Different here. The local theater in Sheepshead recently doubled its capacity and built a parking garage.
April 6, 2003
Fade to Black
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
To some, the Olympia movie theater was a dark, smelly cavern with sticky gum spots on the floor and soda spills on the seats, a place where one's powers of concentration were tested by the propensity of the audience to chatter away just at the final clinch.
To others, the flaws of the 90-year-old theater on Broadway near West 107th Street were part of its charm and almost indistinguishable from its virtues. Its days, though, were numbered; an investor bought the property in December and promptly shut down the theater. Never a blue-chip house, the Olympia has gone through many incarnations over the years, making its death throes as corny as the last moments of a B-movie hero caught in an endless fusillade of bullets.
In the past few months, three of the city's sturdiest survivors - the Olympia, the Metro at West 99th Street and the Nova at West 147th Street - have shut their doors, a development that left a 10-mile swath of Broadway from 84th Street to Yonkers without a first-run movie theater for the first time in decades. While on March 28, as abruptly as it had closed, the Metro reopened, its landlord said the reprieve might be only temporary.
Once, the city was dotted with neighborhood movie theaters - many of them celluloid-age reincarnations of old vaudeville theaters - that were as much a neighborhood fixture as the coffee shop and the playground. But over the years their numbers have sharply dwindled, killed off not so much by those usual suspects - home video, a universe of hundreds of cable channels and video on demand - as by a quintessentially New York force, developers and landlords eager to exploit galloping real estate values.
As a result, the chances of seeing movies among like-minded neighbors are increasingly slim. The nabes, as they were affectionately called by generations of New Yorkers, the place where parents could escape the kids, teenagers could find love in the dark, and the elderly could enjoy a cheap night out close to home - these are becoming part of the city's past.
Though beloved, the neighborhood movie theater had usually seen better days.
"The smell is generations of bodies and spilled popcorn,'' said Melvin Jules Bukiet, an Upper West Side novelist and professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence College, who was a devotee of the Olympia. "That actually enhances the visceral nature of the experience.''
Mr. Bukiet began frequenting the Olympia two decades ago as a Columbia graduate student. Until the theater's sudden death, his daughter, Louisa, a junior at Stuyvesant High School, carried on the tradition by seeing cheap movies - any cheap movies - every Friday with her friends.
Mr. Bukiet's favorite visceral moviegoing moment at the Olympia occurred while watching the male-nude denouement of the 1997 film "The Full Monty" in the company of his Upper West Side neighbors.
"Finally it happens, and the hundreds of women in the movie watching these sort of dowdy, dumpy men take off their clothes break into screaming applause,'' he recalled. "The people in the theater, including myself, were also screaming and clapping, and our clapping was mixing with the clapping on the screen, and you couldn't tell the difference. It was magical."
Broadway Goes Dark
The closing of the Olympia stunned many neighborhood residents who expected the theater to stumble along forever, although more observant residents pointed out that the adjoining storefront, while on a bustling commercial strip, had been kept oddly vacant, raising suspicions that it was being warehoused for eventual sale.
The Metro went dark just over a month later, on Jan. 26. With its distinctive mauve and black Art Deco façade adorned with figures depicting comedy and tragedy, the theater was built during the Depression years of 1932-33, the end of a 40-year boom in theater building. The year after its completion, there were 18 movie theaters along Broadway between 59th and 110th Streets.
The Metro is now in a dispute between Clearview Cinemas, which holds a long-term lease, and Albert Bialek, the owner of the building. Cablevision, Clearview's parent company, has been selling off its movie theaters, a group of properties that also includes the Olympia, to reduce debt. Mr. Bialek said last week that he had been trying to buy back the lease, although he was not sure what he would do with it.
"We have thoughts for redevelopment, and they're not firm,'' he said. "It might remain a theater. The situation is fluid."
The developments surrounding the Metro and the Olympia caused a flurry of dismay on the activist Upper West Side. Less noticed, perhaps because it happened in Harlem, was the closing in September of the Nova, a first-run movie theater that had been operated for nearly a quarter of a century by Ramon Nova, a former cabdriver, and his son. The Nova began life in 1913 as the Bunny Theater, named, legend has it, after John Bunny, a 300-pound Brooklyn-born vaudevillian and silent screen comic, who is still memorialized in a pair of bas relief bunny heads on the façade.
