Bombast: Queens, City of Cinema (Part One)
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the day will come when no one will be able to afford to live in New York City other than anthropomorphized sacks of money, of the sort carried by Rich Uncle Pennybags on Monopoly game cards. We who temporarily live here know and accept this fact, and know that the best any of us can hope for is to buy a little time.
It is towards that end that a few months ago I left behind the apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I’d lived for something like eight years, and relocated to bucolic Woodside, Queens. (For those so inclined, I wrote a bit about the cinema of Williamsburg here.) Cinephiles will of course recognize Woodside as the home turf of Edward Burns and Roman Coppola’s dad, whatsisface. I am now a 25-minute walk or two subways stops away from the Museum of the Moving Image, which hosts repertory screenings every weekend, and from the United Artists Kaufman-Astoria 14 (discussed here) just up the street, a state-of-the-art multiplex with all of the trimmings. In theory, I never have to leave my neighborhood to fulfill my moviegoing needs—but as a new Queens resident, I believe it is my duty to know my borough and its theatrical outposts as best as I can. This becomes all the more imperative when one considers that movie theaters, particularly humble, independently operated neighborhood houses, are at this point at even greater risk of being priced out of New York than people who, honestly, I don’t care much about in the first place. (Case in point: I am writing shortly after the announcement of the closure of the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.) And since I’d been remiss with my blockbuster-going this summer, last week I set forth to kill two birds with one stone.
In selecting theaters to visit, I looked for those that had some historical patina; as such, the various Bow Tie cinemas strung along the LIE, though undoubtedly not without inducements of their own, have been omitted. Inevitably I will have missed some points of interest in designing my itinerary, and I hope that readers will draw my attention to these oversights. I have tried to provide historical background for each stop, while hopefully not overindulging, and this would have been impossible without the website Cinema Treasures, an invaluable resource not only for basic information on theaters (Architect, Style, etc.), but for the colorful recollections provided in the Comments section. Contributions by Warren G. Harris, Ed Solero, and others have been of great use here, and I hope that they will not resent too much my drawing on their rigorous research in service of my own fame and Web metrics.
The first on my to-do list is a theater whose Streamline Moderne curves I had more than once admired while puttering along Queens Boulevard. The Midway was originally an RKO theater, named for the U.S. Navy’s decisive victory over the Imperial Japanese fleet in the summer after Pearl Harbor, and it opened for business on September 24, 1942, mere months after the smoke had cleared in the Pacific. It was a 2,002-seat single-screen house then, but by the time of its 1997 purchase by the Heskel Group had been made into a quad, and today it boasts fully nine screens. The theater does a brisk business for United Artists, and the interior conforms to the Nineties pseudo-Deco style favored by that chain, though the original façade designed by Thomas W. Lamb Associates is still clearly recognizable from archival photos. (Be sure to view the mosaic by Richard Haas on the front of the neighboring TD Bank, which depicts Forest Hills’ Station Square and the area's ersatz Tudor architecture.) Until April of this year, visitors also had the option of the two-screen UA Brandon just around the corner on 70-20 Austin St. In happier days the Brandon was known as the Continental, and in 1963 it hosted the “Exclusive Queens Engagement” of Lord of the Flies. We were not, however, in the market for anything quite so dark.
Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy
A few years back, I co-programmed Slither, the debut feature of Guardians of the Galaxy director and newly crowned Hollywood royalty James Gunn, at the bottom half of a double bill with Jeff Lieberman’s 1976 Squirm. The thematic link, such as it is, was that both films feature gross, slimy creatures crawling over nubile human flesh. The Slither screening is, to date, the only time that I have programmed a movie that went on to show to a completely empty theater. (I wasn’t even there—out of town or something.) Gunn’s a guy who’s been kicking around seemingly forever, a onetime associate of Lloyd Kaufman at Troma—there’s even a Jackson Pollock punch line in Guardians which is pretty close to a line in his script for Tromeo and Juliet (96). I suppose the talking point for Guardians is that Marvel’s hire of a fairly unproven quality onto a $170 million property (itself not based on one of their name-recognition titles) is a “gamble,” but as was proven with Edgar Wright’s acrimonious departure from Ant-Man, they are not precisely a director’s studio, and nothing will hit screens under their invaluable imprimatur without having been thoroughly vetted.
