I came across an account of a 1930s Art Deco movie palace in Queens, the Earle. In time it showed porn films (sound familiar?), and by the 1980s it was a Bollywood theater whose new owners renamed it the Eagle by changing one letter, the r. Since the neighborhood had many Asian immigrants, it did a good business until a nearby video store began selling copies of the films the theater was showing. When a successful Bollywood film director went into the store and asked for pirated copies of his films, and found they had lots, he started yelling at the owners. Unperturbed, they invited him for tea, said they were honored to have him in their store as a guest, told him that his films were very popular, and that he should take this as a compliment. They kept on selling his films. What is that old movie palace today? A food bazaar called Ittadi.
So it goes.
Movie palaces that aren’t lucky enough to be saved either meet appointments with a wrecker’s ball or they find themselves still standing but transformed — as in the fairytale, going from coach to pumpkin. Transformations can be kind of fascinating: a parking garage in Detroit, a basketball court in Brooklyn. So many are churches, like one NY “wonder theater,” coincidentally also in Queens, the Valencia, its “naked” proscenium statuary swaddled in angels’ robes.
What intrigued me about Clifford’s tale of the Earle was the details of its slow descent, the makings, perhaps, of a good short story — a name change varying by one letter, and those unscrupulous/ingratiating video store entrepreneurs.
Let’s start with the theater’s Bollywood owners, who chose to re-create the Earle as The Eagle, in their name choice varying only one letter, obviously wanting to start fresh. The why of this decision is lost to time, though perhaps they were making a money-saving signage move. Wow do I get that! As a former theater operator (The 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, 1976), I can attest that we were often forced to be creative with signage, using upside-down W’s for missing M’s on the marquee, for example.
Deep into the Bollywood career of the Earle/Eagle, the arrival of the neighborhood video store with it’s pirated movie copies, and desperate clever store owners, offering the Indian fat cat tea and adoration, is a tale within a tale.
Assuming this story is accurate, the Earle’s descent parallels the rise and fall of video itself — not surprising, given how many technologies and techno-based industries have come and gone since motion pictures were created (silent films, newsreels, network TV, single-screen theaters, movie palaces...).
Fact-checking has yielded few specifics of Cliff’s story. The Earle makes a cameo appearance in the last paragraph of “Closing of a Gay Theater, the Site of High-Risk Sex, Is Upheld,” a 1995 New York Times piece focussing on the shuttering of The New David Theatre on West 54th Street in Manhattan. “The Earle Theater, 73-07 37th Road in Jackson Heights, was closed on Feb. 8 and allowed to reopen under a stipulation calling, among other things, for the hiring of two uniformed guards to monitor sexual activity and eject anyone caught in high-risk sexual activity.”
In all probability the theater’s name change had something to do with its naughty bawdy former career.
There’s not much to glean on the Earle/Eagle in Cinema Treasures, often a trough of information. Here is the theater’s entire CT entry:
“Located in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. The Earle...was an Art Deco theater, similar in style to the Lane Theatre in Staten Island. This one-time porn house was shuttered for a while and later resurrected as the Eagle Theater. It continued to operate in later years, showing a healthy dose of Bollywood films. However, it was closed in May 2009, due to a strike at the film production studios in Mumbai.”
Well that last bit is a fitting finale: a film strike in India triggered the demise of a Deco movie palace half a world away, in Queens. As Cliff says, so it goes.
- It’s interesting, to this Staten Islander, that The Lane, a small Deco treasure in my borough, living out its landmarked life as the Crossroads Church, is somehow reminiscent of the Earle. Church beats food bazaar...
- Sometimes, the comments column in Cinema Treasures is almost more interesting than the actual entry: On February 6, 2012, Michael Kaplan reflected, “The Earle was the premier 'art' movie house in Jackson Heights, always showing the finest independent and foreign movies. Here’s a list of what I remember seeing there: Hiroshima Mon Amour, And God Created Woman, Medium Cool, Alfie. And God Created Woman featured Brigitte Bardot and you had to be at least 16 to see it. I lied about my age and the eager ticket seller let me in. Not a bad movie, actually, very daring for its time. The theater was a beautiful deco piece and very well maintained. That all changed when it turned into a porn venue; it was probably the raunchiest movie house in the neighborhood, the Fair and Polk running close.
- Cliff tells me that some of the details from his account come from a NYTimes article, "This Neighborhood Contains Multitudes," by Michael Kimmelmann, appearing August 30, 2020, on Jackson Heights, which certainly does deserve a Walt Whitman tip of the hat for its diversity.