A Safe Place
BJ Markel here. I wrote this 40 years ago, in the early ’70s — just for myself. It’s never been published. Blake and I shared the feeling that we can go into the theatre to be entertained, to laugh, to be inspired… and to be safe. Here’s how I felt about that community once upon a time. Hope it resonates all these decades — and events — later.
If you have to come to New York City to study the movies, what better place to start than the Bleecker Street Cinema? Sit in the back row, falling plaster from the ceiling a constant threat, and watch the history of Cinema pass by a week at a time. Every Wednesday an all-time great: the first comedy, the first documentary, the first epic. Study that camera angle. Follow that pan. This was reel life in that dank little theatre. Chaplin in the first row, DeMille on the aisle, Von Stroheim in the projection booth, and you… together at last on Bleecker Street.
The Bleecker Street Cinema is all but dead now. It Happened in Hollywood had been playing weekends only for the last few months (the sign on the door read: “Singles $4.00, Couples $7.00 — Couples of the Same Sex Must Kiss in Front of the Cashier”). The marquee has been empty for the last two weeks. Only on Tuesdays does the place come alive, when Sri Chinmoy rents the hall to preach. Across the street, at the Bitter End, Tuesday is Amateur Talent Night. Agents haunt the club scouting raw talent. Apparently Sri Chinmoy has already been discovered.
It Happened in Hollywood is hardcore porn with class. That it played the Bleecker Street points out the remnant of elegance still lurking from its history as an art house. Just look at the porno films on Fourteenth Street and you will see the differences in the two milieux.
On Fourteenth, between Second and Third Avenues, the old Metropolitan Theater grinds out 90 minutes of dirties ten times a day. On the boards where the teenaged Phil Silvers danced, and Gracie and George chatted, there’s now a soiled semi-silver screen hung crooked, with a Rheingold beer can at its base.
In the lobby, the popcorn machine has been shoved into a cobwebbed corner. Its glass casing, partially shattered, reads “PO///RN.”
Before long there may be no need for a Bleecker Street Cinema or even a Metropolitan on Fourteenth Street. Thanks to the magic of pay television, you will be able to stay home and get your fill of first-run films.
Whatever progress brings, I will never forget the real thrill of that palace — the Movie Theatre — with delicate angels carved on the ceiling, crystal chandeliers glistening over velvety red carpets, majestic marble columns reaching to the heavens.
Even now, with those same theatres hollowed out (their chandeliers auctioned to restauranteurs) and divided into numbered cement-block modules, the thrill survives. For the characterless filmhouses that have taken over still have the essence even without the shell: the moving picture on that screen down front.
You can lose yourself in that picture. You can change identities on that screen. You can rediscover old yearnings, long forgotten, or recognize something new that shocks you with its undeniable fury.
You can feel if you let yourself.
And I don’t know if you’ll be able to do that on the tiny tube at home. But why leave the house when you don’t have to? So remember these movie days. Remember the Bleecker Streets, the Metropolitans, and those glorious chandeliered halls. Before long, their fading memories might even be joined by today’s stern cement boxes, all enhanced in dreams of nostalgia and the days when life — outside the comforts of our home — offered so much more.
Because we were together. And movies were larger than life.
- Deborah Eden Tull
This is a great testimony to the theatre, and to why the TV, viewed in isolation, does NOT have the same “larger than life” impact! Portland still has great little theatres as well!
- Marilyn Brant
There are few things I loved as much when I was a kid as going to the movies. Your wonderful piece brought all of that magic and wonder back — thank you. These days, there are only a few small theatres in our area remaining — mostly showing artsy/indie films — but they’re still my favorite places to go when I want to see a movie.
- Carol Eisner
Pittsburgh’s Manor, Guild and the Squirrel Hill Theater were the hangs that hooked us. They replaced the Warner palace downtown where I first imagined myself as Elaine saved by hero Dustin in “The Graduate,” one of my first real film experiences.
- Tom Reed
My personal Bleeker Street was the Montrose Theater in Monstrose, CA, a grindouse dive I used to walk to as a kid where I remember seeing THX-1138, SILENT RUNNING, and James Bond triple-features, among many, many others. Sadly it was converted into a bowling alley long ago. But when my daughter went to Stanford I discovered the Stanford Theatre, gloriously restored and subsidized by one of the Hewlett-Packard boys (can’t remember which one) where they play classic double bills for $7 admission and concessions that only cost a dollar. The prints are pristine, flown in from the UCLA Film Archive, I hear. It operates at a staggering loss, but it’s a labor of love for the billionaire philanthropist who loves the movies. Well worth the stop if ever you’re passing through. The Golden Age lives again there on University Avenue. Check out the website:
- Matt Allen
Don’t wait forty years to publish something that good EVER AGAIN.
- Brooke Wolff
As I read this blog, I was transported to the movie theaters I’ve known and loved, remembering the thrill I still experience when the lights go out and the film begins.
- Bob Judd
When I was a teenager growing up in Chappaqua 30 miles north of New York City, the Bleeker Street Cinema was the flickering heart of Greenwich Village, dark and dangerous with the secrets of sin and keyhole peeps at the world beyond our pleasant little white town.
Thanks BJ, for bringing the memory back alive, of the thill of getting on the train, and diving into the subway and coming up for air on Bleeker Street.
