Peter Lisi is a man on the move. A man headed in many directions and basically accomplishing everything he touches. This afternoon I’m in the renowned Paramount Theater interviewing Mr. Peter Lisi, one of the people reviving this iconic theatre located, in Staten Island, New York. He’s also a member of a number of Civic Association, community groups, several businesses, and now, he’s about to dabble his hands into opening a restaurant, with several other partners, in Staten Island, New York.
SKII: What is this item call Peter?
Peter: It’s a dismantled 1920’s orchestra lift. In its day it housed two Wurlitzer organs, of which we found some documents stating that two blonde twin sisters played on each organ simultaneously. One on each side. And, in the middle of them, there was a twenty piece orchestra which was lifted up and down during shows and performances. The main purpose of the two organs and an orchestra pit was to entertain the crowd while they were changing the scenes on the stage. The curtains would close and then the orchestra would lift and entertain the crowd until the show was ready to resume. When they were ready to resume, the orchestra would be lowered again, the curtains would open, and the show would go on. You can see something like this at Radio City Music Hall. But, this place here, actually had a mechanical orchestra lift, in the 1920’s.
SKII: What is this item, it looks sort of like a shrine?
Peter: Yes, you are absolutely right. We had a couple of people who came in here to help us out during Hurricane Sandy. This place was flooded real bad and we lost utilities. We had some people come here from Taiwan, who were very religious. When they first arrived here, they’d told us that there was a spirit, or “element” that they felt in here. I myself do not believe in things like that, but they were so insisting, that something was in here. They’d said, it wasn’t a bad element, but they wanted to bless the place. So, what they did was create a Buddha shrine, and blessed the building. After that, they felt more comfortable. When they left the building, they left their shrine for good luck and prosperity. It made them feel a little safer, because when they first came in, they were a little bit overwhelmed with the presence they were feeling. To this day, I don’t like to come in here alone. Not that I’m scared, or anything. It’s just that, it’s very intimidating and a little haunting. Do you hear the reverb? It’s because it’s made for music. This place was built for music. When this place is sealed, you can’t hear anything. It’s scary in here. If you’re walking and you have dress shoes on, you can hear the sound of the shoe heel coming from the other side of the building. It’s very scary and I avoid being in here by myself.
SKII: You said, many people have rented this place recently. Give me a few names and any past history you know about this theater.
Peter: A music video featuring Fat Man Scoop was here. Some of their scenery is still here. They actually left it here. There were horror scenes from movies that people have filmed as well as local artists music videos. The rock band Metallica performed here, in the 1980’s along with the B52, Venom, the Goo Goo Dolls and many other performers played in this Theater. The last time this place was operable was in the early 1990’s. It was opened up as a disco night club and owned by an Olympic medalist. In 1977, it was a XXX movie theatre. However, the community picketed and shut it down after a few months of operation. In the early 1900’s, this was Cornelius Vanderbilt Childhood Home. One of the wealthiest self-made land owners in New York who started with a ferry service his mom gave him a $100 loan to start. In 1920 they started construction to create the now present Paramount Theatre. It took them ten years to construct it. This was one of the biggest renovations of that time! On October 31, 1930, this place had its grand opening on Halloween. The high society socialites of Staten Island came in here dressed in suits, ties, and gowns. They enjoyed this Opera Viewing House. Not only did you watch the show on stage but you were entertained by two Wurlitzer organs, and a 20 piece orchestra. Throughout the theater’s ceiling and walls, patrons viewed all of the Art Deco artwork. Not only were you entertained by the attractions, you were also entertained by the design and Art Deco moldings. Before the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933, the theater was a “Speak Easy”. They weren’t allowed to sell liquor but they did it anyway, even though it was illegal. You’d knock on the door and say a secret password, then they would allow you to come in. In the 1950’s, it turned into a single screen movie theatre before the multiplexes arrived and put them out of business. It was owned by Publix Theatres Corporation which was a national movie theatre company back in the day. After that, Paramount Theatres owned this building. Then the era of single screen theaters came to an end because multiplexes were showing dozens of movies to thousands of people, while this theatre was showing one movie to three thousand people. In the 1920’s, there were eighteen theaters in Staten Island. Today most of those buildings are still around today. Some turned into churches, some house business and some are boarded up and vacant. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s the owners tried numerous times to rent the theater out as a concert hall and a rock club. Many ventures didn’t last long, but in the 1980’s when the Paramount entertained Staten Island’s rock community, they successfully brought lots of big names to Staten Island, but the owners had tax issues and authority’s came down on them and shut the place down. Ever since then, it’s been vacant. This theater has got a lot of history, some we know about and some we will never find out.
