On Utica Avenue near Church Avenue, just blocks from our first apartment, the Rugby was the theater of my early childhood. When I was three, my mother took me to see my first film here. That weekday matinee of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers left me with one memory: a row of giant men so happy that they couldn’t stop dancing.
My brother and I would spend Saturday mornings lining up under the Rugby’s marquee with its unique saw-toothed top. During the scene in West Side Story where Rita Moreno slowly put on her stockings, Marc turned to me and said, “That’s sexy.” He was about seven.
By the time I was in college, the Rugby was showing porn films – a sure sign of impending death for one of “the nabes,” what my family called neighborhood theaters. One Saturday night, when neither of us had a date and we had nothing better to do, Elise and I decided to see a triple-X feature at the Rugby. It had been her first movie theater too, the one where she’d watched Elvis movies like Blue Hawaii.
The only thing from that night I can remember is the entire screen being filled with a black man’s penis becoming erect and Elise turning to me and saying, “This is the most disgusting movie I’ve ever seen.” I nodded.
In place of the Rugby are several stores in the bustling shopping district of this Haitian neighborhood.
The Granada and The Carroll
These were in opposite directions from The Rugby: the Carroll north on Utica in Crown Heights, the Granada west on Church in Flatbush. It was always a treat when Grandma Ethel and I would take the short bus ride to these theaters. We saw Auntie Mame for the second time at the Granada, months after she and Grandpa Herb had taken me to see it in Manhattan for Radio City’s Christmas show. The day we saw Tammy and the Doctor at the Carroll, I found the first issue of Green Lantern at the used comic-book store next door afterwards.
The Carroll long ago became a liquor store, and the Granada a Pentecostal church.
The Brook and The Marine
The closest movie theaters to the house we moved to when I was seven, these may have been an early experiment in twinning. Although they had separate entrances – the Marine on Flatbush Avenue, the Brook on Flatlands Avenue – the theaters were connected in the back. They were part of the Century chain, which ran many theaters in 1960s Brooklyn.
Starting in fourth grade, Eugene and I would go to Saturday morning double features at the Brook and the Marine. By junior high we had graduated from the children’s section, patrolled by severe-looking matrons wielding flashlights, to the loge, where we watched what we thought were risqué comedies featuring some combination of Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida, and Cary Grant – with Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter in supporting roles. The second feature always seemed to be a forgettable thriller with a love story between a dark-haired Spanish woman and a character named Ramon.
When I was 18, I went to the Brook by myself on a school night to see my first X-rated movie, the exhilarating Midnight Cowboy. Also at the Brook, I had the embarrassing experience of seeing What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?, a film by Candid Camera’s Allan Funt, with my parents. Linda made the same mistake with her mother. We hadn’t expected so much nudity.
The last time I went to the Marine, Stephen and I cut a college class to see a revival of The Sound of Music. I liked it better ten years before, when I’d seen it the first time with Eugene – also at the Marine.
The Brook and the Marine now house an insurance company and other offices.
This was a small cinema in a strip shopping center in Canarsie, opening when Eugene and I were old enough to use the word cinema. We saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg here, and Dr. Zhivago. At fifteen, we were blown away by Blow-Up but confused by the mimes playing tennis without a ball at the end. It definitely was not Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
A couple of years later, I went alone to the Seaview to see Wild in the Streets, falling in love with the utter coolness of Christopher Jones as the rock star who becomes President when teens are allowed to vote. When I got home, I recounted the plot to my ten-year-old twin step-cousins, Alice and Bonnie, who stood open-mouthed as I described how Jones put everyone over 30 in concentration camps – even his mother, Shelley Winters, screaming as they led her away, “But I’m the biggest mother of them all!”
The Seaview is now just another store in a strip mall.
Like the Midwood, the Avalon, and the Avenue U, the Elm was near a stop of the Brighton line elevated tracks at East 16th Street. Another one of the Century’s chain, it was a small art house and always played the same pictures as the Astor in Flatbush.
Here’s where I saw a lot of foreign films like Séance on a Wet Afternoon and Persona. I usually went alone, but I saw John Cassavetes’ Faces with a girl from group therapy after our session was over.
On Christmas Eve in 1969, my mother, brothers, and cousins were in Florida for the holidays, and Dad and I had stayed behind because his mother, Grandma Sylvia, was having cancer surgery at New York Hospital. When Grandpa Nat called to say that everything was going to be all right, we went out in a snowstorm to see Putney Swope at the Elm. The director was credited as “Robert Downey (a prince).”
A few days later I was in swim trunks at the pool at the Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach when I saw Ronnie Dyson, a cute black actor my own age who’d been in the movie. Trying to be cool, I went over to him and said, “So is Robert Downey really a prince?” “Yeah, sure,” he said, and walked away, leaving me feeling like an idiot.
For the first half of 1970 I would recite the lines from this movie that Downey made the actors repeat until they sounded inane, lines like “Putney say the Bormann Six girl is got to have soul” and “How many syllables, Mario?”
The Elm is now a bank.
In Marine Park, on Nostrand Avenue near Kings Highway, this was where my father dropped Marc and me off one Sunday afternoon to see Dr. No, the first James Bond movie.
