Long-Neglected Brooklyn Gem Gets New Life Thanks to Nitehawk Cinemas

In 2016, the worst movie theater in Brooklyn closed its doors. In the days leading up to its closing, everyone in the community it served seem to have a story—theirs or heard from someone else—about the horrors it visited upon its clientele. There was the time a manager called the cops on a diabetic man for bringing in strawberries. There was the time they added recliner seats, most of which broke soon after their installation and were never fixed. There were multiple screenings I personally attended where the employees would forget to turn the lights down. Sometimes the toilets would have seats. Sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes the air conditioning worked. Sometimes not.

This was the Pavilion Theater. After a mid-2000s change of ownership brought about a slow and steady decline, it was the Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree of the New York cinema scene. It was a wreck, but you kind of wanted to hug it, because it was our wreck. Except you would never, ever hug it, because of the (alleged) bedbugs.

There’s no reason that the Pavilion should have been the epic disaster that it was. The cinema opened in 1928 as the Sanders Theatre, which lives on in the building’s gorgeous Art Deco exterior. It sits literally across the street from the highly trafficked Prospect Park and at the nexus of several neighborhoods—several of them bursting with families with young children—that lack a theater of their own.

The story of the Pavilion gets a happier next chapter courtesy of Nitehawk Cinema. For seven years, Nitehawk has operated one theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s a hip place with a downstairs bar and an emphasis on diverse programming—everything from mainstream movies to indies to midnighters and Mario Bava retrospectives. Years ago, the folks behind Nitehawk, led by founder Matthew Viragh, fixed on the idea of turning the Pavilion into Nitehawk’s second location.

Today, December 19th, the Nitehawk Prospect Park finally opens its doors.

What’s most shocking about seeing the Nitehawk Prospect Park for the first time—at least for those who are familiar with the theater in its older incarnation—is that it’s still recognizable as the Pavilion… only it doesn’t look like garbage. I, personally, needed a few seconds to take it in.

Speaking to the press, Viragh emphasized the care Nitehawk took in preserving the theater’s historic bones. Grubby carpet was pulled off the stairs to reveal, to Viragh’s surprise, gorgeous marble hailing from the same area and time period as that in Grand Central Station. “We fully rehabbed the marquee and brought it back to the neon glory of the original,” he explains. The exposed brick that graces the Nitehawk Prospect Park was also a Pavilion original, covered up by previous owners with an iffy-at-best attitude towards upkeep. “There was a landlord that didn’t care about the building, a tenant that didn’t really care about the building,” says Viragh. “It was like a hoarder had lived here for 50 years. We called 1-800-JUNK, and it took them a full week to clear out the junk that had piled up here.”

Photo credit: Sakeenah Saleem

The old concession stand is now a box office/bar, boasting a selection of beer, wine, and custom cocktails. The “living room” (as it used to be called) on the mezzanine level—an empty space with a few card tables and old cardboard advertisements piled up in the corner—is now a properly realized bar, with a balcony running across two of its walls. Two of the old Pavilion’s nine theaters have been repurposed as storage and kitchen space, enabling the Nitehawk to convert the Pavilion-that-was into a dine-in theater. (The menu will stay mostly the same between the Nitehawk’s two locations.)

(An interesting historical side note, per Viragh: In 2011, it was the Nitehawk that lobbied the New York State government to change regulations so that movie theaters, as long as they serve food, can also serve alcohol. “It was a Hail Mary; I didn’t think it was going to happen.” So if you’ve ever had a drink at a New York City theater, please pour one out for the Nitehawk.)

Other amenities added to the Nitehawk Prospect Park include, for the first time in the building’s history, an elevator (!!), and the chain’s new app-based Dine & Dash service, which allows moviegoers to input payment information for their food (including tip) before the movie starts, rendering the annoying step of fumbling with the check while the movie’s still playing unnecessary. Viragh also notes that reserved seating will be added to both Nitehawk locations at a later date.

For now, the challenge is getting the new theater up-to-speed. “We’re going to be a work in progress. It’s not going to be perfect” right away, Viragh admits. The Nitehawk Prospect Park is three-and-a-half times the size of Nitehawk’s Williamsburg location, with the new theater’s biggest screen containing more seats—194—than all three of Williamsburg’s screens combined. The programming for the new Nitehawk location is also in flux, with Viragh and first-run booker Jeffrey Jacobs working together to get a feel for the neighborhood and what sort of mix between mainstream films, arthouse films, and rep screenings its inhabitants wants to see.

Advice from the Nitehawk Prospect Park’s customers-to-be has already had one major impact: a change to the Nitehawk’s age policy (at both locations) from 18-and-up to to 13-and-up at screenings before 6pm. Says Viragh, “What we heard from a lot of people here was that this is the date spot they remember coming to, and they would love for their teenagers to be able to experience that.”

Rebecca Pahle

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