In 1976 and 77, while I was involved in running the St. George Theatre (a 2672-seat movie palace on the other side of Staten Island), the Lane — with its chrome wall sconces and soft lighting, its sweet rounded blue and green neon bands of light and modest stadium-style auditorium — was a sanctuary of another kind for me to run away to. Like all single-screen theaters at that time, the managers of the Lane were in as much trouble as we were at the St. George, but I pretended not to notice. On grim evenings, when nobody was buying tickets to see whatever well-worn movie was showing on our screen, a few of us would pile into a friend’s British Racing Green Volvo and high-tail it over to the Lane, buy somebody else’s popcorn and soak up a little heat. This last was an important item: in the severely-cold winter of 1977, our theater landlord had adopted the killer habit of turning off the boiler, so it was a solace to sit, for once, in a theater where you could feel the warmth in your toes and not see your own breath.
But back to the present. Across the street from this new house of worship, proprietors of Blue Velvet Beauty Lounge & Spa tell me all the good things the church has done, raising money for local residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy and Cancer victims. And who can complain? — those wonderful chrome wall sconces have been preserved. The concession stand, nowadays, offers doughnuts and coffee, and the old comedy club’s Green Room has morphed into a children’s Bumble Bee play room. LIfe goes on.
I don’t begrudge this church their Sunday morning and evening services. Many theaters, including the United Palace on 175th Street — saved by Reverend Ike and still serving, among other things, as a place of worship — have been preserved by congregations. Isn’t preservation what it’s all about? Peeking out from behind the marquee’s plain purple and white church signage those rounded red Art Deco letters still spell out LANE.
Another example of a great theater preserved, in part, by becoming, for a time, a church is the Belasco in L.A. Speaking of L.A., it’s interesting to note that the line between church and movie theater in that town can sometimes be so thin as to be almost non-existent. "We'd be lost without the screen," said the 43-year-old leader of Destiny People Christian Church, which holds services at various multiplexes. The screen, according to this pastor, plays a central spiritual role. A number of L.A. congregations seem drawn to movie theater homes.
Returning to the theme of sanctuary, how many of us who cherish the old theaters, consider them sacred spaces? And how often does one sanctuary replace another? A friend once told me that, on the Aventine Hill in Rome, stands a church, beneath which, in the first century, was a shrine to an ancient Mithraic cult. Gazing through the Lane’s steel gates at what was briefly a small shrine to cinema, is it Thalia, the smiling muse of comedy, I’m looking for? And, of course, her frowning cohort, Melpomene.