Thursday, July 30, 2009

Former landmark countercultural theater now for rent on Avenue B

The long-dormant Hispanic evangelical church that was housed in the building here on Avenue B between 11th Street and 12th Street... now up for rent. Two spaces are available: One at 1,000 square feet and the other at 1,220 square feet. This is a prime chunk of space ripe for something horrible. However. Given the store-bought sign, the lack of a broker and the fact that space is only for rent, and not for sale, we remain hopeful. We're curious about what kind of tenant Pastor Carlos seeks.

Meanwhile. This building is hallowed ground for many cinephiles. The space here at 193 Avenue B opened in 1926 as the Bijou, a 600-seat theater with a balcony. It later bacame the Charles Theatre. As Cinema Treasures notes: "In later years it was one of the early New York theatres to program off-beat and independent films. It showed early Warhol and had open film nights where young filmmakers could get an audience."

You can see the Charles here in this shot from 1949. We're looking north from 11th Street. (Via.)

Here's more info on the Charles via:

[T]he Charles "provided the underground with it's first, semi-permanent base of operations." While the theaters tenure was short-lived (a little over a year--- beginning in 1961) it's legacy was quite impressive. " became a landmark of sorts in the creation of an American counterculture."

Jonas Mekas
was hired by the owners of the Charles to organize some additional screenings. "Mekas was then in the early stages of his passionate commitment to American experimental cinema" but "had an eye for new talent"...and began holding monthly open screenings which turned out to be great social events. Some audience members quickly made the transition to filmmakers, while others acted/participated as critics.

In light of the above the Charles emerges as a "Great Good Place" because "it was the spiritual home of a particular utopian ideology, a place where the audience was not just the passive recipient of mass-produced fantasies, but an active community, producing movies for itself. The Charles therefore incorporated films and film making into an alternative sense of family and community through freedom and equality.

Here's the Charles in 1966. (Via.)

There's a lot more, of course. (For example, in February 1962, the Arkestra — billed as Le Sun Ra and his Cosmic Space Jazz Group — made their New York debut at the Charles.) But you get the idea for now. I'll have more later. As far as I can find, the use of this space as a theater ended in 1975.

I'll leave you with this letter from the Metropolitan Diary from earlier this summer:

Dear Diary:

Growing up on 16th Street between Avenues B and C before Stuyvesant Town was built meant that respite from summer’s heat was available only if you went to the upscale movie theaters like the RKO Jefferson or the Academy of Music, both farther west on 14th Street. No such luxury could be found at the local movie house, the Bijou Theater, on Avenue B between 11th and 12th Streets.

This two-story theater was strictly a no-frills neighborhood flick house. But when the summer temperature inside became unbearable or cigarette smoke blurred the screen, the ceiling of the Bijou began to ever so slowly slide open from the center toward the edges to provide egress for both heat and Lucky Strike’s blue vapors.

For a 10-year-old like me it was magic — until a sudden thunderstorm came up and the rain began pelting the seats. The roof’s closing speed was also ever so slow, and people scrambled in all directions like it was a fire drill. When it finally closed, we all went back to our seats, gave them a swipe with a handkerchief and never took our eyes off the screen.

The Marx Brothers had their “Night at the Opera.” We had our nights at the Bijou.

Victor Washkevich


Mykola Dementiuk said...

In the late 60s I saw Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast', there were about 5 people in the whole theater. And there was another movie house on Ave B between 5th and 6th Streets. It showed monster and ghost stories, I had been there as a kid. Plus a movie house on 3rd Street, between Ave B & C not to mention another movie house on Clinton Street on the other side of Houston. Used to go there when I cut out of Seward Park HS before heading up to 42nd Street. Monster flicks for the kiddies, the area was filled with them.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks, Mick.

Now we just have kiddies of a different sort.

And there was a theater on Avenue A b/t 7th and 6th where the bodega is...?

Mykola Dementiuk said...

I know, I had been to the burnt-out shell, but I was sticking to Ave B

Bowery Boogie said...

nice work! let's hope it stays with the theater/arts scene.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

It would be great to have another community-centered film-making venue. We've already got all the film students and creative residents...too bad I haven't won the lotto yet or I'd fund this myself.

Media glut said...

Fascinating. Thanks for digging all this up. I love old theater lore.
BTW: I either read in one of his book or heard George Burns talking about playing the Jefferson.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

Marx Brothers also played the Jefferson as did Bob Hope. When I was a little kid in the 50s I saw Jerry Lewis do a live show at the Loews Commodore on 6th Street and 2nd Avenue which became the Fillmore East.

Jill said...

In the photo from 1949 you can see Stuyvesant Town in the background. According to Wikipedia it was opened in 1947 so it must have been very new then.

Also, in the movie theater picture there is a building on the corner that is now an empty lot. Nice to see what once stood there.

Unknown said...

Great pictures/story! I sent this to my mom. She would tell me stories of all the places she hung out growing up like the Charles and Bijou theaters. (As well as places like the Filmore, The Dom and all the other greats that were sadly just before my time.)

Thanks for this post.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks, EVHP. It amazes me how many theaters used to be in the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Another movie house on Avenue B somewhere betweeen 16th and 23rd streets called the Gramercy Theater was momma's baby sitter. Every Saturday in the 1940's it showed three full length movies, a serial, cartoons and coming attrations all for a dime. Whatta good deal that was.

Vic Washkevich

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget that on Friday nights the Gramecy Boys Club on
16th Street between Avenues A & B showed a free two reel 16 mm movie to kids who were members. To kill time when they were changing reels, we all had a sing-along. It was free. My boys club badge, back in the late '30s and early '40s described the club as "A Bright Spot in the Gas House District." And it sure was for all of us kids.

Vic Washkevich

Anonymous said...

Did anyone notice in that 1949 photo of Avenue B how much parking space was available. Like the Bijou that's all gone, too.

Vic Washkevich

Unknown said...

i,ve heard thqat malcolm x sp[oke at the charles. is this true? ellen

EV Grieve said...

Hi Ellen,

Good question... I'm not sure about that one...

Scuba Diva said...

Vic Washkevich said:

"Did anyone notice in that 1949 photo of Avenue B how much parking space was available. Like the Bijou that's all gone, too.

Well, I think a lot fewer people had cars back in those days; not only that, when I first lived in this neighborhood in the 80s and 90s, there were fewer cars; nowadays, anyone moving here from Florida or Minnesota has to bring their car.

"Oh sure, no prob; you can park on the street." The city has become one huge fucking parking lot.

Jill said...

There also weren't traffic lights on every corner until well into the 90s.