It was a sad day for cinephiles on September 6, 1990 when the Bleecker Street Cinema closed. The beloved movie house was another casualty of the trends that had led to the demise of similar smaller cinemas – the ones that showed older classic films and lesser-known independent and foreign films. There was enormous pressure from real-estate interests, declining audiences due to availability of films for home viewing (videocassettes in those days), and competition from much larger movie theater chains with multiple screens.
Bleecker Street Cinema has an interesting history to be sure, but so does the building that housed it. 144 and 146 Bleecker Street were adjacent townhouses originally built in 1832. In 1883, the townhouse at 144 Bleecker was converted to a restaurant named Mori’s, after its owner Placido Mori. In 1920, Mori expanded to include both buildings, and a new façade, designed by architect Raymond Hood and featuring a Doric colonnade, was added. For a while Mori’s was the home of the Friday “Four Hour Lunch Club” which included Hood, Joseph Urban, Ely Jacques Kahn and visitors such as Ralph Walker and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mori’s restaurant closed in 1937, and the building was unoccupied for some time until another restaurant called Restaurant Montparnasse opened there.
But in 1960 the space was converted to a movie theater by Lionel Rogosin, a social activist and filmmaker. The first film screened was Rogosin’s own independent production, Come Back, Africa, filmed on location in Africa, and dealing with the struggles against Apartheid. His collaboration with the Film-Makers’ Cooperative led to that group’s midnight screenings of experimental independent films, and eventually Bleecker Street Cinema became a home for revivals of classic films. In 1966 director Kenneth Anger’s controversial film Scorpio Rising was shown.
In the early 1970’s the theater was purchased and operated by Sid Geffen and his wife Jackie Raynal. Under their supervision, Bleecker Street Cinema, with its foreign- and independent-film programming became a favorite of film historians, writers, and students. French filmmaker François Truffaut was a frequent visitor to the Bleecker Street Cinema, and the publication “NY Film Bulletin” was published in the back office. Scenes from 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan and Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors were filmed there.
In the early days there was a house cat (presumably a mouser) named Breathless, after the Jean-Luc Godard film, succeeded in later years by a cat named Wim, after director Wim Wenders. Sometimes the cats would climb onto the projection screen! There were actually two screens: the main auditorium that seated 171, and the smaller 78-seat James Agee Room.
But after Geffen died in 1986, his widow had difficulty keeping Bleecker Street Cinema viable. A combination of law suits and rent increases forced her to close. For a short time after the closing of Bleecker Street Cinema, others such as Nick Russo Nicholaou, who ran Cinema Village in the East Village, tried to keep this a film venue, but to no avail.
In 2013 Village Preservation got this area landmarked, as part of the second phase of our proposed South Village Historic District. While too late for the Bleecker Street Cinema, this should at least prevent any further adulteration of the building.