Sunday, November 20, 2011

Now Playing

I finally got around to visiting the Great Wall Supermarket on Fort Hamilton Parkway this week.

The place opened up about six years ago, but I haven't had any reason to come down this way in ages.

I had actually been here many times in the past; I practically lived in the building when I was a teenager—only back then it wasn’t a supermarket; it was the Fortway Theater.

God alone knows how many movies I saw there, but the titles include Batman, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Excalibur, Deliverance, The Omega Man, The Lone Ranger, and, of course, The Exorcist, when I had to pretty much carry my poor traumatized mother up the aisle after the movie ended.

The Fortway was one of four theaters in my neighborhood when I was growing up. There was the Harbor (now a health club); the Dyker (now a Modell’s) and the Alpine, the sole survivor--if you call being subdivided into eight broom closets with paper-thin walls “surviving.”

The Fortway was the cheap place, charging $1 to see second run movies and we always knew that the quicker a film got there, the more likely it was to be a dog.

“It’s at the Fortway already,” was our way saying “this movie must really suck.”

It had quiet a history, though. According to Cinema Treasures, the Fortway opened its doors on October 21, 1927 with a silent film called The Rose of Kildare and four vaudeville acts on stage. It had a Kilgen theater organ and “an atmospheric style interior where electric stars used to twinkle on the dark blue ceiling.”

Unfortunately, I never saw the Fortway in its heyday. By the time the Seventies rolled around, the Fortway looked a lot like New York in the Seventies—rundown, battered, and barely holding on.

To paraphrase my mother on the night she saw The Exorcist, it was a shadow of its former self.

One night while trying to enjoy a movie, I saw a cockroach crawling on the back of the seat in front of me where a young woman was sitting, her boyfriend right beside her.

Cinema Para-sleazio

The roach was getting awfully close to the woman’s neck and, in addition to being grossed out by the bug, I was concerned the disgusting critter would crawl down the girl’s back, causing her to shriek, whereupon the boyfriend would presume I was the culprit and dropkick me clean up into the twinkling electric stars.

Luckily, that did not occur and the creepy little fellow disappeared into the darkness.

“The Fortway is the best advertisement for a VCR that I have ever seen,” I declared at some point in the Eighties.

I guess a lot of other people felt that way, too. The theater was split in three in the Seventies, destroying the electric stars effect, and further divided into a five-screener in 1982.

In June of 2005, the curtain came down for the Fortway and the Great Wall went up two years later. The marquee is still there, the only evidence of the theater’s existence. The supermarket’s clientele is mostly Asian, reflecting the neighborhood’s demographic overhaul.


I walked around the place trying to imagine where the lobby used to be, where the pinball machines had been set up. I pictured the candy counter, where the matrons doled out buckets of stale popcorn and soda in cups the size of wastepaper baskets. It was all gone.

I got angry looking at these people trampling all over my past. Yes, the Fortway was a dump, but it was my dump. I wanted to get on the PA system and shout “Attention, Great Wall shoppers—get the hell out of my theater!”

I felt like Jesus rousting the money-lenders out of the temple. A theater is a sacred place where dreams come to life, where magic becomes real. It’s not some soulless warehouse for peddling Cheerios and toilet paper.

But these people weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just out shopping and probably knew nothing of the building’s history. Movie fans aren't bound by theaters anymore. They can watch films at home, on the subway, or on the toilet if they're so inclined.

My parents used to tell us about buildings and businesses from their childhood that had been torn down or paved over, but I didn’t appreciate what they were talking about back then.

When you’re a kid, there is no was; everything just is and you believe it will always be. Until the day it isn’t and then you're the one giving the nostalgia tours.

During my visit to the Great Wall, I passed by a woman giving out small cups of noodles.

“Is it good?” I asked a little girl standing nearby.

“It’s spicy,” she said.

Indeed it was. And while it could never satisfy my craving for stale popcorn, it wasn’t half bad.

4 comments:

Ron said...

Rob, what a freakin' BRILLIANT post!

So full of wonderful nostalgia and wit!

Loved this....

"I felt like Jesus rousting the money-lenders out of the temple. A theater is a sacred place where dreams come to life, where magic becomes real. It’s not some soulless warehouse for peddling Cheerios and toilet paper."

Bwhahahahahahahaha!

And I so know what you mean....

"When you’re a kid, there is no was; everything just is and you believe it will always be. Until the day it isn’t and then you're the one giving the nostalgia tours."

You're right! When I still lived in NYC, there was a theater on the west side of Manhattan (I can't remember what it was called), but it used to be an old vaudevillian theater back in the days, which they turned into a movie theater. It still had the old theater seats, ceiling, and curtain. And it was a great place to view old Bette Davis film festivals because it made you feel like you were back there in time!

In black and white!

Ah....the good ol' days!

Thanks for sharing, buddy!

P.S. I felt the same way about The Exorcist as your mother did. I was traumatized!

Rob K said...

Yo, Ron, thanks so much. I used to hit a lot of the old movie houses in Manhattan so I probably visited the one you're referring to (the Thalia?) We're losing those grand old places as we're losing people who appreciate good films. The good old days indeed! Take care, buddy!

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I would have been traumatised if I'd been daft enough to go and see the Exorcist! Luckily, I was sensible enough not to do it, so nobody had to carry me out of the theatre!

"My parents used to tell us about buildings and businesses from their childhood that had been torn down or paved over, but I didn’t appreciate what they were talking about back then"

This is so true. OH and I find ourselves talking sometimes just like our parents. 'Where's the supermarket gone?' and 'these houses weren't there when I was a kid!' It's sad, and at the same time kind of comforting that there is this continuity of thinking.

But I have to say, I have little or no nostalgia for the 'fleapit' cinema in my old town. It was a terrible place! They can turn it into an estate agent and welcome - in fact they probably have.

Rob K said...

Hi, Jay. You're so right--it is both sad and comforting that we sound like our parents. And good point about the 'fleapit' cinema. Sometimes our memories play tricks us and turn dumps into palaces.