By KATIE MEYER
From the street, 602 187th St. does not look like anything special. In fact, tucked away between Full Moon Pizza and Peachwave frozen yogurt, it is virtually invisible to the unassuming passersby, who do not give its dingy glass door and gloomy entryway a second glance.
But, beyond that dark entrance, up a flight of rickety stairs and down a narrow hallway, there is something that merits much more than a glance. Rex Ballroom is a wide, open room painted in light green and cream, with a wooden floor, delicate moldings in the ceiling, chandeliers and a small stage at the far end.
It is a large space, much larger than one might expect to find wedged between restaurants in the Bronx. Though it is now showing signs of age with its worn floor and stained walls, it still gives off an air of former grandeur and history.
In fact, Rex Hall has about a hundred years of history behind it, according to Frank Franz, chairman of the Belmont Business Improvement District (BID), which is currently renting the space.
Franz is a lifelong Bronx resident, and has lived in the same 191st St. apartment for all of his 60 years. A devoted supporter of his neighborhood, and of the Bronx at large, Franz is a veritable fountain of history and trivia about his neighborhood.
“Originally they had theater and concerts here,” Franz said.
“That was when there was an extremely poor, right off the boat Italian immigrant population…it was one of the few places in the neighborhood where they had performances. I know they had opera here, and from what I understand Caruso [Enrico Caruso, an Italian opera legend from the early 1900s] actually sang here.”
The ballroom was not just used for performances, however. For a time, it was a popular party venue.
“At least in…the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, it was a catering hall,” Franz said. “There were never cooking facilities here, but essentially poor families [in the area] would rent the hall here for big functions like weddings, and what they would actually do was cook at home and bring all the food here. They just wanted a place big enough to hold the whole family and have the music here.”
Many longtime residents of the neighborhood still remember Rex Hall’s days as a popular catering hall.
“There are droves of people in this community whose parents got married, or they themselves got married, at Rex Hall who are still alive and walking around,” Franz said.
After its heyday in the mid-1900s, however, Rex Hall fell on some hard times.
“It sat around empty for years,” Franz said. “It became something that people generally forgot about. Nobody was really taking charge of it.”
In those days, an old, wealthy Italian family owned the building. Most of its members have now left the area, and those who remain have sold off most of their property. This includes the building that Rex Hall is in, which Franz says was sold about five years ago to a group in Queens.
Three years ago, the Belmont Society of Arts and Culture (of which Franz is a board member) saw Rex Hall’s potential for enriching the neighborhood, and leased the space from its owners in Queens. BID, which needed office space at the time, began subletting the small office area off the side of the ballroom, and the two related organizations began exploring options for bringing business back to the ballroom.
“There is no doubt in my mind, and a lot of people’s minds, that this could be a real success,” Franz said. He has a vision of Rex Hall as a home in the Bronx for experimental art, avant-garde productions and exhibits that will bring quality entertainment to the area and, hopefully, more business along with it.
“But,” he added, “I’m not an arts person. I’m a business person, I’m a neighborhood person. I saw the potential here for the community so I rented it.”
Since renting the space, though, Franz and his associates have had trouble bringing in sustainable business.
While they remain optimistic about making the hall into something special again, time has run out.
The rent on the lease that was originally taken out, Franz explained, is likely to go up in a few months.
If they do not find success soon, his organizations will not be able to pay it anymore.
Luckily, he has found another potential source of business: Fordham students.
“Just talking to some students I know, this idea came up,” Franz said. “The fashion club [Flash Magazine] asked me if they could have an event here, and I said sure…and everyone had such a good time.”
Alex DeSimine, FCRH ’15, met Franz at the Flash event, and started talking to him about the ballroom.
“We got to talking about how beautiful the space was and how perfect it would be for a sort of nucleus for a quickly growing but highly segmented arts community here at Fordham,” DeSimine said.
He quickly became one of the unofficial leaders of the movement to bring arts to Rex Hall because, as he said, “We don’t have a whole lot of time to preserve this incredible venue, so someone had to step up quickly.”
Ava Gagliardi, FCRH ’15, also met Franz through Flash and became interested in Rex Hall’s future. She envisions the ballroom as a place where student groups will have more freedom to put on events.
“Using the ballroom as an arts space could provide a unifying space for the collective art community at Fordham,” she said. “[It] is a great alternative space to having an event on-campus that must be sponsored by the administration.”
Franz, Gagliardi and DeSimine all feel that this endeavor is a valuable chance to unite Fordham students with the greater Bronx community.
“The goal is to facilitate the arts and bring the many different groups of creative people in the Fordham community together,” DeSimine said. “This venue is more than just a beautiful space, but an opportunity to create a thriving scene in the Belmont area of creativity and expression.”
So far, the group has already held one fundraising event in Rex Hall and a Welcome Back Show with several Fordham bands, which brought in over 200 patrons and $1000.
There is much more in store for the future, including getting the necessary permits for larger gatherings and accumulating enough funds to keep the ballroom running until June, when the rent contract will be renegotiated.
Despite all the challenges ahead, those involved with Rex Hall see great things in its future.
“The extent of my vision for this space is simple: full,” DeSimion said. “I imagine this place in use non-stop, with different performers and installations coming in and out constantly, eventually from more than just the Fordham pool. This venue has the potential, between its size, beauty and acoustics, to compete with established venues downtown — people just need to know about it!”
Video by Leighton Schneider.