By Clive I. Morrick
Remembering some favorite West Village cinemas which I and many readers have known but are now lost to us.
The Eighth Street Playhouse, 52 West 8th Street, now a Beth Israel Medical Center Walk-In (and former TLA Video store), 1929-1992. One commentator has written that the loss of this cinema is one of the saddest movie theater tales. Having reviewed its programming from its opening in 1929 (as the Film Guild Cinema) until its closure, I would go further—it is the greatest loss to New York cinephiles.
It was billed as the first theater specially designed and constructed as a Little Cinema. (For a history of its radical design see Sources in the on-line edition of this paper.) The NY Times reported on May 15, 1930 that the cinema would henceforth be known as the Eighth Street Playhouse and would present a series of European silent productions as well as American sound pictures. For its sixty-plus years it showed an eclectic mix of foreign and domestic classics, cult classics, festivals, and some way out schlock.
The cinema closed briefly in January 1978, but a new owner, Stephen Hirsch, reopened it as a cinema-restaurant on May 15, 1978. On July 21, 1978, it took over the weekend Rocky Horror midnight showings from the nearby Waverly Cinema and these lasted until 1989. Hirsch died in July 1986. Subsequent operators were B.S. Moss (now known as Bow-Tie Cinemas) (1986-88), United Artists (1988-89), and then City Cinemas (1989-closing).
City Cinemas said that beginning in the last week of November, 1991, the Eighth Street Playhouse would adopt a “something old, something new” policy of showing film classics and new foreign films. But that lasted less than a year and it closed in late 1992.
The Bleecker Street Cinema, 144 Bleecker Street, now a Duane Reade (and former Kim’s Video Underground), 1960-1991. Lionel Rogosin, possibly best known as the director of On the Bowery, wanted to show his film Come Back Africa, a protest against apartheid, and created his own cinema to show it. His website explains: “In spite of the attention that Come Back Africa received abroad, Rogosin was unable to find a commercial outlet for it in the USA and as a result, he decided to open his own showcase for independent films and revivals. Taking a ten-year lease on the Renata Theater in Greenwich Village, he spent $40,000 to renovate it, renamed it the Bleecker Street Cinema, and premiered Come Back Africa there on April 4, 1960. He ran the cinema till 1974. It was to be one of the chartered cinemas of the group of filmmakers who met in New York and became the New American Cinema Group.”
In 1974, Sidney Geffen and his wife Jackie Raynal (herself a film-maker) took over the cinema. They opened a small second screen in 1980 called the Agee Room (after writer and film critic James Agee), which became the Bleecker 2 in 1982. Raynal kept it going after Geffen died in 1986, but a partnership split killed it.
It stuttered to its closure on September 2, 1991, first closing in September 1990, re-opening two months later as a gay adult theater, and then went back to its art house roots for a short time.
Although its capacity was only 250 its influence was immense, and many aspiring independent film makers congregated there.
Honorable mentions. Many cinemas of this ilk outside the boundaries of the West Village have closed in recent years. I mention four which were nearby, one for its reputation, and three personal favorites.
The Elgin, 175 Eighth Avenue, now the Joyce Ballet Theater, 1942-1978. The Elgin was a senior member of the revival house circuit. It showed Mexican films for a time, pioneered midnight shows, but ended its days as an adult film venue.
St. Marks Theatre, 133 Second Avenue, 1914-1926 (as the Astor Cinema); 1926-1985. In the ‘70s and ‘80s this was a double-bill second run house, seating 600. It was the only cinema where I never shushed anyone because everyone was having such a damn good time.
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, now an off-Broadway theater, 1970-1994. Reverse projection, 16 mm films, lousy seating, and wonderful Howard Otway programming.
Le Cinematheque, 15 Vandam Street, now the Soho Playhouse, 1984-1990 (as the Thalia Soho); 1992-1993. A theater before and after its stint as a cinema, I recall its final year when Bleecker Street’s Jackie Raynal ran it as Le Cinematheque and it seemed to show only obscure film noirs.
To all: R.I.P.
McGuire, L. M., “A Movie House in Space and Time: Frederick Kiesler’s Film Arts Guild Cinema”, New York, 1929. Studies in the Decorative Arts v. 14 no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007) p. 45-78.
Hoberman, J., “The Movie Freak’s Guide to Film in New York”, New York Magazine, 12/29/1973.
Horack, J-C, “Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader,” Dixon, W., Foster, G., Eds. Routledge, New York, 2002.
“The History of Repertory Cinemas in New York City”, NYU Project for Culture of Archives, Museums and Libraries, Spring 2012.
Forgotten New York.
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New York Times archives.