Image via cinematreasures.org

On Nov. 16, the Village East Cinema held a special screening of The Room, a maybe-the-worst-film-ever classic that has become a cult phenomenon. The screening included a talkback with the eccentric writer/producer/star/financier Tommy Wiseau. Screenings of the movie have become something of an event since it first hit theaters in 2003, even inspiring a critically acclaimed movie by James Franco, The Disaster Artist.  

Although the cinema now carries a broad range of films that one might see at any multiplex, showing The Room harkens back to the theater’s mid-century incarnation as The Phoenix, which from 1953 to 1961 mounted  artistically daring productions divorced “from the frenzied tailoring process of Broadway.” Many, however, went on to success on the Great White Way after their Phoenix runs. 

During the eight years the Phoenix managed to stay afloat, financial pressures led the company to seek cheaper options away from the custom-made building at 181-189 Second Avenue that was too large for such an enterprise. It does, however, represent a distinct period in the nearly century-long artistic life of a building between 11th and 12th streets that has been home to cinema and theater. 

But more than a century earlier, the lot belonged to the Stuyvesant family, who first bought it in the early 1800s. It was the site for what came to be known as the Rutherford Mansion, which the family owned but rented out for most of that century. The building was named after Rutherford Stuyvesant, born in 1843, the heir to the Stuyvesant fortune and a land developer.

The family had a long history in the New York area, being descended from Peter Stuyvesant, who had been the last director of the New Netherlands colony before the Dutch ceded the area to the English in 1647. The Stuyvesants remained powerful in the newly English colony, producing many local politicians and powerbrokers. They still had their fortune by the time Rutherford was born and it was great enough that the 1870 census lists the word “None” under occupation. He was, however, a successful land developer and Rutherford Mansion was one of the many family-owned buildings through which the Stuyvesants extracted wealth. 

Rutherford Stuyvesant died in 1909. Shortly afterwards, his family sold the lot to Louis N. Jaffe, a major figure in the Jewish community, who tore down the mansion and built a specially designed Yiddish Theater to serve a local Jewish community that, at the time, was full of migrants from Eastern Europe. Between 1880 and 1924 over 2 million Eastern European Jews migrated to America, with the majority settling in major urban centers. By the early 20th century, New York had the largest Jewish population in the world. By 1918. there were 20 Yiddish theaters in Manhattan, with over 2 million people attending the plays. It was in this environment that Jaffe built his theater, the first of a number erected along the lower reaches of Second Avenue.

Jaffe had come to the United States in 1899 before attending law school and becoming a member of the bar in 1906. He belonged to several boards, and financed several theatrical endeavors including a movie that featured members of the theatrical company that would become the troupe based at his new emporium. 

In 1925, Jaffe bought the lot. Construction on the Louis N. Jaffe Theater began in 1926; it was the creation of Harrison G. Wiseman, an architect who specialized in theater design. In fact, five theaters Wiseman designed are still standing and active in New York City, including the Alpine Cinema in Brooklyn, Cinemart Cinema in Forest Hills, the IFC Center in Manhattan, the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn and the Village East Cinema. Wiseman wanted the Jaffe theater to be culturally distinctive and in tune with styles that were considered Jewish at the time. The creamy, cast-stone exterior is studded with Moorish arches and embossed with alhambraic symbols. In searching for an appropriate style, Wiseman echoed some of the designs being deployed in new synagogues at the time, such as Kol Israel, Temple Beth-El of Borough Park and Young Israel of Flatbrush, which were all built in Brooklyn in the “Semitic Style,” incorporating Moorish, Arabic and Judaic designs.

For the next 20 years, until the end of World War II, Yiddish theater was the rule. For the first eight years of its life the theater was the base of operations for the Yiddish Art Theater, a group run by Mauritz Schwartz, a Ukrainian Jew, who inspired the decision to build. His company put on a variety of shows, mostly with Jewish themes but not neglecting plays for a wider audience. For example, on Jan. 29, 1929, Schwartz played Iago in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello, which used the score of Verdi’s opera. 

