in memoriam: Sunshine cinema

john surico | PHOTOS: Mark Davis

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Love of anything in New York—a person, a place, a thing—is almost always fleeting. Friends move away, even if it’s only to another borough, and you almost never see them again. Our favorite eateries and drinking holes close up shop. And what made you fall in love with this place to begin with too frequently vanishes, replaced with a version of itself that doesn’t size up to the original.

I sometimes measure an object’s prominence in life by how it abbreviates in conversation. If something or someone’s full name does not need to be said for you to understand what it is that person is talking about, it must not demand context, or need it.

“I’m going to the Met.”

“Let’s grab a slice.”

“I took the A… so I was late.”

“It’s playing at Sunshine.”

The first time I visited Sunshine Cinema, just adrift of 1st Avenue on East Houston Street, was for a collegiate rite of passage: a pre-Franco midnight showing of “The Room,” Tommy Wiseau’s bizzaro romantic drama(?) involving plastic spoons and plenty of inside jokes. I then returned a number of times, for a number of reasons: late-night showings of Studio Ghibli movies, premieres, old movies replayed on new screens. With its name in neon and glowing marquee, the Sunshine felt right in the evening, playing its part in the whole package of downtown.

 
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Like any New York institution closed too soon, the Sunshine had a great story. It first opened as a theater in 1909, then called the Houston Hippodrome—an arguably good, if not better, name. Run by Charles Steiner and Abraham Minsky, scions of a famous burlesque family, the Hippodrome quickly became a destination for Yiddish vaudeville and films in the epicenter of an increasingly Jewish enclave. (Yonah Schimmel’s would start serving up their famous knishes and kugel next door the year after, in 1910.)

A 1917 renovation left the Hippodrome with more seats and a new name: Sunshine Theatre. But a mixture of Great Depression woes and television’s ascent led the movie house—by then named the Chopin Theatre—to close in 1945. For nearly 50 years, the 600-seat space inside served as a hardware store warehouse, sitting quietly along Houston.

After a failed pitch to convert the space into a live music venue, Tim Nye, who runs Nyehaus gallery in Chelsea, bought the theater space and brought it back to life with a $12 million renovation. After three years of restoration, Sunshine Cinema opened in 2001 with 980 seats serving five screens. The neighborhood, then as now on the brink of rapid change, finally had its old theater back.

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And now, just over a decade and a half later, the Sunshine has died an increasingly common New York death: in 2017 the building was sold for $31.5 million to developers who had already begun demolishing the decades-old building. In its place they intend to construct a nine-story “boutique” office space where the Sunshine once stood. Commercial rent has skyrocketed in the area, and any attempts at landmark status or contract renegotiation went, naturally, nowhere.

“We’re big fans of the Lower East Side,” said Jonathon Yormak, the founder of East End Capital, one of the developers. Some might argue that they have a funny way of showing it.

After 17 years in operation, the final showtimes at the Sunshine—which included The Room, Dog Day Afternoon (one of the theater’s classics), and some current Oscar nominees—ran on a Sunday night in late January. Fittingly, Darkest Hour was the last movie screened there. Admittedly, I didn’t make it to the Sunshine again before it closed. In fact, I hadn’t been in a while—I, too, had moved away to the far-off land of Queens. I suspect I have the same story as a lot of other people: I tried time and time again to get there, but something, as always, seemed to come up.

 
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Of course, the Lower East Side is not without its theaters—and neither is the rest of the city, for that matter. But the latest arrivals are of a different breed. The Metrograph has its classy commissary and cocktails. The Alamo Drafthouse, in downtown Brooklyn, offers menu items like edamame hummus alongside your movie. And the ultra-modern Landmark at 57th, close enough to (try to) appease the crowds who lost the age-old Lincoln Plaza Cinema in January, serves up locally roasted coffee. As it happens, that’s where Landmark Theatres, the national independent theater chain owned by Mark Cuban that operated the Sunshine, relocated its now-displaced staff.

These new cinemas aren’t bad—I, like any other hard-working taxpayer, love the idea of a nice cup of joe during my movie. But they are, perhaps, more representative of New York in 2018, somewhere between nouveau bodegas (which are somehow a thing), artisanal pastrami sandwiches, and $18-a-drink speakeasies. They’ve taken something tried and true and wrapped it in a new shade of glam.

Because someone, somewhere, will pay the price.

 
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Mark Davis (@mark_t_davis, b. 1992) is a photographer and bookmaker from the suburbs of Pittsburgh currently based in Brooklyn. He and his girlfriend Kitania's first date was at Sunshine Cinema five years ago.