SKII: Where were you born and raised?
Peter: I was born and raised on Staten Island in Westerleigh, and my parents are still living in the house I was born in. I grew up in Port Richmond. My family started with property and businesses in Port Richmond. One of them was Venetian Gardens, a popular restaurant on Port Richmond Avenue.
SKII: What are your plans for this beautiful Theater going to be?
Peter: Well, the original purpose of this property was to develop it into a tall building on top of theater. We even thought of making a supermarket but that didn’t pan out and the economy changed. Then we decided to turn some of the building into producing income: store fronts, office spaces, and multiple usages. Now we plan to open the largest catering hall on Staten Island entertaining Staten Islander’s once again. We are now in the process of restoring as much as we can of the original 1920’s Art Deco artwork. The theater will remain forever and the artwork of this building is priceless.
SKII: You mentioned that you’re opening first with Phase 1, tell me what that means?
Peter: Phase 1 would be completed soon into a catering hall and restaurant entertainment facility with one of the longest eating and drinking bars in America. It will hold a few hundred people, the largest sushi bar, private sections and a full service kitchen. Phases after that will add additional space for more people. Eventually this place will be the happening place to be like it once was in the 1930’s. It will take a lot of time, money and resources to complete but the people involved with this project are making it happen. We’re almost finished with Phase 1! SKII: You are involved with a parade float, in Staten Island. Can you tell me something about your involvement? Peter: The float is called, Paramount Theatre Presents the Paramount Players. We participate in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, Memorial Day Parade, and the Fourth of July parade in Travis, which is one of the oldest parades in the country. The Saint Patrick’s and Memorial Day parades march down Forest Avenue entertaining parade patrons of all ages. A different live band performs on a parade float while driving down Forest Avenue. The bands every year do a great job giving people a performance they will never forget and a preview of what to expect in the Paramount Theatre. The Travis Parade is always held on July 4th and marches up Victory Blvd and it is a pleasure joining all three parades every year.
SKII: I know you’re a member of the Van Duzer Street Civic Association. Tell us about that organization?
Peter: Yes, I am a member of the Van Duzer Street Civic Association. That’s one of the civics I do love and enjoy being a part of. One of the main reasons I joined is the dedicated volunteer members of the community that make a difference for many others. Many organization say they look out for the community but in fact are created to benefit their own needs. Community groups must remain for the community and that is what the Van Duzer Street Civic Association stands for and the members protect. I have seen them move mountains, solve problems and are a great bunch of people. I call everyone normal “Joes”, like we are. They are not billionaires controlling the city. They are citizens, residents, and ordinary people that own small mom and pop shops, people who own entertainment businesses, landlords, and even you and your husband, Mike Calise are fellow members. We are all 100% for the community. They accomplish a lot! They turned two pieces of land that were notoriously known for littering, loitering, and criminal activities, into a park! Who does that? I’ll tell you who, the Van Duzer Association did that! Yes, they turned that land into a city park. Not many civic organizations stick around to do things like that. It’s The Bedford Green Park on Targee Street alongside a community garden there, too. I think that’s a great accomplishment for a civic association to take charge of two pieces of land that basically had been abandoned and brought disgrace to the community, and resurrected life back into it. The community walk their dogs there. They have picnics in there. It’s a thriving city park and it’s great! They even added a sidewalk which was never there before. They got the city to do that. I saw them close some bars/clubs that were not right for the community. I saw them stand behind the residents that couldn’t sleep nights because bars were keeping them up all night. Don’t get me wrong, I was probably a patron of some of those bars (Peter and I laughed) but if the community does not approve, either do I.
