochistically coutured girls writhed behind fake prison bars.

What I want to do here tonight in this empty theater is soak up every human need to which this building has ministered and every way it’s done so. I can feel it in the air that hangs beneath the high ceiling. I can feel it in the black curtains against the old plaster walls.

John Allen Harrett works a “labor of love” for the non-profit Murray Hill Theater organization Tony Nasrallah runs. Harrett can do anything. He re-designed the café now called Fringe with strange old items—plaster skulls, hat racks, busts of the heads of presidents, strange lights, odd lamps, old car doors—working on the ancient idea that repurposing the lost is inevitably and mysteriously hip.

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The courtyard behind the café he calls the “graffiti garden,” which you enter through bead curtains above rain puddles, and past “No Entrance” signs.

Writer and musician Keri Foster hosts an open-mic night in the front room of the café. A young black man with dreadlocks who calls himself “Daniel, AKA Just Listen” recites heavy-handed rhymes with social justice themes, and a bearded young white man with glasses plugs in his guitar.

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Keri fills the café with her populist poetic vision, and John has filled the café—including the rolling kitchen on castors—with the forms upon which the vision takes place.

Keri and Corey, wife and husband, Keri with long hair and glasses, 6’5” Corey with beard and flat cap, greet everyone who comes in ready to share. They’re sweet and they’re smart, and they deserve to have the theater’s light-hearted gravitas coalesce around their welcome.

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I wander behind the stage with John. I’ve looked toward the stage from the descending floor. I stand above the giant half-cursive red-and-yellow letters that spell “Murray Hill.”

John, short and sharp and muscled and bearded, has pulled the letters down from the signage space above the roof to renovate them. Now they lay prostrate in the middle of the theater floor.

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After I walk through the storage room behind the stage and the “green room” where musicians wait before shows, John says, “You wanna go up to the roof?”

And I say, “Hell, yeah.”

We walk up the stairs past the men’s bathroom, through offices that were once the projection room, the so-called “crying room” attached to the women’s restroom, and out onto the roof behind the heavy plaster signage wall.

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We step through puddles from recent rain and walk across the top of the theater. There’s a door in the back of the signage wall. The door and the wall speak metaphor to me as poignantly as any cultural palimpsest in the theater beneath us. We walk through the door to the air above the streetlights and palm trees.

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We look down at the empty streets, the Tradewinds Tavern, furniture stores, the Murray Hill Branch Library, an erstwhile Alcoholics Anonymous storefront, and the oaks that make way for themselves amid the lovely old wood-frame and brick working-class houses that cluster together to make Murray Hill.