I was in Times Square last night and I went into Forever 21, the store that is situated where Virgin Megastore used to be. What was notable about Virgin was that it extended several stories down. There were three stories of the record/video store, with the ground floor being the store’s top floor. Then there was a multiplex movie theater with four screens that went at least two or three stories further down, like a bomb shelter. It opened as the Sony State in 1996, but was later called the Loew’s State when it changed corporate hands. When Virgin closed in 2009 and was eventually taken over by another retailer, I wondered what would happen to the theaters. Well, last night, I found out. The space was gutted and turned into a lower level of the new store. So those theaters are gone.
I saw quite a few films at the basement multiplex during the years it was in operation. I made 13 trips there from 1996-2004, from THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT to HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, in addition to several screenings as part of the Big Apple Anime Festival in 2003 (which, except for the film showings, was held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel across the street). I remember going to see KILL BILL, VOL. 2 there, but being stopped by Virgin store employees before I could get to the theater because pop singer Ashlee Simpson and her entourage had to be given safe passage to get to her screaming fans. “Who’s that?,” I asked. “Jessica Simpson’s sister.” (I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking the purely-for-snark next question, “Who’s Jessica Simpson?”)
After the theater was closed, I always wondered what would happen to the four screening auditoriums, one of which was quite big. When I visited the store during that period, I could see the theater area closed off and used for storage by the store. What a waste.
There once was a movie palace on that site, the Loew’s State, dating back to 1921, which was turned into a twin-plex sometime in the late 1960s. Here’s how it looked in the THE GLASS WALL (1953), which I wrote about here on May 5, 2012:
It closed in 1987 and was torn down along with the office building above it to make room for a new building. Here’s the old building, already missing the marquee, when I photographed it in July 1987:
And here’s a pic I took back in 1970, showing the marquee of the Loew’s State. It’s not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it was among the first I ever took of Times Square. And, for better or worse, I developed it myself:
The two films showing are William Friedkin’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND and Brian De Palma’s HI, MOM!
[NOTE: You can click on each of the photos to make them bigger.]
I actually saw a film at the Loew’s State before it was twinned: LORD JIM (1965), on a class trip with my sixth grade class. Among the other films I saw there after it was twinned were THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES, CASTLE KEEP, and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. I went to high school up the block and was waiting to meet a friend of mine, Hank Selman, after school one day and I entered the Loew’s State, which was playing MACKENNA’S GOLD, and walked up the exit stairs to look at all the huge pictures of old stars adorning the lobby. I kept walking and, since nobody was looking, I entered the theater and wound up watching a portion of the movie before remembering I had to meet Hank and then leaving. But I liked what I saw and made sure to see MACKENNA’S GOLD when it came to the Bronx. (I’ve seen it more recently and my feelings about it have cooled quite a bit.) The U.S. premiere of 5 FINGERS OF DEATH was held at the Loew’s State in a free screening sponsored by Warner Bros. on March 20, 1973 and I was there. Here’s a still from the film featuring star Lo Lieh:
And here’s a “newspaper” print-out that they distributed at the screening:
It was the first Hong Kong film to get released in an English dub in the U.S. and the first Hong Kong kung fu film the mass audience in the U.S. got to see. (At that point, friends of mine had already gone down to Chinatown theaters to see Bruce Lee’s first Hong Kong films, which would get released in English-dubbed versions soon after 5 FINGERS OF DEATH came out.) I remember the crowd going nuts throughout the movie. It was the first time we’d seen anything like this.
Interestingly, one of the films I bought on DVD on my last trip to Virgin Megastore on March 20, 2009 (coincidentally, the 36th anniversary of that showing of 5 FINGERS OF DEATH at the same site), was MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962), which premiered at the Loew’s State when it was a major movie palace and played there almost a year.
