Mostly I wandered the streets, dipping in and out of head shops, passing by places that intrigued me. One such was Variety Photo Plays, a theater whose marquee I can easily say was the exhibition equivalent of a high-end dessert, something on the order of meringue glacee, red and white by day, glowing red/orange at night. I never went inside, which saddens me now that it no longer exists.
The Variety was, until its demise in 2005, one of the few original nickelodeons still standing. By 1976, it had morphed into a porn house, if one with an interesting history. That year, we showed Scorcese’s Taxi Driver on our Staten Island screen. Little did we know that the Variety had served as a location site, the scene in which DeNiro’s character first meets Foster’s; and around the corner from the Variety, the movie’s final shootout actually took place. In our outer borough movie palace, we’d created a mirror for the funky streets of the East Village just across the water.
What exactly was “Variety Photoplays?” Why “photoplays” and not “movies?” According to The New York Times (1989) the original owner, a man named Valensi, an early Nickelodeon entrepreneur who built the theater, probably “sought an association with legitimate theater endeavors, of which 14th Street had been a center since the 1850's.” Nickelodeons, which Variety initially was, were cheap (a nickel); in the eyes of the tonier crowd who enjoyed opera at the 4000-seat Academy of Music on 14th St. just around the corner, motion pictures were, well, too vulgar.
This of course would change rather quickly; in fact, the great movie palaces were built explicitly to compete for the entertainment interests of the opera crowd. In the Union Square area, these high-brows dined afterward at August Luchow’s palatial restaurant on the south side of 14th Street. Accordingly, close to Luchow’s, in 1926, a lavish Thomas Lamb movie palace rose up. The old (Academy of Music) opera house had by this time been demolished, so movie palace mogul William Fox, took the opportunity to christen his new theater (what else?) The Academy of Music. (It kept this name until the 1970’s, when it morphed into the Palladium, a Ron Delsener rock venue, where I could have caught the Boss, if I hadn’t been broke).
I could do an entire history of the evolution of entertainment in New York, concluding with the birth of movie palaces, and never leave the corner of 14th and Third! The humble Variety Photo Plays (formally opened in 1914) was, a little more than ten years later, already an anachronism. “Designed by Louis Sheinart, the exterior...was in plain brick, generally unornamented except for arcaded piers projecting above a sloping tiled false roof....Inside, the auditorium was fairly plain, but did have a slightly pitched floor and fixed seats, still novel touches in an industry that had started only recently with plain benches and sheets hung on a wall.” (The New York Times).
In 1923, to compete with the onslaught of movie palaces, Variety treated itself to a marquee designed by Julius Eckman, re-embellished seven years later, by Boak & Paris. Oh, that marquee. Until the day in 2005 when the little theater was finally demolished, the marquee spoke to me and to other passers-by, of an era long-gone, the infancy of film itself. Boak & Paris hadn’t altered its underside, “a coffered field with regularly spaced bulbs,” according to the Times, but had stitched on “a zigzag Art Deco fascia in enameled metal and neon lighting.” The fascia gave ...“the theater's, rather than the show's, name...” recalling “...the period when movies were more of a generic product. The lights buzzing on the underside of the marquee, when they were on, enveloped the passerby in a warm, glowing field.” That field, as I remember it, was a dazzling Tequila Sunrise orange at night. Film fare at the Variety was already grade B by 1930, and would gradually slip over the decades to what the Times finally describes, in 1989, as “raunchy to naughty to pornographic...” adding “...a slightly forbidden, Coney Island spice to the building.”
You can find a bit of that Coney Island spice in a fine reminiscence, by Mykola Dementiuk (Lambda Literary). His tribute to the gay porn days of love in a darkened theater is as much about the book Variety Photo Plays by the poet Edward Field, as it is about the theater itself. Here’s some of what Dementiuk has to say about nights there:
“The Variety Photoplays...showed corny girlie films but was better known for being a faggot pick-up place—a place where you could get a handjob/blowjob, with no need of knowing who was giving it to you.”
If Jack Stevenson in Bright Lights Film Journal can be believed, the above description is an understatement. Here’s his unvarnished observation from a 1980’s visit:
Upon entering the auditorium, I saw the movie was playing upside-down. This lasted a good fifteen minutes. Nobody complained or perhaps even noticed....Among the clientele that afternoon were trashy drag queens and what William Burroughs refers to in Junky as “rooming-house flesh;” the old, the infirm, the pallid-complexioned occupants of the neighborhood’s cheap residency hotels. There was a preponderance of fat unshaven duffers dressed in dirty woolen caps and multiple layers of T-shirts and coats, dressed for the middle of winter on this sweltering afternoon. Two old floor fans clanging away up front did nothing to cool the place down.
It was like stepping into a time capsule. I noticed four large globe-like lighting fixtures that had somehow survived the decades. The walls were an unremarkable (patched) plaster, but the ceiling was special, composed of patterned pressed tin. There was a single modest balcony. My main memory was of patrons moving about the theater in a constant bustle and streaming into and out of the toilets oddly situated down front below the screen and surely a distraction for anyone trying to watch the film. The room was filled with the continual rustlings and creakings of people on the move. It was more like a mass happening than a movie screening, and in fact I have no recollection of the film at all.
When I came into the city for a bowl of borscht and a look-around, I gazed longingly at Variety’s marquee, knowing that if I passed through the doors, gender would make me an outlier. Besides, we had run a soft-porn triple feature at the St. George, so I knew more or less what these audiences, gay or straight, did in the dark. At any rate, I never went inside. The Times observes — with a bit of nostalgia I find suspect — “People going past the theater, even in the daytime, got a whiff of vintage celluloid, and at night it was intoxicating.” How could I have failed to smell the lovely film stock? Famously flammable, celluloid had actually been out of production since the 1950’s. So much for nostalgia.
Variety took a brief curtain call as an Off-Broadway theater before it was, sadly, torn down, replaced by the inevitable luxury apartment building. For more, read Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York A.K.A.The Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at a City in the Process of Going Extinct. I love the spirit of this title, nostalgia well placed.
1.This post is a re-run from 2018; another post from about that time was about Deco theaters, aided by the fine book, Popcorn Palaces: The Art Deco Movie Theatre Paintings of Davis Cone. One of Cone’s paintings — of Variety Photo Plays in the 1970’s — triggered my memory. Thanks again to Cone...
2. Unrelated afterthought: New York City is finally reopening movie theaters! They’re springing up (no pun intended) like daffodils! One theater that has had a long continued life is the Village East, now under Angelika’s banner. It has a history as a Yiddish theater, surviving since the era of Variety Photoplays. As a matter of fact, it’s showing Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in 70 mm. What a way to re-start your movie-going, by seeing actual film. If you’re in or near Manhattan, here’s what’s open.