But I’m not even mad at the Marvel Studios Tradition of Quality. They’ve elbowed their way to the fore in the business of flashy floor-show movies, movies featuring heroes and villains played by appealing actors sparring spectacularly for possession of powerful gems or cubes or whatnot, displaying a lab-tested balance of humor and action, which dependably deliver All The Feels to a paying audience. If I, like most of America, only went out to the movies a few times a year, I’d probably Make Mine Marvel, too. For one night, I indulged in the harmless fantasy that this was my summer movie, enough to tide me over until I took the whole family to Night at the Museum: The Battle of the Five Armies in December. In between would pass birthdays, vacations, small triumphs and setbacks at the office, and for days, even weeks at a time, my mind would not once be troubled by the thought of going out to a movie theater of any kind. It was a beautiful dream, but waking from it I remembered that I am a depraved troglodyte, and so on the following night…
The big draw at the Sunnyside Center Cinema, insomuch as there is one, is the price tag: $5 before 5 p.m., $7.50 for prime time. A neighborhood theater of none-too-imposing dimensions, it manages to house an alarming six screens, not one of which could seat more than 80. The Center Cinemas was converted to digital in 2012, though today it continues a proud, long-running tradition of projecting all of its movies without regard to proper masking. (The 2.35 wide-screen image of my film was stranded amid an expanse of excess screen.)
According to what I can cobble together from various sources, the Center came into the world on April 24, 1942—it was then called the Center Theatre—with a double feature of Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Has Plans. The seating capacity on opening has been variously reported at 598 or 599. Because of competition from nearby chains, the Center had to rely on second-run and revival house fare, its specialty denoted by a sign over the entrance that read “Good Movies, Like Good Books, Never Grow Old.” (Inlaid into the lobby was the motto “Center Theatre, Home of the Proven Hits.”) Unsubstantiated rumor has it that, on the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of The Thief of Baghdad, Francis Ford Coppola speaks of attending the Center Theatre with his father. At Cinema Treasures, a user has uploaded a newspaper advertisement from October 18, 1954 which suggests the sort of double bill that young Coppola might have seen: a John Ford program made up of The Informer and The Quiet Man. You won’t find the likes of this at the Center Cinema any longer, though one can hear the accents of Erin immediately next door at P.J. Horgan’s Bar & Restaurant, which serves a pretty decent hamburger, and has for 40-odd years.
Horgan’s days are numbered now, as are those of the Sunnyside Center Cinema. According to the Sunnyside Post, on December 20, 2012, Dime Savings Bank sold the building containing both Horgan’s and the Center Cinema for $6,675,000 to the newly formed 42-25 Queens Blvd. Corporation, a group almost certainly comprised of awful white-collar bell ends who will probably convert the space to residential units for other awful white-collar bell ends when Center Cinema owner Rudy Prashad’s lease runs out in December 2014. The Center Cinema hasn’t even been allowed to go out with dignity intact. On April 10 of this year, the marquee was damaged—by a passing truck, according to building manager Michael Christopher. “[T]here was no sign of a truck on the scene,” notes an article in the Post, which goes on to say that “A firefighter who evaluated the condition of the sign said it was rotten inside and would most likely have to come down.” As of the date of this writing, the sign still stands. Hey, know what else is rotten inside and will most likely have to come down? Capitalism.
In which Scarlett Johansson, a perfectly ordinary peroxide blonde party girl abroad in Taipei for some reason, is turned into a drug mule against her will by Korean gangsters, gradually transforms into an omnipresent demigod when a pouch containing the experimental designer drug ruptures inside the corner of her tummy where it has been stored, and races against time to transform herself into a USB stick containing the whole of knowable knowledge before disappearing into the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars.
Guardians of the Galaxy is in every respect a superior movie to Lucy, and I prefer the entertainment product of Marvel Studios to that of EuropaCorp almost across the board. I guess that makes me a pair of pleated khakis instead of Parisian pleather pants with extraneous zippers, because while you can always score points by rolling your eyes and going “Marvel has their next 17 superhero movies planned out, Hollywood is creatively bankrupt,” Besson’s multiplex pollution tends to get waved past when it isn’t cheered on outright. Lucy is the sort of thing that coasts on the “batshit” defense, which holds that everything is permissible of a movie, so long as it’s improbably off-the-wall enough, mania being taken as evidence of personality. It qualifies for the batshit exemption in spades: where most directors use only 10 percent of the filmmaking technique available, Besson drenches you with Koyaanisqatsi-scale bucketfuls, even tossing in a bit of Eisensteinian intellectual montage when Lucy is first being lured into the den of villainous, inscrutable Asiatics, a scene cross-cut with footage of a cheetah stalking its prey. I cannot fathom seeing this as anything but embarrassing. Not to get all Jay Sherman, but It Stinks.