In 1971, they ran classic movies here, a different one every day. Rona and I saw Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina at the Nostrand on a horrible afternoon when we were breaking up. We had a big argument after the movie and she took the bus home instead of riding in my car. I think at this time she was already secretly seeing my friend Richie H.
The Nostrand became a porn theater before it closed.
A small Art Deco movie house that seated only about 700, this was on Flatbush Avenue near Brooklyn College. A raised section in the back served as a kind of faux-balcony.
The College was where I saw the only movie I’ve ever walked out of in the middle: True Grit. I left not because of John Wayne’s performance, but because I felt as if I were going to throw up.
I once went to a movie here with a bunch of gay friends from college: Stephen, Joe, Frank, and a couple of other guys. Mark M. was supposed to join us, but he canceled at the last minute, calling me to say he thought he was catching a cold. When I reported this, Stephen exclaimed, “What a pansy!” – which I thought was funny because Mark was straight.
The movie was awful, but we enjoyed chatting and making fun of it until a guy in front of us looked back and said, “Will you please shut up?”
“No,” Stephen said, “we came here to talk and you’ll just have to live with it.”
The guy stood up and challenged Stephen to a fight outside. His girlfriend, embarrassed, tugged at the guy’s arm. He looked about 6’6”.
“Okay, we’ll shut up,” Stephen said quickly. “We didn’t know you were that big.” The rest of us tried to control our giggling as the guy sat down.
The College is now a West Indian restaurant.
The Georgetowne Twin
In the Georgetowne shopping center not far from our house, this was the first suburban-type twin theater in Brooklyn. I attended the very first show here, at noon on a Friday afternoon in the summer of 1971. It was Getting Straight, with Elliott Gould playing a Vietnam vet in graduate school. The best scene was where he goes nuts when an English professor on his dissertation committee suggests that F. Scott Fitzgerald was gay.
My college girlfriends and I used to go to the movies here on Friday and Saturday night dates, but sometimes the lines got too long and we’d go instead to the Kings and the other empty movie palaces along Flatbush Avenue on what once had been called Brooklyn’s Great White Way.
The Georgetowne Twin is now a Pergament hardware store.
The Kings was the grandest theater in Brooklyn: a French Renaissance palace whose lobby featured ornate chandeliers, bronze statues, and walnut paneling. Baroque murals with sinister satyr figures danced on the ceiling, and an ornamental peacock reigned above the stage. It was one of five “Wonder Theaters” that the Loews chain opened outside Manhattan in 1929.
In junior high, Eugene and I and the guys we hung out with would freeze our asses off waiting in long lines on Saturday mornings for the first showings of Goldfinger and A Hard Day’s Night.
In the early 1970s, as the neighborhood changed, white moviegoers abandoned the Kings and the other theaters on Flatbush Avenue for the newer twin theaters in shopping centers like Georgetowne and Kings Plaza. But Randi and I used to go here a lot, to avoid the Friday and Saturday night crowds at the suburban-like movie houses.
The last film we saw here was The Tamarind Seed, with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif. We were practically the only white people in an audience of about a hundred, dwarfed in a theater meant to seat 3,500 people.
A documentary about the Kings appeared on PBS in the late 1980s and there always seems to be talk about reviving it now that the neighborhood has boomed again, saved by middle-class West Indians and Haitians. A deal for the Kings to reopen as part of the Magic Johnson chain fell through in the late 1990s because the theater is just too expensive to renovate.
The hulk of The Kings remains: shuttered except for occasional tours by select architecture and design students. Some of them have spotted pigeons flying over the dusty, cobwebbed maroon seats in that blasted ruin, a Sistine Chapel for connoisseurs of decay.
The Albemarle, The Rialto,
Except for the Astor, a small art house next to the 200-year-old Erasmus Hall High School, these theaters were the Kings’ movie-palace neighbors along the five-block stretch of Flatbush Avenue south of Church.
The Kenmore, on Church Avenue, lasted the longest, becoming a quad. Linda and I saw Grease in one of the upstairs screening rooms, which had been the balcony where we’d sat as kids.
The Albemarle and the Rialto, a block apart, were only a little less grand than the Kings, each seating over 2,200 people. The last movies Linda and I saw here were both in 1974 – The Towering Inferno and Earthquake – but I can’t remember in which theater we saw which disaster movie. Only a handful of people sat with us in the audience.
These theaters have become retail space – except for the Albemarle, which retains its marquee as a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall.
On Sheepshead Bay Road, this small neighborhood house was where Elise and I saw Trojan Women here one Saturday night in February 1972 when we were both really depressed. Elise had just broken up with my friend Ken, and I was still bummed out over my breakup with Rona, whom I’d spotted the night before sitting with Richie H. at the late show of Sunday, Bloody Sunday at the Kings Plaza theater. The Kings Plaza – now a quad – is still open.
Elise, a classics major, really liked Trojan Women. I was just grateful to be at the movies with someone I could relate to. The night before I’d seen Sunday, Bloody Sunday on a first date with a sorority girl who nearly gagged when Peter Finch kissed Murray Head.
