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Owners Fight to Save the Black Lady Theater

By Marlon Rice

The sordid legacy of the estate of Judge John Phillips took yet another interesting turn last month, as Marshals evicted the owners of The Black Lady Theater citing a referee’s deed held by a known slumlord.  

Chief Clarence Hardy and his son Omar contend that they have been unlawfully removed from the premise located at 750 Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights. Just days after the Black Lady Theater held the opening ceremony for Kwanzaa Crawl, Marshals came through and locked the doors. Omar states, “We are the rightful owners of the Black Lady Theater. We did not give up anything. We did not sell the property. We are not in agreeance with this.” 

To truly understand the context of this latest saga, you have to start at the very beginning. And, at the very beginning is Judge John Phillips.  

John Phillips was born in Ohio. He became a Civil Court Judge in Kings County, known at the time as the “Kung-Fu Judge” because he was a 10th degree Black Belt. In the 80’s Judge Phillips began buying a bunch of property in Brooklyn. Two of the properties that he purchased was the old Regal Theater on Fulton Street, which he named the Slave I Theater, and a property located on Nostrand Avenue that he purchased from the family of slain community businessman Arthur Miller Jr., which he called the Slave II Theater, later named the Black Lady Theater. Point of note, Arthur Miller jr was slain by Police Officers in June of 1978.  

Judge Phillips retired from the bench in 1994. He made an attempt to run against Charles Hynes for District Attorney, by failed to get on the ballot in 1997. What happened next is the start of the sordid story. There were revelations of people making real attempts to steal Judge Phillips’ properties. In 2001, a judge ruled that Mr. Phillips was mentally incapacitated and placed him under guardianship. Some still believe that Judge Phillips was ruled incompetent as a favor to Charles Hynes, so that Phillips wouldn’t be able to run against Hynes in 2001. This began a series of moves from nursing home to nursing home and a bunch of unsavory decisions made on his behalf regarding his property and finances. By the time he died in 2008, Judge Phillips had lost all but three properties and he owed millions in taxes.  

With him on the day he died was the Chief, Clarence Hardy. Clarence was a friend to Judge Phillips since the 90’s and also a partner in business. Hardy contends that Judge Phillips transferred both the Slave and the Black Lady Theater over to him in 1999. Son Omar states, “We acquired the Black Lady Theater in 1999. Judge Philips founded the Black Lady Theater in 1984. He was good friends with my father and they were business partners. Mr Philips was a major pillar in the community. He founded both the Slave Theater and the Black Lady Theater.” 

A so-called nephew of Judge Phillips, the Reverend Samuel Boykin, pledged that he was the rightful owner of the Slave Theater, and he sold it to a developer for somewhere around $2,000,000.00. This led to a wild and crazy investigation that ended with one lawyer, Frank Racano being sentenced for three years for stealing nearly $600,000 from Judge Philips, and another lawyer Emani Taylor being ordered to pay back to the estate more than $400,000. 

Still, the Chief and his son contend that they were indeed the owners of the Black Lady Theater throughout. When they started renovations on the space in 2016, Mr. Hardy had no issue pulling permits for the work or being listed as the building’s owner, although the building deed itself was listed under John Phillips. Omar explains the inaccuracy, “Boykin and his unethical attorneys, one in particular Frank Racano who is locked up, they took the property out of our corp illegally and put it in a dead man’s name, John Phillips. He’s been dead since 2008 and they tried to make it appear like he bought and sold the property in 2011.” 

The tax lien on the property was filed in 2013, but Omar contends that they knew nothing about it. He says, “We found out about it in 2017. Once we found out about it, I started answering them.” 

And this is where another name is introduced. Mendel Gold. Mr. Gold is probably best known for his actions at 80 New York Avenue where the tenants where so dissatisfied with him that they used their windows to send a message to the community. That message? SLUMLORD. DON’T RENT HERE. Allegedly it is Mr. Gold that is behind the purchase of the tax lien and the eventual referee’s deed of The Black Lady Theater. A referee’s deed is a legal document that gives ownership of the foreclosed property to the person who bids the highest amount of money in a foreclosure auction. Omar says that he actually got a chance to question Mr. Gold on the stand during the hearing on the property. It was Mr. Gold’s contention that he never knew who the owners of the property were, nor was he aware of any conflict with the property. Omar says, “Mr. Gold lied on the stand. He said that he didn’t know us, he never seen us and didn’t know about any ownership dispute. I asked him, Mr. Gold did you state on the stand that you didn’t know myself or my father, and he said he didn’t remember. But we presented a picture to prove that Mr. Gold had met with my father and I.” 

The Hardys say that there was never a proper ruling on the hearing and that they received a notice to evict before receiving an actual ruling on their case, a case that they were told was dismissed and “rendered moot”. Still, the doors of The Black Lady Theater were locked on December 30, and they haven’t been able to access the building since.  

The Hardys need legal help to sort through all of this, and they are asking the community to help in any way that they can. Until then, giving up on the legacy of John Phillips and the impact of a space like The Black Lady Theater is not even an option. Omar says, we never quit a fight, nor die a loser!”

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