The end of a one-screen East Side movie theater

On a walk along East 59th Street between Second and Third Avenues, something caught my eye—a former movie marquee fronting a row of tenements.

Was this little space, now a high-end workout studio, once a theater?

A quick investigation showed that it was the site of the former D.W. Griffith Theatre, a single-screen movie house that appears to have opened in the 1960s. At some point underwent a name change and became the 59th Street East Cinema.

“The 59th Street East Cinema, originally called the D.W. Griffith Theatre, was an art house theater located in midtown Manhattan,” explains Cinema Treasures.

“It belonged to a cluster of single, twin, and triplex movie theaters; all of which were within two blocks of each other.”

“One of many subterranean venues around the city, this single screen theater was reached through a small entrance that originates on E. 59th Street,” continued Cinema Treasures.

“The entrance continued past a modest concession area and then ended at a staircase, descending to theatre level.”

The 59th Street East Cinema looked like a wonderful place to hide away for a few hours in a pre-multiplex era.

It seems like the kind of theater that felt like a secret, transporting you to a cinematic world of thoughtfulness and reflection, and perhaps exposed you to new artists.

Alas, the art-house thing didn’t last. By the 2000s this little jewel box was renamed ImaginAsian (at right), showing Asian films, according to Cinema Treasures.

In 2010 it became Big Cinemas Manhattan, playing Bollywood flicks. Today, the theater is an exercise studio run by workout star Tracey Anderson with motivational wisdom rather than movie titles on the marquee.

It’s a transformation similar to what’s happened to other small city theaters, like this one in Greenpoint that now has Starbucks on the marquee!

[Third image: Cinema Treasures; fourth image: Yelp]

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23 Responses to “The end of a one-screen East Side movie theater”

  1. Robert Says:

    I literally was passing this area the other day, lamenting to my girlfriend about our former love for The ImagineAsian. In 2005 I caught Arakimentari there, a documentary on the famous Japanese photog Nobuyoshi Akari, introducing me to his amazing work. I think there is currently an exhibit of his work at the Museum of Sex right now. Here’s a link talking about the film at the ImaginAsian:

    I got to see some interesting Asian and Indian films here for a short while. If only moviepass has been around then that theater might have survived!

  2. Todd tarwid Says:

    I used to love this theatre when it was DW Griffith back in the 70s when I was a kid who went to school 2 blocks away at PS 59 ,I saw American Grafitti there,it was just a regular neighborhood theater not an art theater and showed new releases

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    If I remember correctly this Sutton/Beekman/East Midtown area used to have a fair number of movie theaters. It made the neighborhood feel somewhat of a time warp, in a good way, with no megaplexes and fewer chain stores than most of Manhattan.

  4. Zoé Says:

    Re. The importance of small neighbourhood theatres. People newer to the City and/or younger people may not know; not every building could get TV reception; as a lot of landlords (some of them slumlords) did not want to pay for a simple antenna on the roof.

    In addition if one was surrounded by taller buildings – that also blocked reception. And even when cable first arrived it took a long while to get to less affluent neighbourhoods. (My friend had it in the West 80s around 1985 when we on the LES did not – for one example).

    So despite all the great Hollywood Silver Screen black & whites & mold breaking New Hollywood (60s/70s) & foreign & art films & several year old rerun films shown on NYC & NJ stations (mostly on Saturdays/Sundays on pre sindication local channels 5 & 9 &11 & public station 13); most people in seedier buildings/neighbourhoods were lucky to get three channels. (Usually the major networks that did not show films). I think I only got *two* during the day – then after midnight could pull in some very weird early 80s programming!

    I think that’s why there were so very many local theatres & we went out to them *far* more often than people outside of the City… or more often than people *in* the City who had nicer landlords and/or got early cable to their buildings.

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol! I’ve just remembered something. My neighbour on my floor (2nd floor of a five floor tenement walk up on the LES w/ no antenna on the roof) ran a long wire antenna outside of the building to the roof. I’m not sure how he (illegally) attached it to the building or fire escape… Such was our lot… I’m not sure how that worked…

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    That’s a good point Zoe about TV programming. There’s a scene in Smithereens when the main characters are watching a little black and white TV and then the Star Spangled Banner comes on, signaling the end of programming for the night. Now that’s something no one under 35 will remember!

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol! My friend Joe was an extra in that film. (The blond w/ short hair in the concert line at Webster Hall – then still called The Ritz if memory serves…).

      My dad got cable in 1981 – one hour outside of Manhattan. I confess I used to go back home once in awhile just to watch MTV (in it’s brand new edgier incarnation) & Saturday Night Live & Black & Whites (as we called them then). As my parents travelled for my dad’s music industry job; the house was empty save for my brother & his musician friends (or fiends… drug fiends…). So it was like frying pan into fire (from the gritty LES) aside from the cable. Picture the lot of people in the old house in the film ‘Performance’!