Greenwich Village, like the Upper West Side one of the city's cultural capitals, has also seen its share of neighborhood theaters die, though it remains a haven for art and revival movies. A notable loss was the cozy Art Greenwich at Greenwich Avenue and West 12th Street, which closed in February 2001, despite neighborhood protests, to make way for a modern brick and glass building housing an Equinox Fitness Club.
Inevitably, some former protesters patronize the gym. As Arthur W. Strickler, district manager of Community Board 2, put it: "The world changes. People have to adjust.''
The shuttering of a movie house leaves an ugly gash in the streetscape. Walking under the vacant marquee of the Olympia, one can hear passers-by pause in mid-conversation to wonder how a movie theater could fail in a thriving, intellectually stimulating place like the Upper West Side. The shock seems to remind them how essential a movie theater is to a neighborhood's texture and sense of identity.
All About Romance
Running a neighborhood movie house is all about business, and it is all about romance and soppy sentimentality. Operators of these theaters often claim a deep attachment to the movies, and display an encyclopedic knowledge of movie lore.
"Everybody wants to be in either the restaurant or the movie business," said Bernard E. Goldberg, a professional theater operator who once owned the Olympia and currently runs the Atrium, a nineplex in Eltingville on Staten Island.
Dan Talbot, who over the years has run several theaters on the Upper West Side, began his career as a film critic for The Progressive magazine. "I was broke, I had two kids, I started as a manager and then eventually bought the lease," he said of the New Yorker, which he took over in 1962 and turned into a repertory house.
The theater, on Broadway near 89th Street, was called the Yorktown; Mr. Talbot changed the name to the New Yorker in part so he could preserve one syllable of the old name and save money on neon tubing. It was a family operation: his mother ran the candy counter; his wife worked as a matron, and his father-in-law was the janitor.
Although the New Yorker was not strictly a neighborhood theater in that it specialized in foreign films and revivals, it held a cherished place in the hearts of two generations of New Yorkers. In "Annie Hall," Woody Allen dragged Diane Keaton there to see "The Sorrow and the Pity."
Like many successful theater operators of the day, Mr. Talbot programmed by instinct. "I prided myself on not repeating a program, no matter how successful it was, because I always wanted to get some fresh stuff in there," he said. The night he booked "Triumph of the Will,'' Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 film about Hitler, the lines were so long, he had to keep showing it till 3 a.m. to accommodate all the people.
In the early 70's, Mr. Talbot sold the New Yorker to the Walter Reade Organization; a high-rise apartment building now stands on the site. A decade later, he acquired the lease to the Metro, a onetime porn theater known as the Midtown.
"It was a filthy mess," he said. "A lot of whisky bottles, torn seats, totally rundown. But I got some lights and got my architect in there, and it turns out this theater was an architectural gem." The Metro, too, became a repertory theater, showing old movies, until Mr. Talbot sold it in the mid-90's. He now runs the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and a film distribution company, New Yorker Films.
The Nova also began as a family business when Ramon Nova, who has since died, gave up his cab to buy the lease 23 years ago. "My dad didn't want to drive anymore," said his son Jesus. "He wanted to open a neighborhood business."
The new owners were so naïve, they booked movies by looking up names of distributors in the Yellow Pages. "We were enough away from the other theaters that they didn't really cause much competition,'' Mr. Nova said. "When a commercial action film came out, we all played it together."
But when the landlord, Stanley Vickers, decided to raise the monthly rent from $8,000 to $14,000, Mr. Nova concluded that he could not afford to run the theater any longer; the landlord subsequently signed a lease with a 99-cent store, which will pay $18,000.
Still, Mr. Nova is aiming to buck the trend. With partners, he hopes to lease and renovate the Coliseum, a shuttered four-screen theater at 181st Street and Broadway, which closed last June.
The Gentrification Paradox
Paradoxically, movie houses, like dry cleaners and shoe-repair shops, tend to meet their demise as the neighborhood around them becomes more fashionable and affluent. Local movie theaters have never been very profitable, and rising real estate values make them less so.
Just as small coffee shops and independent bookstores have been supplanted by Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, with their bigger selection, slicker service and ability to pay higher rents, so, too, local movie houses have been supplanted by multiplexes where audiences willingly pay more money to have a wider choice of films and to see them in a cleaner, more tranquil setting.