As with the Midway, I first noticed the Fair, located on the south side of Astoria Boulevard, while driving past. The intact marquee, which reads “Fair 3,” is hard to miss. It blazed out in the night for the first time when the theater opened in 1939—the “Fair” refers to the World’s Fair, which was then underway in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
The Fair’s boisterous façade belies mystery within, however. When I called to make inquiries, whoever answered the phone blurted something about “Chinese movies,” and promptly hung up. Not so easily dissuaded, I stopped by with my ladyfriend in the late afternoon one day, after dim sum in Flushing. (Asian Jewels, 13330 39th Ave.) We got as far as the lobby, where we’d stopped to stare confusedly at the list of unfamiliar titles listed as playing, when the ticket booth attendant, a friendly fellow of Subcontinental stock, ambled out to talk to us. (You enter the theater’s double doors by passing through a turnstile next to the booth.) “You’re looking for new movies, multiplex movies?” he asked, though more in the manner of a statement. “There’s a movie theater that way,” he continued, pointing down the road, “We play second-run movies, Indian movies, Chinese movies.” Now, my ladyfriend happens to be a Chinese person, so it might seem that it would be within the realm of possibility that we might want to watch a Chinese movie, but something about this fellow’s demeanor seemed to say “This is not the right place for you two.” All the more confounding, given that this was allegedly a theater playing second-run Indian and Chinese movies, is the fact that while we were idling in the lobby, most of the people who passed in and out were middle-aged white chaps. Here the principles of Holmesian deduction that I had learned from a youthful engagement with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went to work, and a lightbulb came sputtering to life over my head: “Oh,” I thought, “they play porn here.”
Obviously the lady was holding me back, so ditching the dame I returned on an overcast Tuesday around quittin’ time.
Movie: Something with Keanu Reeves, some Indian thing, some porn.
The ticket is for a single admission the Fair is a pretty steep $15, but for that price you get free range on the theater’s labyrinthine premises. (Thrifty return customers, however, can buy a ticket book that offers 10 admissions for $50.) Past the double doors one enters a cool, dark lounge area decorated with underpopulated aquariums and lined with plushy armchairs, occupied by a clientele who are, for the most part, as gray as your average MoMA crowd. There is a small vending machine area tucked to the immediate left, and just beyond that, the lounge opens onto the main auditorium. Two stairwells leading to the balcony level flank the main entrance on either side, and next to each stairwell is a bank of lockers which can be rented with a small deposit.
The only other occupants of the vast theater were a lightly canoodling couple who didn’t seem terribly interested in what Keanu Reeves was doing on the screen. (He rarely seems interested himself.) This is because the main auditorium, despite or rather because it takes up most of the building’s square footage, is an afterthought in this kind of operation. The reason is a Giuliani-era anti-porn zoning law which requires that smut peddlers dedicate less than 40 percent of their retail space to obscene materials—the same reason that the porno shoppes under the BQE on Brooklyn’s 3rd Avenue, for example, all come equipped with a big room full of dusty children’s videos and People magazines from 1991. Most of the foot traffic led away from the main auditorium, past the lounge, past the two, closet-sized theaters playing the advertised Bollywood/kung-fu fare, past a curious fresco of a flamenco dancer and the men’s restroom which was decorated with a cardboard cutout of John Wayne and a three-foot tall reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, and into the two theaters playing XXX material. One screen was playing same-sex stuff, the other hetero, though I would venture to guess that the theater, which is honeycombed with booths (purportedly mirrored) for trysting, is more or less exclusively a gay cruising spot. I would be remiss not to mention that “Rude” by the Canadian pop-reggae outfit MAGIC!, the reigning Worst Song That I Have Ever Heard, was playing in the adult houses.
This disproportionate division of floor space between the official front and the real adult attractions is basically the same setup that I discovered when I visited the Kings Highway Cinema in Gravesend, which I had previously believed to be the last functioning porn theater in the five boroughs, for a 2012 Village Voice piece on “New York’s Far-Flung Theaters.” I will say that the Fair seemed to be quite a bit better kept up, with very little of the stale cum-and-disinfectant stench that hung over the Kings Highway. Insofar as I could tell, there was an amiable, “Everybody knows your name” vibe among the patronage, encouraged by the management, who advertise free pizza on Friday and Saturday nights. Rumor has it they even host an Academy Awards party—and this is maybe the only context in which I can imagine myself enjoying Oscar’s biggest night.
Read part two of Bombast’s Queens tour.