SKII: Are you married with children?
Peter: Guess everyone has that special someone, but no I’m not married yet. One day, far in the future, I would love to. Children to raise and live on a legacy that one creates is the main objective of the American Dream. Don’t you agree?
SKII: Yes, I agree. Peter your all over the place. What motivates you to get involved in the community?
Peter: When I first came out here, I wasn’t really involved in the community. To be honest, I was on my own path. I would only worry about the project I was working on and not much about anything else. I really didn’t think twice about certain concerns. But, what I’ve learned was you can’t build an empire without caring for your surroundings. And, you can’t build something successful in an area that’s unsuccessful. You have to bring up, not only the institute you are trying to develop, but you have to develop your entire surrounding area, to be successful. A lot of people don’t understand that. A lot of people think that they are just going to spend lots of money and build something that will last forever. It doesn’t work that way. That’s what brought me into community involvement. It motivated me to help out the community. You can’t just help out yourself. There’s a lot of people around here that do the right thing and truly care about their community, just like I do.
SKII: What schools have you attended?
Peter: Grammar school, I went to St. John’s on Staten Island. I have to dedicate my entrepreneurship to one of my teachers, who actually encouraged us to open up our own business as a class. Her name was Mrs. Walsh and she made homemade brownies everyone loved. Whenever the class did something great, she would reward us with her famous brownies. When we heard that the chocolate brownies were coming in, the class would go crazy! It was not only a reward for the class, but it lifted up everyone’s spirits. We started a business selling pencils, pens, paper, candy, baseball cards, rulers, etc. and sold school supplies to the fellow student body of the school. We sold anything we could possibly sell and made enough money to take us on a ski trip. I remember it like it was yesterday. I definitely owe my entrepreneurship to Mrs. Walsh. I graduated from Susan Wagner High School, then went to college in Manhattan.
SKII: Word on the street is your playing a game of monopoly that stretches from St George to Rosebank, tell us a little about that?
Peter: Business partners and I have many different interest throughout Staten Island, especially now from St. George to Rosebank. An interest could be a partnership with a building, guidance from me for complicated projects or orchestrating ventures and putting things together. We have already revitalize a number of properties from St. George to Rosebank. We’ve turned the majority of buildings that have been vacant for decades into income producing properties. Before I started taking over these buildings, I can honestly say there were 60% vacant buildings on Bay Street. Now there’s less than 10% vacant buildings on Bay Street. The amount of improvement we have made to the Bay Street corridor, revitalizing storefronts and buildings have increased over the past decade. You can say we have a lot of involvement in making this happen. It’s potentially very profitable and I enjoy what I do.
SKII: What’s your aspirations?
Peter: My greatest aspiration that I would like to accomplish is to complete the Paramount Theatre project, and give Staten Island one of the greatest things it has ever seen. I hope people watching me will motivate themselves to do something similar. I’m one for saying anything is possible and if you can dream it and think it, you can do it. Like you say, the SKII’s the limit!
SKII: If you were to travel back in time, what would you tell yourself?
Peter: I would tell myself the lotto numbers. (Laughing) All jokes aside, I would say life is what you make it. Not everything happens overnight. Sometimes you have to give before you can get.
SKII: Peter is definitely a busy man with many different developing projects running simultaneously, and he is still building. Building to keep the community alive, thriving and clean. Free from crime and oppression. He continues to take vacant properties and turned them into income producing properties. Who does that? Peter does. Watch out, people of Staten Island. Peter could be coming to a neighborhood near you next, to help revitalize it.