You could buy a ticket to see a first-run movie at a matinee at the Metro for $7.50, while tickets at the 13-screen Loews Cineplex Lincoln Square on Broadway and 68th Street cost $12 apiece. Candy, soda and popcorn are also cheaper at local theaters.
For landlords, movie theaters represent a highly inefficient use of space. Owners complain about the section of the city building code that requires theaters to reserve a certain amount of lobby standing room for every seat in the theater. But a bigger problem is empty seats. Here, megaplexes have an economic advantage because they are not betting the house on one movie that could turn out to be a dud. They can run higher-grossing films in bigger rooms and less popular films in smaller spaces.
At the same time, the real estate occupied by the theaters has become increasingly attractive to developers. Mr. Talbot said he seethes every time he passes chains like Victoria's Secret that are paying top dollar for space along a stretch of Broadway where nearly a score of theaters once stood.
These dynamics determined the recent history of the Olympia. Mr. Goldberg, who owned the theater from the mid-70's to the mid-80's, transformed it from a low-priced art house into a fourplex. "But it was a funky theater,'' he said, "and we never really had the money, the wherewithal, to make it into what it should have been."
He sold the place during the real estate boom of the mid-80's, and the buyer immediately flipped it for an even higher price. Property values continued to escalate, and this year, Broadway Holdings, a real estate company, bought it for $16.6 million from Cablevision. Broadway Holdings would not reveal its plans for the former Olympia, but local brokers said it was likely to become an apartment building of at least 10 stories.
Survivors Find a Formula
Given the harsh economic underpinnings of the movie theater business, it is hardly surprising that most surviving neighborhood movie theaters are outside Manhattan, where real estate prices have not yet gone through the roof. Their owners are the Greek diner operators of the theater business, the men and women who have figured out a way to survive despite competition from McDonald's - or the local multiplex.
Among the city's successful independent operators are Joe and Manny Diaz, who run three theaters in Queens, including the Plaza in Corona, which shows English-language movies with Spanish subtitles. The group also includes Norman Adie, who runs the Pavilion in Park Slope, the Brooklyn Heights Pavilion and the Flatbush Pavilion, and Harvey Elgart, a mild-mannered former projectionist.
"I grew up in Brooklyn, in Sheepshead Bay," said Mr. Elgart, who is 52. "I went to an old Century theater when I was a kid. I used to sneak into the balcony."He got a job as a projectionist in 1972 and in 1977 took over the Surfside in Rockaway Beach, Queens, which he ran for 19 years. He bought the Cobble Hill in 1981, when it was a vacant single-screen theater.
The neighborhood, once heavily working-class Hispanic and Italian, was becoming home to more affluent professionals who were buying and renovating brownstones. Mr. Elgart saw the change coming and got in before prices appreciated so much that he would be priced out of a deal.
Four years ago, he spotted another opportunity in Kew Gardens, Queens, an upscale area of Tudor homes and high-rise apartment houses. He bought the shuttered Austin on Lefferts Boulevard near Queens Boulevard, banking on its central location to make it profitable. Renamed the Kew Gardens Cinemas, it shows mainly independent and foreign films, like "The Quiet American" and "Talk to Her."
Still another neighborhood theater has been brought back to life, at least for a while, through an accident of timing. When the Museum of Modern Art moved temporarily to Long Island City, Queens, to accommodate the renovation of its home on East 53rd Street, the museum's acclaimed film program took up residence at the Gramercy Theater on East 23rd Street. The single-screen movie house, which dates back to the 30's, had most recently been used by the Roundabout Theater Company.
One attraction was the capacious, raked interior, with good sightlines, which recalls the traditional neighborhood theater.
"You feel like you're in a cathedral, not a shoebox," said Laurence Kardish, senior curator of the MOMA film and media department and a longtime New York moviegoer. But Mr. Kardish knows that the days of such places are numbered. "The neighborhood movie house, sadly, is a thing of the past," he said. "I think the economics will finally swallow up those very few that still exist."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Different here. The local theater in Sheepshead recently doubled its capacity and built a parking garage.
*I'm sorry to read about the demise of the theaters I went to when I lived in NYC. I also worked at the Olympia for a year in the early eighties.
*One day I brought my cameras with me to work and shot pictures of Broadway through the box office window. I got some very good images out of that and it has spawned a new series that has me visiting theaters around the country to take pictures.