You really can’t put a price on a one-of-a-kind movie theater experience.
When I heard that the Fair Theater in Queens was a place that showed Bollywood, I became slightly obsessed with visiting it. After all, the Hindi-only theaters in Queens had more or less shut up shop (I went a few times to the Eagle, which was a terrific, crumbling beauty). And while it’s certainly nice to see a Bollywood film in a big mainstream multiplex, as is so often the case now, there’s no substitute for seeing it in a theater dedicated to just that.
A bit of investigation turned up a weirdly out-of-date website and a 718 phone number. I called it and discovered that the theater was running Bollywood, yes, but also some Hong Kong and assorted “foreign” film. You paid for a ticket and stayed as long as you liked. The man on the other end was oddly non-specific, cagey. As I had to change the date of my visit a few times, I called again and discovered that they would be running a program of Spanish films. The information changed drastically all three times I contacted them. What was the deal with this place?
In any event, when my wife and I made the trip out (and no small trip it was; the nearest train was miles off, landing us in Jackson Heights, and the remainder was by bus), we discovered a place that, once you made it past the heavily Bollywood-decorated lobby, resembled nothing so much as a past-its-prime bowling alley. Arcade games, vending machines, neon lights, and…lockers.
And while the free donuts and coffee were a nice touch, the look of suspicion we aroused in the man dispensing them was rattling.
We saw a massive screen in a vast auditorium, which appeared to be showing the Will Ferrell vehicle The Campaign. It was absolutely deserted. We searched more and found smaller screening rooms, one of which was showing a black and white film I couldn’t identify and the other of which was halfway through a Hong Kong triad drama. No Bollywood that day, but in the spirit of the enterprise, we decided to just take what was on offer. A man tried to get us to come to what were apparently porno screens further in the back (“We got straight AND gay”), but we politely declined. We settled in for the triad drama. It was showing in a tiny room with easy chairs. This was getting a bit surreal.
Men walked the hallways with their heads down, snitching looks at us, and one of the proprietors kept a close eye on us the whole time. At first this struck us as a bit creepy, but we eventually realized he was being protective.
The “legit” auditorium and screening rooms were a front. Men came here to watch porn and jack off.
Actually, they likely did more than that. There were a number of Asian and Hispanic women there who a) were clearly involved in the world’s oldest profession and b) may or may not have been born as women. They made for good company. Many knowing looks were shared and my wife and I both got slyly sized up.
The restroom had a cologne dispenser, which I found amusing. It was a soap dispenser labeled “cologne.” While washing my hands, a portly gentleman in a way-tight t-shirt proclaiming “DANCE DANCE DANCE” against pastel rectangles gave me a look that clearly indicated an intimate sort of interest. I smiled, laughed gently and said, “Sorry, man,” before going on my way. He took it in cheerful stride. He’d no doubt try again with some other lucky fellow.
We stayed for a few hours, watching the remainder of the Hong Kong film, an entire Almodovar (Law of Desire) and the last 20 minutes of Out of Africa before calling it a day.
The adventure had been a remarkable success, in that it unearthed a piece of a New York that we had supposed long dead. In its dingy splendor, it resembled nothing so much as the grindhouses that I’d been too young to experience in their heyday.
It’s hard to imagine ever being more out of place; the disorientation of the experience was akin to stepping through a rip between dimensions. As we walked away, a part of me was tempted to look back and check if it was still there or if we’d imagined this utterly improbable junk palace.
Always keep an open mind. Keep a hand on your wallet and your wits about you, too, but keep an open mind. You never know where it’ll take you.