Abel Ferrara’s The Projectionist, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, is a scrappy love letter to New York’s independent cinemas, as seen through the eyes of Nicolas Nicolaou, the owner of some of the city’s oldest and most beloved theaters: Cinema Village near Union Square, Cinemart in Forest Hills, and the Alpine Cinemas in Bay Ridge. But the documentary somehow fails to mention what might be Nicolaou’s most intriguing theater, the Bijou, an underground cruising spot that was one of the East Village’s best-kept secrets until it closed a week ago.
That’s right: After years of flying under the radar, the Bijou, a last throwback to Manhattan’s bad old days, has left the building.
Nicolaou broke the news during a phone call earlier this week. He told us that after The Projectionist screens at Tribeca again on Friday and then at MoMA on May 6, he plans to renovate the musty lair. The Bijou wasn’t a porn theater, but the VHS-era movies on the screen were basically just window dressing for casual hookups. The theater had no signage, much less a marquee; you just had to know where to find the inconspicuous black door leading to the basement where an Eyes Wide Shut poster set the scene. “One of the options is to probably upgrade it the way it was years ago. But that’s just one of the options,” Nicolaou told us. “Basically, what you had there was a bar on the ground floor and there was a three-foot wall and you pushed it and went down into the club. It was a real-time speakeasy.”
The history of the subterranean space at 82 East 4th Street is fascinating. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was “New York’s After-Dark Rendezvous,” a mafia-run club with spectacular drag revues. “Elizabeth Taylor hung out and Errol Flynn used to hang out playing the piano with his penis,” Nicolaou said. By the 1970s, it was a music venue where David Bowie, Lou Reed, and the New York Dolls rocked out. Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones briefly owned a club there in the early ’90s. (You can find our oral history of Club 82 here, and our story about the Bijou here.)
Nicolaou said he worked there and eventually took it over from the owners. “I turned it into a gay place and nobody even knew it was there,” he said, going on to explain why the Bijou was never advertised and publicized only through word-of-mouth. “If I closed it for a period of time I’d lose the lease, so I kind of continued what was there without promoting it in any way, just leaving the door open certain hours of the day and that’s it.”
Nicolaou said he didn’t ask Ferrara to omit the Bijou from the documentary: “I never told Abel or suggested to Abel what to show in his film, what not to show.”
Instead, the film presents Nicolaou, a Greek immigrant, as a Horacio Alger type who went from being a teenage projectionist at various adult and art-house cinemas to becoming an independent theater owner who had to contend with the tyranny of the multiplexes as well as Giuliani’s anti-porn crusade. “For them, it’s all about money,” Nicolaou said of the Disneyfication of Times Square. “Clean up 42nd Street and let’s get big money going in. [Giuliani] went after the adult theaters because it’s such a crime to jerk off?”
Nicolaou says he can relate to The Deuce, the HBO show about the rise of New York’s porn industry, because he basically lived it. “At the early age of 17, 18, 19, 20, I was working for these people that had all these art theaters and an office at 1501 Broadway where all the actors and agents were, and then they had this other office on top of a gay porno theater on Ninth Avenue that they ran the porno operation [out of]. It was those kind of years in New York.”
Not that Nicolaou romanticizes that era. “I think in a way things got better; it looks better now. I was never for all these fancy provocative things on the window… You can play porno but you can do it with a little class,” he said, citing the “quality, X-rated hardcore movies” he would play at Cinema Village in the ’70s and ’80s alongside Bertolucci and Scorsese films.
With the closing of the Bijou, it would seem that Nicolaou, portrayed by Ferrara as a mensch who loves cooking for his family and schmoozing customers, is putting those seedier days completely behind him. He bills himself as the owner of two of New York’s oldest surviving cinemas (Cinemart was opened in 1927 and the Alpine opened in 1921), where tickets are still relatively inexpensive and the popcorn is cheap (and sometimes free).
Along the way, Nicolaou has had to make some proverbial concessions: Facing competition from a newly built multiplex down the block, he closed one of his other East Village theaters, also named the Bijou, and now rents the building out to VNYL, an upscale nightclub that, somewhat ironically, hosted the premiere party for The Projectionist. Struggling with high rent and minimal returns on small indie movies, he has instituted a policy at Cinema Village where some filmmakers or studios have to pay as much as $10,000 or $15,000 to show their films there.
In the film, Ferrara, a figurehead of DIY cinema best known for films like Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, was clearly floored by the pay-to-play model, and he couldn’t help cracking a sardonic joke about it during the Q&A. But Nicolaou insists that transferring his risk to filmmakers is the only way to keep his theater afloat amidst rising rents, corporate competition, and unforgiving property taxes.
Despite all the pressures, he doesn’t plan on folding. “The people from New York, that’s why I have great admiration for them and I would never close my theaters: there’s enough sensitive people that crave that human touch. They like to go to a multiplex but they also want to go to that theater that they went to as a kid when your grandfather took you to that theater and now you’re grown up and you take your nephew.”
“I love watching people going to the theaters,” Nicolaou said. He couldn’t resist adding: “And I have the top-quality popcorn.”