Sunshine Cinema, a Beloved Manhattan Theater, Goes Dark
01.21.2018 | New York Times

Sunshine Cinema, a Beloved Manhattan Theater, Goes Dark

On Sunday, the five projectors at the Sunshine Cinema beamed for the last time, the finale of a cultural mainstay on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The movie theater, which had screened independent and foreign films since 2001, was sold last year to New York City developers with plans to demolish it.

For over a century, the building was a neighborhood cornerstone, first as a church, then as an athletic club, and later as a nickelodeon that drew hundreds of attendees a day to its Yiddish vaudeville performances.

The demise of the theater on Houston Street is the latest in a string of closings in the city, as cinemas struggle to stay relevant in the streaming age of Netflix and Hulu. Last month, the announced closing of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which opened in 1981, rattled the theater community’s devotees.

Sunshine Cinema, operated by Landmark Theaters, became popular among neighbors and enthusiasts for its distinct selection of films, emblematic honey-colored brick facade and stadium seating. Its midnight screenings of classics like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Room” also attracted a cult following. In fact, the director of “The Room,” Tom Wiseau, attended three screenings at the Sunshine this month.

On Sunday afternoon, Jackie Colgan, 55, traveled from Brooklyn to the Sunshine to watch “Darkest Hour.” A hodgepodge of graffiti covered the theater’s side doors behind her.

“I just love the architecture and the inside,” Ms. Colgan, a teacher, said. “I always feel so special when I’m in there.”

The building was originally a Dutch Reformed Church that was leased to the German Evangelical Mission Church in 1844, according to Judith Thissen, a cinema historian at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

In the early 1900s, it was converted into the Houston Athletic Club, a prize fight club. The religious scenes on the walls were painted over in blue, white and gold, The New York Times reported at the time.

In 1909, the church was bought for $96,000 (or about $2 million in today’s money) and transformed into a theater run by Charles Steiner and Abraham Minsky, one of the Minsky burlesque brothers, Ms. Thissen said. They named the entertainment hall the Houston Hippodrome and it quickly flourished, drawing flocks of Jewish immigrants settling north of Houston Street.

“What was new when it opened is that for a cheap price, five to 10 cents, it would not only offer moving pictures but also Yiddish vaudeville shows,” Ms. Thissen said.

The theater could fit up to 450 people on the old wooden pews, she said.

In 1917, the theater was renovated and renamed the Sunshine Theater, Ms. Thissen said.

New York City had more than 1,000 theaters in the 1920s, but the Great Depression halted the boom of grand movie palaces and by the 1950s, television became the principal form of entertainment.

The Sunshine Theater eventually closed and a family in the hardware business used it as a warehouse for over 50 years.

“It had 35-foot ceilings and it was being used as a warehouse to store doorknobs,” said Tim Nye, an entrepreneur who obtained the lease to the building in 1994. He had planned to convert it into a live music venue. But the community board rejected a liquor license.

“They thought it was going to turn into a horrible nightclub, which it wasn’t,” Mr. Nye said.

So, Mr. Nye, the founder of the Nyehaus gallery in Chelsea, partnered with Landmark Theaters, a chain based in Los Angeles dedicated to screening independent films that was looking for a flagship in New York. After a three-year, $12 million renovation, Sunshine Cinema reopened as the third art-house theater on Houston Street on Dec. 21, 2001.

The Sunshine — which had 980 seats, five screens and two Japanese gardens — rapidly became a neighborhood staple. It first screened “Monster’s Ball,” starring Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry.

“It’s very, very rare that movie theaters would spring back to life,” said Brett Leitner, a longtime resident of the Lower East Side and a self-described cinema history buff.

For over a century, the building on Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, pictured here in 1998, was a neighborhood cornerstone, first as a church, then as an athletic club and later as a Yiddish vaudeville and theater. It reopened in 2001 as Sunshine Cinema. CreditJudith Thissen

“It was a triumphant story to take this old movie theater and take it back to life as the newest neighborhood theater in decades.”

Mr. Leitner, a former member of the local community board, was part of a group that petitioned the city to give the theater landmark status in 2016. The petition was rejected because the interior of the cinema had been significantly altered, he said.

The building went on the market three years ago.

Mr. Nye said the theater “was doing incredible” financially. But they were paying $8,000 in monthly rent, which they expected would skyrocket at the end of their 25-year lease on Jan. 31.

“It’s the economics. We cannot pay market rent,” Mr. Nye said. “But we knew this day was coming from Day 1. It was a good run.”

The owner of the 30,000-square-foot building sold it for $31.5 million to East End Capital and K Property Group last year.

The Sunshine will be demolished and turned into a nine-story “boutique” office building for small to midsize companies, said Jonathon Yormak, the founder and managing principal of East End Capital.

“We’re big fans of the Lower East Side,” Mr. Yormak said. “It really needs more 9-to-5 activity and it tends to be very active, obviously, on a night life basis. We believe there is a real demand for office space and for people to work there during the day.”

The new 65,000-square-foot building will be designed by Roger Ferris and feature retail space on the ground floor. Demolition will begin by March and the new building, which is being branded as 141 E. Houston Street, will be completed in late 2019, Mr. Yormak said.

But for many, the cinema’s demolition is yet another example of old New York being steadily superseded.

“To see the revitalization that the Sunshine brought to the Lower East Side turned into another example of hyper-gentrification in the Lower East Side, it’s very disappointing,” Mr. Leitner said.

On Sunday, Beth and Paul Lieberman arrived early to watch “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Ms. Lieberman, 63, said she enjoyed the Sunshine for “its different types of movies,” like “Princess Mononoke,” a Japanese animated movie she took her son to years ago.

“You would only be able to see them here. Here, or the Angelika or the IFC Center,” said Ms. Lieberman, referring to two other cinemas in the area.

The theater was to officially close for good after a 10:15 p.m. Sunday showing of “Darkest Hour.”