In 1945, the theater was known for a brief period as the Stuyvesant Theater, an homage to the property’s earlier proprietors. The timepresaged its present incarnation as a movie house. Then it became the Phoenix, one of the most adventurous theater companies in the city. Theater luminaries such as Richard Rogers,  one half of the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein duo, and Peggy Wood, Oscar-nominated for her role as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, were on the board. The two prime movers were Norris Houghton, who had worked in theater design and production, and T. Edward Hambleton, who usefully was the heir to a banking fortune. The idea for the company came to Houghton at dinner in London with the actress Pamela Brown, who told him that she had to meet Sir John Gielgud at the Lyceum Theater in Hammersmith. In a Sunday article in the New York Times of Nov. 29, 1953, Houghton described how this conversation sparked his eureka moment:

“There,” I declared, “is what we need at home: a theater away from Broadway where our established artists – as you are – can go off for part of a season and create away from the economic pressures of Broadway, divorced from the frenzied tailoring process that must turn every undertaking into a ‘smash hit,’ in the knowledge that if it doesn’t become so, it will have to close on Saturday night.” (I may not have said it in one big, long sentence like that, but that was the idea.)

The first year of this idealistic project was a success. In the 1953-54 season the playhouse opened a number of shows including the first production of “The Golden Apple,” a musical based on Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”  Rave reviews sent the production to Broadway. 

The desire for artistic integrity was common in New York during the 1950s. Throughout the Village, bohemians were transforming the arts; in music, visual arts, theater and writing. Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were introducing new ideas into mainstream literature. Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and others were pushing abstract expressionism to new planes. Miles Davis was reinventing jazz. New York, and the Village in particular, were the center of a vibrant new artistic world. 

The East Village was benefiting from the gentrification of Greenwich Village, which forced many artists eastward. With a 1,100-seat theater available, Houghton and Hambleton moved into what was a prime location, bustling with the energy that would power their experimental company. 

For the next eight years they produced a string of well-received plays, but after that first year, they failed to make a profit. Eventually the company could no longer afford to keep such a large space and they looked elsewhere for cheaper accommodations. This signaled the end of what had been a golden age in the theater’s existence. 

The East Village went into relative decline for the next decade, taking the theater with it.  For the next couple of decades it housed various short-lived theater companies. Some produced Yiddish theater, suggesting the building’s origins, while others reflected more modern sensibilities. There were successes during this period, such as Grease and Oh! Calcutta! that went on to have long runs on Broadway, but none of these shows ever kept the companies at the East Village playhouse for long. 

By 1985, the theater was on its last legs. Before it could close, it produced one final run of its initial hit, “The Golden Apple.” Not long after, it closed for good as a performance venue. In 1986 the property was bought by Senyar Holdings, a realty company, which still owns it today. The interior was remodeled by the architects John Averitt and Associates, responsible for the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and the Village East Cinema was born.

The cinema carries a whole range of movies, from the occasional blockbuster to more rarified offerings. Denise Hughes, 41, is the director of special programming. She said that the cinema was the first in New York to show anime. Each spring, the theater still puts on a festival dedicated to Studio Ghibli, the Japanese studio responsible for animated classics like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. They show movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including series of films by directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick

“We put on movies that are a unique experience and try to be as broad as possible,” said Hughes. “I bring to the theater things which are hard to find. They’re going to be shown for one night and should be seen on the big screen.”

Twenty-five years after opening, the Village East Cinema is thriving. Hughes said they had noticed a lot of young people come to see their series and special screenings. In echoes of the old Phoenix Theater, this old-fashioned movie house still provides both art and entertainment.

“I like when somebody gets back to me and they’ve seen something that has opened their eyes,” said Hughes. 

Amid the bustle of a vibrant East Village, the theater’s Moorish architectural stylings make it standout among all the classic stylings of walkup New York. Its black-on-white, old-school marquee proclaims which movies are being shown in a 1950s sort of way. And the names of the movies it shows still indicate that it has not yet totally given in to the mainstream – or betrayed its history.