Across the street from the Loew’s State was a structure housing two theaters, the Astor and the Victoria, over which towered a huge billboard used to advertise movies. I’ll never forget the giant billboard for YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE that was up there in 1967. Here’s how that street looked back in 1970 in another (self-developed) picture I took back then. You can see the Victoria just behind the Astor:
The Astor is playing a double bill of two reissues: BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. The Victoria is playing MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which was partly filmed a few blocks south.
That street serves as a backdrop for a very quick scene in SHAFT (1971), where Shaft (Richard Roundtree) tries to hail a cab on Broadway:
The Victoria is playing a double bill of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) and THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS (1970) and the Astor is playing THERE’S A GIRL IN MY SOUP (1970).
As the camera swings south, we see the Criterion playing TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and the Loew’s State playing LOVE STORY (1970), the biggest hit of that season, and THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (1970):
The Astor and Victoria were torn down in 1984, along with the Broadway theaters, the Morosco and the Helen Hayes, to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel. (Helen Hayes even got arrested at a rally to protest the demolition of her theater.) Here’s how the street looks now where the Marriott Marquis Hotel is, in pictures I took last night:
And here’s a video I took last night showing what those sites look like now and indicating where the theaters used to be.
I attended films at the Astor and the Victoria when I went to high school at the High School of Performing Arts, which was right up the block at 120 W. 46th Street. The first films I attended at the Victoria were a double bill in 1969 of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1967), the first Sergio Leone film I saw, and HANG ’EM HIGH (1968). The first films I saw at the Astor, a few months later in 1970, were A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1967) and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1967). These four films, constituting the “Man with No Name” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Leone, and Eastwood’s first American starring western, would then show up as a quadruple feature at the Victoria, which I went to see in the summer of 1970 with my neighborhood buddy, Tommy Chin. A year later, in May 1971, that same program played at the Astor, where I would see it again, a week before seeing ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, also at the Astor.
The Victoria was owned by United Artists and would often show older UA classics when newer films were sparse. In early 1971, I saw a triple feature of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), RETURN OF THE SEVEN (1966) and GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969) there. I also saw a double bill of THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and the moonshine cult classic with Robert Mitchum, THUNDER ROAD (1958) there, as well as a reissue of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963).
On a side note, around the corner from the Astor, on 45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, was a tiny theater called the Bijou. This theater used to run Japanese film festivals. In 1971, I saw my first Akira Kurosawa movies, THE SEVEN SAMURAI and YOJIMBO, the movies that were later remade as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, respectively. So, within a single year from 1970-71, I saw THE SEVEN SAMURAI and its American western remake and YOJIMBO and its Italian western remake all for the first time and all on the same strip of real estate in Times Square. What a time to be a film buff-in-training.
Down the block from these theaters was the Criterion, another massive movie showplace, which stood on the east side of Broadway between 45th and 44th Streets. While I was in Times Square last night, I also took a picture of the site where the Criterion used to stand, now occupied by Toys R Us and this marquee (no relation to the original):
And here’s what it looked like when the Criterion was still there in 1990:
(I actually saw TOTAL RECALL there.)
And in 1970, when PATTON played there (in another picture I took and developed):
Forgive the crude lettering applied to it, an experiment with the printer in an attempt to achieve some kind of quaint effect.
I believe the first movie I saw at the Criterion (when it was still a single screen) was BLACULA (1972), seen on a summer Saturday night trip with another Bronx buddy, Joe Cooper. I went back there with Joe to see another vampire movie, BLADE, in September 1998, 26 years later, after the theater had been carved into seven screens. My last trip there, during its final days as a multiplex, was to see THE SIXTH SENSE (2000).
The area in front of the Marriott Marquis Hotel is now a traffic-free pedestrian lane and home to all sorts of costumed characters:
Here’s a video I took last night showing a stroll among these characters in front of the hotel:
P.S. [added July 1, 2013] I found some old footage of 42nd Street and Broadway I recorded in 1987. These are shots of a street preacher at work as non-tourist pedestrians pass him. This is to show the contrast between the old Times Square and the new: