Slave Theater could be sold to pay judge’s ‘debts’

Judge John Phillips in front of the Slave Theater.
The Brooklyn Paper / Robin Lester

The Slave Theater — a half-century-old Bedford-Stuyvesant institution where generations of kids saw their first movies and Al Sharpton held rallies — may soon be put up for sale, thanks to the county’s epic mismanagement of former Civil Court Judge John Phillips’s dwindling estate.

Phillips — placed in the care of court-appointed guardians in 2001, ostensibly to protect his considerable assets — now owes more than $1 million in taxes to the Internal Revenue Service, according to Phillips’s latest guardian, John Cahill. Cahill now intends to sell as many of Phillips’s three remaining properties to repay the government. He said a sale of the Slave Theater would be a last recourse.

Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbors say the loss of the Slave Theater — which the local Community Board recommended be landmarked in June — would be a tragedy.

“It’s one of the neighborhood’s institutions,” said Councilman Al Vann (D–Bedford-Stuyvesant), who, as a boy, watched black-and-white films there.

Hardy Joe Long, owner of Birdel’s Records and president of the Fulton–Nostrand United Merchants Association, agreed.

“It should have landmarked status, because of the mere longevity it’s been in the community,” said Long, who has frequented the theater, on Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue, since he began watching films there in the 1960s and ’70s.

Phillips bought the property, then called the Regal Theater, in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it became home to black pride rallies led by Alton Maddox and Sharpton.

“It was a stronghold where we could come together and voice our opinions,” said Dee Woodburn, a Phillips supporter. “It’s very significant to the black community.”

Since 1998, it has been shuttered. Phillips reportedly had stopped paying taxes on the property even before he was declared incompetent and his estate turned over to court-appointed guardians. Those guardians let the theater fall into further disrepair and some pillaged the rest of Phillips’s estate.

This whole sad saga might never have been written had the office of District Attorney Charles Hynes not initiated competency hearings in 2001. Critics say Hynes was simply trying to block Phillips, who had threatened to run against him. Hynes has consistently denied such allegations.

But in recent years, Phillips’s supporters have increasingly focused their ire on Pesce, who, among other alleged misdeeds, appointed Cahill’s predecessor, Emani Taylor, to oversee Phillips’s affairs. Hynes is now investigating charges that Taylor absconded with $187,000 from Phillips’s bank accounts.

Now, the Slave may have entered its final chapter.

In August, Cahill told Administrative Judge Michael Pesce that prior guardians had failed to file tax returns for Phillips. Meanwhile, Phillips’s once sizeable estate — at the time of his competency hearing, he owned at least 10 properties in Bedford-Stuyvesant — has dwindled to just three.

In a June 20, 2007 sealed court document, another court-appointed lawyer, Seth Coen, confirmed Cahill’s findings.

“No tax returns were filed [during] the Interim Guardian’s tenure,” wrote Coen. “This will undoubtedly result in interest and penalties being assessed to the detriment of [Phillips’s] estate.”

The IRS said it could not comment on the issue. Pesce did not respond to a request for comment. But Phillips was irate.

“For years now, a lot of people have been trying to steal things from me and lying to me,” said Phillips, 84, who now lives in a Park Slope retirement home.

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