Fleischmanns Theater may be reborn as historic dinner theater

A Brooklyn couple who moved to the Catskills full-time in April has convinced the state of New York to nominate the derelict Fleischmanns Theater to the state and national registers of historic places.

It's the first step in Erik Johanson and Fernando Delgado's plan to re-open the property as The Maxbilt, a dinner theater featuring local food and independent film. 

"We're really interested in supporting what's already here," Johanson said. "We came upon it with fresh eyes as newcomers here, saw it as a gem, and want to bring it back to everybody."

On Friday, Sept. 19, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the theater is one of 22 properties across New York State that is being nominated for the historic designation. 

Left: Delgado and Johanson.

The theater's nomination to the State Register of Historic Places must be approved by the New York State historic preservation officer, who will then nominate the building to the National Register.

Official listing in historic registers would make the theater eligible for matching state grants and state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, which would in turn open the door to outside investment, Johanson says.

"This is the first phase," said Johanson. "We still don't have any funds for it yet."

Johanson, a hotel development consultant who became the new project manager at the Catskills Center for Conservation and Development this summer, and Delgado, who works for a legal tech company in San Francisco, left Brooklyn earlier this year to live full-time in the Catskills. 

"When we realized that it's not an impossible dream to buy a piece of property, and in fact it's actually less than what our rent would be in Brooklyn, we jumped at the opportunity," Johanson said.

When the couple noticed the vacant Art Deco facade of the Fleischmanns Theater, which became the property of the village of Fleischmanns in 2011 after a long foreclosure proceeding, they immediately began planning to somehow re-open it. 

The dream is to "bring things back to the original," Johanson said. That's the idea behind the name "The Maxbilt," which was tiled into a mosaic on the property when it was built. 

Above: The interior of the Maxbuilt. 

The Maxbilt Theater was built in 1929 on the site of the New Mountain Casino, which had recently burned down, according to Johanson. It was built by and named for Max Silberman, a Russian Jewish immigrant who later became a powerful Catskills real estate developer.

In September 1932, the Maxbilt featured entertainment every night of the week, according to a vintage poster.

The theater seats 600 and features elaborate frescoed murals on plaster in an easter egg color scheme that is now crumbling with age. Its facade also houses several Main Street retail spaces.

According to a press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo's office, the Maxbilt is a "distinctive and exceptionally intact example of a small regional theater."

Johanson and Delgado want to turn the building into a local dinner theater that spotlights locally-grown Catskills food and, ideally, artists and filmmakers. The retail spaces will become home to small businesses specializing in local foods. 

Johanson and Delgado spent the summer fundraising for the Maxbilt and exploring legal options for running it as a business. The village of Fleischmanns still owns the building for now, but down the line Johanson and Delgado may form a nonprofit corporation to purchase the building and private corporations to run the theater and other ancillary businesses.

They are in talks with Hudson River Ventures, an investment fund owned by congressional candidate Sean Eldridge, and with the Empire State Development Corporation, which may provide funding for renovation and possibly acquisition of the building. 

Correction: The original headline on this story implied that Johanson and Delgado's plan for the future of the Fleischmanns Theater was final. In fact, their plan is still in the early stages, is unfunded, and depends on whether they come to an agreement with the Village of Fleischmanns to buy the building.