Roll out the red carpet: the big screen is officially back in North Brooklyn. On Friday, the new Nitehawk Cinema lifts the curtain on its three-screen movie theater in Williamsburg. It’s part of a new wave of movie houses in an area that was long on film buffs but short on places to watch them. Besides the Nitehawk, the IndieScreen art-house opened up around the corner last summer and the Williamsburg Cinema, a large seven-screen multiplex, is slated to begin showing movies next year.
In the past decade, Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents have had to cross the East River into Manhattan to catch a flick on the big screen. It was a fact that never sat well with residents like Matthew Viragh, the executive director of the Nitehawk.
“I don’t know how this neighborhood — with its exploding population and creativity — kind of became this void of film,” said Viragh. “I have no idea how that happened.”
But it wasn’t always this way. North Brooklyn was once home to at least eight movie theaters. Residents like John Dzikowski remember paying 15 cents for a matinee.
“You had the RKO, you had the Midway, which was up there,” said Dzikowski. “And another one down there on Nassau.”
“God, we’re old!” John’s wife Carol interrupted.
But her husband continued, “You had more movie houses in Greenpoint than you can figure.”
According to Carmine Pironi, another old-timer, the theaters would do anything to fill their seats.
“You know how most people got their dishware?” Peroni asked. “They went to the movies on a Monday or Tuesday and they gave them a plate. And every Monday or Tuesday, they gave them a different addition to their set.”
The Nitehawk isn’t giving away free dishware yet, but the new cinema is serving dinner and a movie all under one roof. The Nitehawk has also hired a gourmet chef and is offering a full service bar. To survive in the age of Netflix, Matthew Viragh said that the theater had to pull out all the stops.
“I’m hoping we’re offering a full night of entertainment,” he said.
In addition to its films, the Nitehawk is booking indie rock bands to play between movies. Local artists are invited to project their work onto the screens before the shows. The theater’s cinema director, John Woods, said he was inspired in part by the Commodore, a once-grand movie house built nearby in 1922.
“The Commodore was a unique experience where you could do pretty much what you wanted in the theater,” Woods said. “You couldn’t see the movie really or hear it, but anything else was allowed. Sex, drugs, a lot of alcohol, a lot of interaction with the screen.”
He added, “It was pretty…great, you know?”
The Commodore was demolished in 2002, but you can still see the ghosts of other movie theaters in the neighborhood — if you know where to look. Up on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, a gleaming marquee reveals a Starbucks’ former life as the Chopin Theatre. And a few blocks south of that is a Rite-Aid pharmacy unlike any you’ve ever seen. The ornate façade is the first clue to its cinematic past.
“And when you walk in, even though it’s a drugstore, you still get that feeling,” said Woods. “You walk into this big cavernous space and it has steps going up to a balcony, which probably is just storage now.”
When the Meserole Theater opened in 1921, it was a monster movie palace with nearly 2,000 seats. Much of the original detail in the building remains, including a giant disco ball from its second life as a roller skating rink.
Joe Pierre grew up in the neighborhood and remembers the day the Meserole went dark.
“The last movie they played there, just for going away I guess, was ‘Gone with the Wind,’” he recalled. “And they kept the sign up there for a long time. ‘Gone with the Wind’ — and so was the movie theater. They kept telling people it was going to be re-opened but it never was.”
Now the long intermission is over, and for residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, “Playing at a theater near you” will finally be true. That makes the Nitehawk’s cinema director happy.
“You can stay in your neighborhood but still go somewhere,” said John Woods. “Because seeing a good movie can really transport you.”
The Nitehawk Theater is located at 136 Metropolitan. For a movie schedule, call the cinema at (718) 384-3980.