- Linda Feferman
BJ- do you remember the Granada theatre in buffalo where we both grew up? I remember seeing Ben Hur there and Spartucus. But most of all I remember the all-cartoon shows every Saturday morning. Two hours of cartoons. Heaven. Wonderful piece. Still holds up. It’s Evergreen.
- Hilary Weisman Graham
Great article, BJ! A good art-house cinema makes me feel like I’ve come home. Some favorites: the Wilton Town Hall Theater in Wilton, NH, the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA, the Brattle in Cambridge, MA.
- Cory Milles
I think there is something fantastic about seeing a movie in a theater. Even with the advances of today’s home theater technology, there’s something about seeing it on the big screen. I still remember going to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a kid, hanging on the edge of my seat through the adventure, even “becoming” Indiana in my mind. I can recall seeing the first film to use “big surround sound,” Jurassic Park, and feeling the seats rumble with every roar. And more recently, going to the theater to watch the 25th Anniversary showing of Back to the Future. Even though I own it and have watched it on my television numerous times, there’s something about seeing it happen on the big screen in a packed crowd, cheering even though we all knew how the events would unfold. It’s all about the experience. I think some people today forget the experience aspect of it. I sometimes wish movie theaters would go back to the days when going to see a film was a big event. I am reminded of the movie The Majestic, how people would dress up in their Sunday best to see a movie. Thanks for the blog post. There’s truly something magical about the silver screen.
BJ, what a beautiful tribute to how integral the neighborhood cinema was to your life… and how it brings up such memories of my own. Something beautiful to hold onto during this challenging time. xo
- Sandra de Helen
An old friend were commenting last week how one of the things people used to say “… this is where I came in” is no longer heard and no longer applies, because when she and I were kids the movie theater was a place where you could just drop in at any time of the day, pay your money and stay until you came back around to where you came in on the film. The movie theater was a safe house in so many ways. Thank you for publishing this gorgeous piece, BJ. What else have you got stashed away, one wonders?
- Michael Wiese
BJ – what a powerfully evocative piece! It took me back to Champaign and the Art Theater that provided the same experience for me and whose history was similar. Of course it was one of the few that was rescued and continues on to this day. Thank you. A real treat!
- Mike Rinaldi
I saw my name credited for the first time as associate producer this April at the ArcLight in Pasadena. As wonderful as that venue was– and an unforgettable experience– the ArcLight doesn’t possess the magic of the Fox theater in my hometown.
To a small boy, the next best thing to Christmas and Disneyland was when my parents announced we would see a movie tonight. In my early elementary school years, filled with wide-eyed wonder, Mom and Dad took me to see the mind-blowing movies of George Lucas and the campy comedies of George Hamilton. There were two theaters on the first floor across from the concession stands. But if you were lucky, your movie would be playing up the gorgeously carpeted stairs in the theater on the second floor. We’d pass the velvet rope, choose our seats, and look to the ceiling. Sitting, anticipating, watching the seemingly countless star shaped lights twinkling in the ceiling. And the rush of excitement when the tiny stars began to dim and the theater darkened!
The Fox opened in Visalia on February 27, 1930, its immaculate Orient-inspired architecture a source of town pride and the cinema within providing a temporary escape from the troubles of the Great Depression. The three sided clock tower was the largest of its kind in California.
The summer of 1989, my twice weekly ritual after summer school was to walk to the Fox and buy a box of Junior Mints and a matinee ticket for either Batman or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
In 1990, one of my father’s insurance clients, an employee of LucasArts, invited me to tour Skywalker Ranch. LucasFilm was also headquartered there at the time and yes, Mr. Lucas did live in the house. The large Victorian mansion had two subterranean levels. The first was the commissary. The bottom level was a movie theater. It wasn’t large, but it was cozy. And it was indeed magical because I was standing in Mr. Lucas’ private theater for his family and employees. But it didn’t possess the same wonder as the Fox theater I’d attended most of my life; the theater in which I watched the Star Wars trilogy (during each film’s original run!) and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The beautiful Fox Theater in Visalia, CA.
The Fox closed in November 1996. After three years of renovation, it reopened in November 1999 as a live performance and theatre venue. There I’ve watched a delightful production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, occupied two expensive seats at a Kenny Loggins concert because my date didn’t show up, and was a guest at the premiere of a short film by a young director who was quite excited about a new book called Save the Cat! But I still miss the other Fox, the movie theater that stretched my imagination as a kid, the home away from home when my parents were still married, my favorite spot in town. Funny, it may have been everyone’s favorite spot because it was built on the west end of Visalia in 1929. The city has since grown around it, making the Fox theater and clock tower its epicenter.
BJ, these moments in time haven’t flooded my memory so vividly in many years. Thanks for bringing them back.
- Salva Rubio
Thanks for such an amazing article, BJ! It made me look back in time to remember a piece of my childhood that I had since forgotten! In a city where cinemas were too far from my home, my own “safe place” was the small projection room that our neighbourhood’s cultural center had. In this little house devoted to make arts fun to kids every Sunday morning, a matinee session was held. How different it was from watching the movies at my house… Thanks for helping bring back great memories! Salva.
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This still applies, 40 years later. I’m happy to say, my little local theater still has a balcony, a red velvet curtain, and a $5.00 admission price. Some treasures survive. Thanks for this stroll back in time!