When we got back into my car after Trojan Women, Elise and I couldn’t stop shivering until the car heater came on full blast. She laughed when I said I used to be a Trojan man.
The Sheepshead became a roller rink before morphing into a Bally’s Fitness health club.
The Avalon and The Kingsway
These were along the Kings Highway shopping strip, the Kingsway a majestic Art Deco palace seating 2,200 at the corner of Coney Island Avenue, the Avalon a few streets down and a little smaller. The Avalon is where Elise and I saw Cabaret for the second time, a few months after we’d seen it at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater.
Once, when I was with Dad at the Avalon, the teenager in the aisle seat in front of us passed out during Rocky II. I was impressed that Dad, the first person to get to him, was quick enough to ask, “What are you on?” The kid said Quaaludes, but he was all right.
I went to the Kingsway just once, shortly before it was broken up into a multiplex, with someone who was not really my friend but Elise’s. Jay’s father had recently died and when I called to offer my condolences, he said he really needed to get out of the house and asked if I’d see a movie with him. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a film with Paul Newman and Robby Benson in a strained father-son relationship.
When it opened, the Kingsway had an Austin Company pipe organ with three separate keyboards. Just a couple of years ago, it finally closed and became a Walgreens. The Avalon became retail stores catering to the Russians who dominate the neighborhood.
A little out-of-the-way theater in the isolated neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach, the Graham had a projection booth that was actually in the back of its lobby, from where you could watch the movie perfectly.
The Graham was a dollar theater when Elise and I went there to see our favorite actress, Glenda Jackson, in some comedy that we felt was beneath her. To us, a so-so Glenda Jackson movie was better than a good movie with a lesser actress.
The Graham was razed in the early 1990s. In its place are condominium apartments called The Graham.
On Thanksgiving Eve 1972, I took Randi on our first date to the Midwood, on Avenue J and East 13th Street. She wore a blue turtleneck and had a bad cold, which I didn’t worry about catching despite my hypochondria. Randi couldn’t find tissues in the ladies’ room, so she came back blowing her nose with those rough brown paper towels. I’d already seen Rohmer’s talky Chloe in the Afternoon on my own in Manhattan, but I wanted to see it again because the narration was so fast I couldn’t keep up with the subtitles the first time.
Walking on Avenue J after the show ended, I said I thought it was good for married people to have love affairs and Randi looked at me funny. We ended up dating for two years. I forced her to sit through The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and she forced me to sit through a revival of Camelot, but we stayed friends anyway.
The Midwood became a discount theater, one where the price would end with the last two numbers of the year. In 1989, a ticket cost $2.89. The Midwood shut down after someone got stabbed during a movie.
The Avenue U
The Avenue U was at the corner of East 16th Street, shadowed by the el and just up the street from my orthodontist. When we were going to different high schools, Eugene and I saw some Biblical epic here on Easter vacation and he told me about this guy who I think he liked a lot.
On my thirtieth birthday in 1981, my parents were visiting from Florida and took me to dinner and my choice of movie. I chose John Waters’ Polyester at the Avenue U. The cashier gave us Smell-o-rama cards with scratch-n-sniff odors like sweaty sneakers and shit. I waited to see how long it would be for my mother to figure out that Divine wasn’t actually a woman. Mom had mostly stopped going to movies by then.
The Avenue U became a dollar theater and then a porn house before closing. It’s now a Commerce Bank branch.
The Surfside Twin
Another early 1970s strip-center twin theater, originally part of the Jerry Lewis Cinema chain, this was just a block from the beach at Rockaway, near the apartment buildings where my four grandparents lived.
When I told Grandpa Nat I’d seen Across 110th Street there, he said, “No, it’s across 105th Street,” referring to the theater’s location across Beach 105th Street from his apartment. It was a funny “Who’s on first?” conversation, but you had to be there.
By the time I was an MFA student, Grandma Sylvia spent winters in Miami Beach and Grandpa Nat joined her every third week. One Saturday afternoon when we were both alone, I convinced Grandpa Nat to accompany me to see a dubbed version of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage.
At the scene in which Liv Ullman desperately claws at her unfaithful husband, Erland Josephsson, Grandpa Nat leaned across and whispered, “She loves him madly!” He and Grandma Sylvia had been married for about 55 years by then.
After the movie, we visited my other grandparents, who asked about the movie. “This picture makes a big deal about nothing,” Grandpa Nat told Grandma Ethel and Grandpa Herb. “It’s not for people like us.”
In the summer of 1991, just before I left New York to attend law school, I was living in Grandma Ethel’s apartment. All my other grandparents were dead and she was in a nearby nursing home.
On my fortieth birthday, I tried to get Grandma Ethel to come with me to the Surfside to see Boyz N the Hood.
“Richard,” she said, “my movie-going days are over.” Then she wanted to know why I just didn’t go two doors down from the theater and bring back a movie from the video store.
“It’s not the same thing,” I said. I saw Boyz N the Hood alone.
The Surfside closed three years later, a few months after my grandmother died. Driving by on Rockaway Beach Boulevard last summer, I couldn’t tell it had once been a movie theater.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/grayson.html]
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