New York’s Far-Flung Theaters


A crowd at a horror-movie premiere settles in for a tale of demons, disturbed from ancient slumber, transmitting infectious possession with their pestilent, snapping jaws. Truer, more immediate horror breaks out when a bloodied woman rips through the screen, and the very contagion depicted in the film breaks out in the theater. The tide of pitched battle between man and monster only turns when one viewer commandeers a motorcycle and katana blade, rips along the aisles, and hacks through foes to the tune of German metal outfit Accept’s “Fast as a Shark.” Remember when going to the movies used to be an adventure?

I am not, I should note, relaying an actual experience. This occurs in Lamberto Bava’s 1985 Demons, the first half of a 35mm double bill concluding with Enzo G. Castellari’s Escape From New York knockoff 1990: The Bronx Warriors—a little slice of ’80s Times Square in sylvan Metuchen, New Jersey, where the handsome, single-screen c. 1928 Forum Theatre (314 Main Street, Metuchen, New Jersey) screened both.

The program is the work of Crystal Plumage Films, brainchild of Garden Staters Ray Cheek and Evan Kyle. Burned out on booking cop-raided punk shows in New Brunswick basements and inspired by the horror/exploitation bills of Philadelphia’s Exhumed Films, the duo applied the DIY ethos to programming movies. “Ray and I are young’uns in this game, so we missed out on these movies the first time around,” Kyle told me. “I mean, I watched The Deadly Spawn on a crummy VHS probably 30 times in my teens and early twenties, but there was nothing like seeing it blown up on a scratchy, red film print!”

Crystal Plumage is but one option open to the viewer willing to stray from the multiplexes and Manhattan’s reputable rep houses. Cash-flush New Williamsburg has recently gained the Nitehawk, a handsomely appointed bar/grill/cinema complex where you can—I swear to God—scarf an oyster po’ boy and hush puppies in your seat while watching yuppie poverty porn Beasts of the Southern Wild. Down the street is a rather more basement-show operation, closet-size digital cinematheque Spectacle (124 South 3rd Street, Brooklyn). All 30 of the folding chairs were filled at a recent Thursday screening of 1980 Mexican biker film Intrepidos Punks, a rich air of BYOB and BO accompanying a buffet of cannonball silicone tits, exploding sedans, pit-band-accompanied rape, and immortal lines like “Caligula! Pirate! Throw him in the ditch!” Next month: films by German social critic Alexander Kluge, of course.

Meanwhile, in the northern reaches of Greenpoint, Light Industry, the ultra-eclectic 16mm/high-definition cinematheque operated by Thomas Beard and erstwhile Voice contributor Ed Halter, has settled into a new home. Halter spoke to me at 155 Freeman Street, Light Industry’s address since January, during a brief lull in activity before lugging over prints for the weekend’s tribute to Chris Marker. “When we began in 2008, there were all these active, really disparate communities around the moving image in New York,” he says. “You’ve got a documentary world, experimental-film world, gallery world, academic-film world. We felt that those different worlds didn’t overlap as much as they might.” Per Halter, “the normal moviegoing experience is that you go with people you know, you see the movie, and then you leave, and there’s no interaction with anyone else,” but Light Industry’s weekly-at-most programming makes each screening an event, effectively creating a “scene”—and drawing a younger demographic that certain uptown institutions would give an arm for.

Speaking of “social” moviegoing—in an abandoned-looking building next to the Kosher Hut in Gravesend lurks Brooklyn’s last living porno theater, the Kings Highway Cinema (711 Kings Highway, Brooklyn). Marquees and poster displays blacked out, the only clue to the theater’s ongoing operation is a computer printout in the window that reads “Box Office Inside.” Paying $12 in a small lobby decorated with decoy posters of art house titles, the curious pass through an ominous turnstile and into history. Thanks to the 1995 zoning law that requires purveyors of XXX to devote 60 percent of their floor space to nonpornographic material, the two larger theaters, both empty and reeking like humidors, were playing a biopic of French gangster Jacques Mesrine and a Two and a Half Men. The big houses are flanked by two theaters of some 15 seats each, screening, respectively, gay and straight hardcore. These are linked by a back passageway that’s a hive of private booths, an intermediary zone suggesting a fluid sexuality—though given the age of most of the patronage, sex might be purely theoretical. The most off-putting element here: the concession area, which consists of hot-water carafes, Styrofoam cups, and a sign reading “Ask Cashier for Hot Chocolate Package.” Before its Deco interior was gutted by a fire in the 1960s, the Kings Highway was—as the Jewel Theatre—one of Brooklyn’s first art houses, frequented by a young Woody Allen.

A state line and a world apart from all of this sordidness is the preserved Loew’s Jersey Theatre (54 Journal Square Plaza, Jersey City, New Jersey), a terra-cotta temple that has graced the east side of Jersey City’s Journal Square since 1929. Officially Italian Renaissance revival—though, when I first visited to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in spring of 2006, it seemed to me like some Indian zamindar’s palace—the Jersey is the only of New York City area’s five sibling “Wonder Theatres” still showing films, though all are still extant, including the nearly identical Kings in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

The Kings has recently been earmarked for a $70 million restoration by Houston-based ACE Theatrical Group to make it over as a concert venue, but the Jersey has been resuscitated entirely through the elbow grease of the Friends of the Loew’s, born of the enthusiasm of Colin Egan and Pattie Giordan, who organized to undo the building’s ’70s triplexing and regild the crumbling plaster.

“What really does set the Loew’s apart is that every aspect of the restoration of the past 15-odd years has all been a volunteer effort,” says Melissa Skolnick, a participant of two and a half years. “There’s just a core group that comes back every weekend. The people who fixed that organ came every weekend for a decade to fix that organ. It could not be more of a labor of love. I literally showed up at their door, and I wanted to help. And instead of just giving me a job, Colin talked to me for hours about the theater and the history of the theater, and they really make you feel a part of the process—then he gave me a bucket and a sponge, and I scrubbed the floor of the balcony for about a year. They create an atmosphere where everybody feels like you’re not just restoring a theater, you’re restoring a bygone form of American democracy. I kid you not, these are the speeches I’ve heard. It could not be more Capra-esque.” And so stands the Loew’s, a monument to a moment when the working class could enjoy a 35-cent interlude among the grandiose—like each of these outsider theaters, out of step with the march of time while defiantly alive.