      • Zoé Says:

        *A whole crew of us (downtown musicians & artists & actors – all friends & family in the case of my musician brother) would go to my parents empty house – I should have written – just for the TV there! Lol!

  6. Jayvee Says:

    Whatever happened to the Baronet theater – a double-decker with the Coronet theater appropriately above it? We saw The Lovers of Tereul there in the early ’60s – a great flick that disappeared as well.

    • Zoé Says:

      Try looking at Cinema Treasures (website/blog) for that Jaycee. It is pretty exhaustive & the comments are often as illuminating as the posts.

      I may have seen Polanski’s ‘The Tenant’ at the place you’re referring to (?). It was at a theatre w/ a staircase up from the street. A not very usual way to enter a theatre.

      • Zoé Says:

        *Sorry – I wrote ‘J-a-y-v-e-e’. The autocorrect on my new iPhone keeps changing it. Even now! That’s why I had to write it out as I have here! So frustrating! If anyone knows how to fix that without disabling it completely – I would love to know.

    • Zoé Says:

      Here you are J! (Sorry – autocorrect on iPhone is not letting me type your full name correctly).

      The full history is at Cinema Treasures under ‘Corenet 1&2 in New York, NY’. The name(s) were changed – to the one(s) you mentioned – in the 50s.

      I can’t put the URL link here because autocorrect keeps changing it (separating the words Cinema & treasures & capitalising Cinema)… So frustrating. I’ll have to disable it.

      Or perhaps someone else whose phone is not as fascistic as mine can post the Cinema Treasures link here for J.

      • Zoé Says:

        *That should have been ‘Coronet’ – not ‘CorEnet’. (And yet iPhone autocorrect did *not* correct that?! Lol – *only* the words I previously spelled correctly! Smh…).

      • Jayvee Says:

        Try this: Google: iphone autocorrect settings

        Let’s get back on topic now.

      • Zoé Says:

        Lol! I was “on topic” when I took fifteen minutes out of my life to find the specific Cinema Treasures article for you – in answer to your question – & posted that info here for *you*. (And I know how to disable autocorrect in ‘settings’ & use “google”. I would love to keep the autocorrect – yet without it’s present hyperactivity…).

        Ah… New York conversations… 8 million people w/ 8 million varying responses to selfless neighbourly altruism…

  7. JT Nichols Says:

    Used to go to the elegant theater 80 at 1st ave on either e. 8th or e. 10th. Coffee bar, red leather seats, old movies like Miracle of Morgan Creek, by Preston Sturges..

    • Zoé Says:

      You’re right JT Nichols. It was on St.Marks at 1rst Ave. (East 8th St. called St.Marks there). There’s an interesting history of that place online & the person that showed his collection of old Hollywood Silver Screen Black&White films. I think it’s still operational in some capacity. I’ll look it up again.

      It was done in an Art Deco design. Hence very 1970s. Black/white/red/chrome interior. (I’ve forgotten if the interior originated in the actual machine age deco period; or if it was designed like that due to the Thirties film obsession of the 70s & of the proprietor). I think they may have held parties & events also.

      That was one of the local theatres I was thinking of when I wrote my comment above. About none of us in the music/art scene in that neighbourhood having TV reception & so many of us not even owning TVs. I believe that’s the reason for so very many artists/musicians/designers/actors from that neighbourhood in the 80s becoming household names! We were always creating alone or together vs. watching the 20th c. opiate of the masses!

    • Zoé Says:

      Here’s a link for you JT; to an older 1999 article about Theatre 80 & the owner – on Forgotten New York blog – ‘The Stars of St.Marks Place’:

      And do I have the black/white/red interior wrong People? I could be remembering a nearby bar? These photos don’t look familiar.

    • Zoé Says:

      Theatre 80 is still alive & ticking JT (or ticketing – lol). For live theatre again. (The period as a theatre showing vintage films began there in 1971).

      Here’s a link to their blog; which includes a fascinating history. Both for the live theatre which hosted Frank Sinatra & Thelonius Monk & Billy Crystal – amongst others. And for the history of the ‘speakeasy’ there. (W/ mob affiliation apparently).

      And here’s their Facebook link:

  8. John G. Caulfield Says:

    Yes, I remember it as the D.W. Griffith. In the 1970s, I saw “The Omen”, “American Graffiti” (as fid Todd, above), and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” there. And other films, too, no doubt.

  9. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    The Man Who Fell to Earth…exactly the kind of film I imagine played there, thanks!

  10. Bella Stander Says:

    The DW Griffith was indeed a wonderful place to hide away. If memory serves, I took my little brother there to see “Time Bandits.”

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