“I’m proud to say that we have the largest collection of syphilitic genitals in the entire United States,” Tim League announced last night as he pulled back a red curtain in the back room of Alamo Drafthouse’s bar. But more about that later.
Step into the new downtown Brooklyn location of Alamo and, if you’re a regular at SXSW, you’ll feel like you’ve taken a hyperloop to Austin, where League opened the first of two dozen dine-in theaters in 1997. True to the theater’s cheeky brand, there’s a carpet modeled after the one in The Shining and a photo mural where you can pose as King Kong.
Head to the back bar, House of Wax, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the Mütter Museum, the 19th-century curiosity collection in Philadelphia. Turns out, anatomy museums and arthouse theaters have more in common than you’d think— or so League informed us during a tour of the place yesterday.
As you surely know by now, Alamo is a 7-screen theater that plays a mix of old and new, both artsy and Star Warsy. It officially opens Friday, but we’ll let you in on a secret: It’s currently in soft-opening mode (showtimes here).
Yesterday I popped into a sneak preview of We Are X, an Alamo-produced documentary about the Japanese prog metal band X Japan. It was playing in Theater 2, one of the smaller, indie-friendly screening rooms that League teased back when Alamo was aiming to open this summer. In classic style, the doc was preceded by a PSA in which Janeane Garofalo compared cell phone use to racism and xenophobia.
Another no-no here: Late arrivals. Get there after the movie has started and you’ll be refunded the price of admission ($11 for matinees, $14.50 for regular tickets, $17 for 3D) or you can reserve your seat for another showing. Don’t worry, you’ve got a buffer of about 15 minutes while the trailers are playing.
You’ll want to get there a little early anyway, because that’s the ideal time to put in a food order. You jot your culinary desires on a slip of paper and prop it up on your table so that a server can whisk it away and return with your queso (an Austin favorite that made it onto the menu here). Underlit tables make it easy to read the menu.
If this sounds a lot like Nitehawk, well, it is. But Alamo came first. I asked League how he felt about the resemblance. “We’re definitely friends with those guys,” he said. “We like what they’re doing. Yes, they came down to Austin and certainly looked at what we were doing, but I also went up to Portland and looked at what the McMenamins theaters were doing. I didn’t invent this, necessarily.”
A few things set Alamo apart from Nitehawk, though— the chain is in a couple dozen cities, and even has an offshoot company, Mondo, that releases vinyl soundtracks (on display and for sale at the bar) and screen-printed posters (on display adjacent the lobby).
The theater’s hallways also double as a gallery, displaying rare Turkish-language film posters. League describes himself as an “obsessive collector” and is already planning to swap these out with Indian posters in January.
The House of Wax bar, however, was what League was most excited about when we spoke to him last night. With the help of Ryan Matthew Cohn, a collector featured on the TV show Oddities, he acquired dozens of specimens that were original displayed at Castan’s Panopticum, a Berlin-based, late-19th-century “house of everything,” as League put it.
On display in the House of Wax are death masks of celebrities such as Napolean and Kaiser Wilhelm.
There are busts of Polynesian natives, reproductions of skin diseases, the obligatory model fetuses, and an entire cabinet dedicated to body modification.
A pair of tables double as glass-top display cases.
And then there are the syphilitic genitals that League was so giddy about, hidden behind curtains flanking a stage in back.
That stage will play host to live music. There’ll be jazz, for instance, when La La Land, in which Ryan Gosling plays a jazz pianist, opens in December.
Sure, all of this is delightful if you’re the type that hangs out at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (which previewed the collection this summer) or if you’ve ever sent a Mütter Museum postcard to your beau (and yes, there are House of Wax postcards and pins for sale at the bar). But it isn’t just the usual Brooklyn taxidermy shtick. According to League, Castan’s Panopticum was more than just “the only way to see boobs” during the late 19th century— it also played a critical, largely forgotten role in cinema history. When the motion picture replaced these houses of oddities, the panoptica’s lurid, exploitative nature rubbed off on films like William Beaudine’s Mom and Dad, a graphic “sex hygiene” flick that was toured around the country to great titillation.
With people increasingly watching movies at home, it’s tempting to wonder whether movie theaters will eventually go the way of the panoptica, but Alamo is doing its level best to offer an attractive alternative to #Netflixandchill. For one thing, the programming is pretty great, as you can see from the opening slate (expect plenty more premieres and Q&As in the future). The place also serves a pretty good old fashioned (beverage director Vincent Favella comes from Five Leaves in Greenpoint), and that drink is a reasonable $11 instead of $16 like at iPic, the new dine-in theater at the South Street Seaport.
No, the seats at Alamo don’t recline, but unlike the stiff ones at Metrograph they do tilt back a bit and are plenty comfortable, with wide armrests.
Finally, there’s the food menu from chef Fernando Marulanda. You can see that here.
Alamo Drafthouse NYC, 445 Albee Square West, Brooklyn; 718-513-2547.