From Goth to God: The Many Lives of the Murray Hill Theatre

photo by Mary Maraghy

After we walked behind the stage and through the “green room” where musicians wait before shows, John Allen Harrett asked me, “You wanna go up to the roof?” 

We walked up stairs through offices that were once the projection room, past the so-called “crying room,” and out onto the roof behind the heavy plaster “Murray Hill Theatre” sign with its brightly lit yellow cursive letters looking out at Edgewood Avenue.

We stepped through puddles from recent rain and walked across the top of the theatre. We walked through a door in the signage wall above the marquee and glanced down at the streetlights and palm trees, at the bars, furniture stores and music shops and the lovely old wood-frame and brick houses that cluster together to make Murray Hill. That was three years ago.

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Harrett worked a “labor of love” for the non-profit Murray Hill Ministries run by Tony Nasrallah, scion of a wealthy Jacksonville tobacconist and property development family, whose properties include “Whiteway Corner,” sometimes known as the Nasrallah Building, at Park and King streets in next-door Riverside.

photo by Bob Self

Harrett had re-designed the café in the theatre, then called Fringe. Today, that space is home to Vagabond Coffee Company, which got its start selling coffee from a vintage Scotty camper at Hemming Park.

The Murray Hill Theatre opened as a movie theatre in 1949. It once showed movies like Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It ended its screening days as a dollar-theatre showing second-runs like Home Alone 2 and re-runs of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

In 1994, the Dungeon, an industrial goth dance club closed its doors as a tenant. Even now, when the light shines right on the black walls behind the stage, you can see the barest palimpsest of dancing skeletons underneath the paint. They’ve been there since crowds danced to bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy, while girls writhed behind fake prison bars just offstage.

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Almost 25 years ago, Tony Nasrallah parked outside the theatre just after the Dungeon ended their lease. Nasrallah had a vision for the Murray Hill Theatre. For seven years, he’d dealt with sorrow and devastation. His life had been good. He’d had a beautiful wife, two children, and a prosperous real estate business. Then a plane carrying his wife and children crashed in Denver in 1987, and his children were among the 26 passengers who didn’t survive.

photo by Bruce Lipsky

The death of his children made Nasrallah feel angry toward God, but his need for psychological and spiritual healing eventually brought him back to his faith. Parked outside the Murray Hill Theatre, Nasrallah decided that God had given him enough wealth to purchase the Murray Hill Theatre and make it a space for kids to hang out and listen to Christian music.

Since then, the theatre has hosted Christian rock bands like Stryper, a Christian record store, an “alternative” prom and currently serves as a meeting-space for Highway to Heaven, a church organized by bikers for bikers.

All the while, those skeletons still dance backstage.

To find out more about the Murray Hill Theatre, go to their website

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