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The Heyday of Revival Movie Theaters in the Village

Going to the movies: One of America’s favorite pastimes. Before the advent of at-home technologies such as VHS, DVDs, and certainly streaming services, often the only way to see a beloved old film, or to discover one you may have missed when it was first released, was at a revival movie house. The earliest of these theaters, dedicated exclusively to the screening of classics, vintage favorites, or sometimes never-before-seen out-of-print editions, began to pop up in the Village in the late 1960s.

For the next two decades, revival movie houses were a hugely popular cultural affair. The appeal was widespread, and each theater offered its own unique take—some would showcase their library of classics on a rotating and recurring basis, while others sourced and presented one-off viewing opportunities; tickets were relatively inexpensive and double features were easy to come by. The venues appealed to a certain nostalgia, both through the film selections and the cozy (if not always luxurious) theater seating. In July 1976, the New York Times published an article with the headline: “When Movies Were Better Than Ever,” highlighting what was, looking back, the height of the phenomenon.

8th Street Playhouse Calendar, courtesy cinematreasures.org

Today, while some of the buildings that housed these theaters have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition, quite a few remain and offer a unique case study into adaptive reuse—the repurposing of buildings or infrastructure for a new, updated use—in our neighborhoods. As a facet of historic preservation, adaptive reuse enables historic buildings to be preserved and to continue their life even after the original use of the building is no longer viable.

Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place is a wonderful example of all of the above themes, and is indeed one of only a few such theaters in Lower Manhattan that remains almost entirely physically intact (due largely to the fact that it reverted to a live theater in the 1990s).

Theatre 80 St. Marks, courtesy panoramio.com

Constructed in 1845, 78-80 St. Marks Place was originally two buildings, combined in the first half of the twentieth century, during which the ground floor was progressively home to a series of coffeeshops, a speakeasy, a legal bar (one of the earliest in the city), a restaurant and cabaret, and a jazz venue. Beginning in 1964, actor and novelist Howard Otway renovated the space into the theater we see today.

From 1966-1971, Theatre 80 was a live venue, notably premiering the musical “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 1967, which continued its run at the theater for the next four years. In August 1971, building on the success of “Charlie Brown,” Otway made a bold move to pivot to exclusively showing old musical films, at a time when revival theaters were just starting to come into vogue. The decision proved to be a hugely successful one, and Theatre 80 became renowned as a revival movie house, with ticket lines sometimes extending down the block all the way to Second Avenue. The 199-seat movie theater was one of the last revival theaters to close in NYC, holding out until 1994 (at which point Howard’s son Lorcan Otway re-opened it as a live theater venue).

Over the years, Howard diversified his library to include films beyond musicals, but he continued to show some of his most popular musicals annually, including the 1935 production of “Roberta,” starring Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers, and the 1936 film of “Showboat,” also starring Dunne along with Helen Morgan, Allan Jones, and Paul Robeson. Otway would also purchase the rights to films whose copyrights had expired, and he dabbled in film restoration, often restoring deleted or particularly fragile segments of the 16mm filmstrips.

Greenwich Village and the East Village were the epicenter of the film revival movement. Here are just a few more of the many revival theaters in the Village, and their status today:

1. Anthology Film Archives – 32 Second Avenue

Anthology Film Archives, courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Currently an international center for the preservation and study of film and video, the first iteration of Anthology Film Archives opened as an avant-garde theater at The Public Theater in 1970, relocating a couple of times until acquiring its current home in 1979. The building has been adaptively reused more than once, as it was constructed as a courthouse in 1919.

2. 8th Street Playhouse – 52 West 8th Street

8th Street Playhouse – 1940s Tax Photograph

This theater opened in 1929 as the Film Guild Cinema. It joined the revival and independent films scene in the 1970s, and became known as the longtime venue for the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which played every Friday and Saturday night there for 11 years. The theater closed in 1992 and is now the site of a medical practice.

3. Bleecker Street Cinema – 144 Bleecker Street

Bleecker Street Cinema, courtesy Ephemeral New York

Located between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place, Bleecker Street Cinema had its run from 1962 to 1990. Much like Theatre 80, the building had originated as two row houses that were later combined. Since the ‘90s, the storefronts have been occupied by various retail uses.

78-80 St. Marks Place and the beloved Theatre 80 are under imminent and immediate threat of being lost forever! CLICK HERE to send a letter to city officials to urge that they be saved. You can also read this update for more information about this urgent issue.

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