Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Angelika turns 20

On this date in 1989, the Angelika Film Center on Houston and Mercer opened. The theater was originally set to open earlier, on Aug. 18, but there were delays. As the Times reported on Aug. 18, 1989:

The Angelika Film Center, a new six-screen movie theater in SoHo that was to have opened today, has postponed its opening for at least a week. The opening of the $4 million center at Mercer and Houston Streets, which is to be Manhattan's only first-run, multi-screen movie theater south of Greenwich Village, has already been postponed several times because of construction delays.

"I have so much egg on my face, if I say Aug. 25, I don't want to have to eat it again," said Joseph Saleh, the president of Angelika Films, the New York-based production and distribution company that has developed the theater.

The postponement, he added, was because city inspectors had "raised objections about the plumbing and sewage-injection systems, which the contractor couldn't resolve in time."

The theater will present a mixture of "major and independent first-run feature films, retrospectives, foreign films and children's programming," including movies released by Angelika Films, Mr. Saleh said. It will open with "Let It Ride," a comedy starring Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr; a Disney action-adventure film called "Cheetah," and the American premieres of two Angelika releases - "Emma's Shadow," a Danish movie about a girl who orchestrates her own kidnapping to get her parents' attention, and "Shell Shock," an Israeli film about two soldiers after the 1973 Middle East war.

The center will include two theaters with 265 seats each, and one each with 210, 190, 130 and 85 seats, as well as a 7,000-square-foot lobby with an espresso bar and cafe catered by Dean & DeLuca. It occupies the basement and ground floor of the Cable Building, which was designed in 1894 by McKim, Mead & White to store Houston Street cable cars.

Tickets will cost $7, and can be reserved in advance by credit card.

As commenter King Biscuit noted at Cinema Treasures, only four of the six screens were ready on Sept. 29 (the other two opened on Oct. 4 and Oct. 13). The premiere engagements were "Shell Shock," "Emma's Shadow," "The Navigator" and "Shirley Valentine."

I haven't been to the Angelika in years. It's perfectly pleasant on a weekday afternoon, when not many people are around. Otherwise, my gripes about it are the same as everyone else's gripes: You know, those uncomfortable seats. (Did they ever replace them?) Terrible sightlines. Etc.

Some good memories, I think, through the years. I remember taking an afternoon off, and sitting in an empty auditorium watching Hal Hartley's "The Unbelievable Truth." I also recall being coerced into to seeing "The Crying Game" at the height of its hype, and standing in some crazy line for tickets. And some wisenheimer walks by and divulges an important penis-related plot point to those of us in line.

And maybe I never got over that now-commonplace concept of cafe and theater, which I always thought took the emphasis away from the film. (Nothing so bad as the decision-makers who decided it was a good idea to sell and serve nachos in a theater...)

Back to some history. As that Times article mentioned, the building was once home to McKim, Mead and White's grand Cable Building. Forgotten NY notes, this once "powered Manhattan's cable cars in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Yes, Manhattan once had an extensive system of cable cars rivaling San Francisco's. The building housed the enormous machinery that was necessary to run the cars in Manhattan as far north as 36th Street. The cable rails were converted to electricity in the early 1900s, and largely eliminated by buses by the 1940s."

Here's a shot of the cable building circa 1894:

According to Architecture NY, "the building to the left of Vogel's window (above) was demolished in the 1950s when Houston Street was widened from it's original 2 lanes to 4 lanes. Three other buildings still further left in the first view were also demolished -- around 1915 to make way for a taller office building of 12 stories. The one that was featured with some kind of 'art' bolted to the side wall that created a big stir when the owners wanted to remove it for a billboard. I believe there is Club Monaco on the ground floor still of that 12 story building."

NYC Architecture has everything else that you'd ever want to know about the Cable Building. (There's plenty more information here.)

Before this, the site was home to St. Thomas Church, which burned down in 1851. The church was rebuilt and then demolished circa 1890. Sounds familiar.

Top photo via.

Other photos via.


Media glut said...

For years I have been complaining about this place. I think it is sad to see quality indie features opening in a substandard theater. Sometimes there are films coming that I might want to go out and see on the big screen only to find that they open at this place with it's long narrow screening rooms fronted by tiny screens. It was badly designed to begin with.

If there is a movie I want to see that is playing there I will wait to see if they move it to The East Village on 2nd Ave & 12th St. The East Village is a well designed multiplex, really nice and owned now by the same company that owns Angelika. I don't know why the distributors don't open at The East Village and then move to Angelika. Apparently they don't understand that many of us consider Angelika a must to avoid. What does this do to the opening box office takes in the major market, NYC, for indie films?

The Sunshine is also a fine theater.

As for Angelika, happy birthday, now gut the place and redesign it. Until then I'll wait for DVD.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I always liked feeling/hearing the subway rumble underneath the theater during the films...made the experience more raw and urban...

Ken Mac said...

Great theater, and great history. Besides being the first multiplex in the Village, it predates McDonalds, CVS, Starbucks, Kmart and all the other chains that I thought would never hit my hood.

EV Grieve said...

@Goggla. I agree! I actually never found the subway rumble distracting. Gave the place some personality.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks for the comment, Larry. I agree with you, though I'm not a *huge* fan of 12th/2nd. I do wish we had a few more alternatives. I still miss the Pioneer and Theatre 80...

Jeremiah Moss said...

i also avoid Angelika like the plague, but only because of the people and the crazy line-up. i wait for things to come to the Village East, which i love because it's often empty and quiet. which is, of course, not good for the theater, though.

Jill said...

I remember going to the Angelika shortly after it opened and being astonished at the concept of serving sandwiches and food that looked like the kind of food you might get at an overpriced cafe. It was a huge departure from nachos, popcorn and candy that were the only foods ever allowed through the front door of any other theater.

In fact, recently at Union Square Theater seeing District 9 I was rushed and late and about to faint from starvation so I had to eat something there from a vending machine. I think it was a kosher vending machine. I can't even remember what it was, but it barely resembled food and cost $5.

~evilsugar25 said...

while i do agree that the angelika's screens are small and rooms are narrow (aren't we new yorkers kind of used to that?), i love the option of cafe food, and willingly go there when there is a flick i want to see and it's only playing there. i much prefer it to the unionsquare standard megaplex.