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The Selwyn, 42nd Street, NYC; 1990


The Selwyn Theater is long gone but not forgotten. Located at 229 West 42nd Street, on one of the once-seediest stretches of New York City's Times Square, this beloved movie theater was shuttered during Disney's mid-'90s clean-up of The Deuce -- when glorious old grindhouses and lots of mom 'n' pop businesses were tossed into the gutter to make way for tourist-aimed chain stores and live productions of THE LION KING.

As the '90s began, there were only a handful of these wonderfully grimy theaters still up-and-running, and in those days I was a frequent visitor to the Selwyn. Admittedly, most normal folks wouldn't set foot in this place, even if they got free admission and a blow-job in between features. Because upon entering the building you had to deal with smells rarely encountered by civilized man, a concession stand with inedible wares, and an audience consisting of the lowest form of human flotsam -- alcoholics, addicts, the homeless, deviants, insomniacs, and trash-film fans. To me, it was a fetid chunk of paradise.

There were several reasons for the Selwyn's popularity. First off, it was a bargain. Around the corner on Times Square, moviegoers were shelling out $7.50 for whatever crap the major studios spewed out that week. But only two blocks down Broadway, you could catch that same exact feature, on a double or triple bill, for only 6 lousy bucks. Plus what other movie theater staff would turn a blind eye while you casually lug in a couple six-packs, or leave you alone while passing around a joint? And unlike today's talkative moviegoers, who mindlessly gab to their friends as if they were sitting in their living room, when Selwyn customers mouthed off, it was actually funny (my favorite comment occurred at the end of a trailer, when the caption "Coming for Christmas" flashed on the screen, prompting one brother to complain "Shit! I could be DEAD by Christmas!").

In addition, while mainstream Manhattan theaters often make their patrons queue up on the sidewalk for a half-hour, there was (no surprise) never any crowd at the Selwyn. You paid your cash, you walked in. And once inside you'd notice that this place was once a gorgeous theater, unlike today's corrugated shoeboxes posing as moviehouses. Built in 1918, the seating capacity was technically 964, but by the '90s, the obviously-hazardous mezzanine had been permanently closed off. If the management ever turned up the house lights, you'd be able to admire its beautiful architecture and ornate filigree. Then again, looking at the physical condition of the seats (which were often badly stained or chewed by the rats), as well as the personal hygiene of the audience, it was probably better to leave the lights off, after all -- particularly when the guy sitting four seats down from you is shooting up, and then spends the rest of the evening hawking up phlegm onto the floor.

Sure, there were NO SMOKING signs posted everywhere, but it was never enforced, and considering the grim condition of their firehoses, you'd be looking at another Great White pile-up if some careless basehead had set himself aflame. But this 'unique' ambiance is exactly what made the Selwyn such a wild place to catch a schlock flick. On top of all that, if you skipped out on work for an afternoon matinee and looked up at the ceiling, you could see the sun gleaming through the numerous holes in the roof! It gave the place a planetarium-like ambiance, and made me glad I didn't come on a rainy day.

Their film showings began early (usually around 10 a.m.) and ran long past midnight, giving the night janitor a couple hours to soak the place down with ammonia. Their prints were often worn (but good enough for moviegoers who don't mind the occasion emulsion scratch), the screen was huge, the picture was usually in focus (in fact, they had a better track record than most of the Manhattan theater chains, whose employees arrive for work on the short bus), and if you were lucky, the projectionist would wake up from his methadone just long enough to yank any loose hairs off the screen.

The Selwyn concession stand was always open, but honestly, I never once saw a customer purchasing food. A Large Popcorn went for $2.75 and Large Cokes were $2, but their hot dogs always looked a bit scary (not to mention, slightly gray, as if they'd been re-heated one too many times over the past month), with buns that were kept warm by laying them on top of the fresh popcorn. Yummy, eh? Perhaps not. From personal experience, it was always easier, cheaper and safer to grab your foodstuffs before entering the theater, at any number of nearby bullet-proof delis (for you non-New Yorkers, these are tiny stores that sell your basic necessities -- candy, past-expiration Twinkies, $1.25 tall boys, lottery tickets -- with an English-challenged cashier sitting nervously behind a Plexiglas, bullet-proof screen). Better still, you could grab a quick bite at the family-owned grill located conveniently under the Selwyn's marquee, which had been there for 40+ years. (Note to ex-Mayor Guiliani: Thanks for forcing the old owner/cook into retirement, you heartless tool.)

Of course, if you indulged in more-than-a-few cold ones during a triple bill, your bladder would eventually take you on a journey down into their mens' room. To put it nicely, this was a basement pit with no doors on the stalls, no hand towels near the sinks (not that you'd want to use the sinks, because that would entail touching something), and a stench that could've only emanated from a wino's large intestine. After a few of these bathroom experiences you learned to just hold your breath for the duration of your stay, or risk spewing up your breakfast into the urinal.

On a positive note, this grand old theatre wasn't completely destroyed during its '90s renovation. It's now a home for live productions and, unfortunately, has been renamed the "American Airlines Theatre" after a $8 million donation. [Insert long, "anti-corporate groan" sound-effect here.] No question, it took a unique type of masochism to enjoy the ol' Selwyn (in other words, you wouldn't find Pauline Kael there, unless she was trying to score some crack), but if you were in the mood for cool films and a one-of-a-kind experience, nothing could beat this 42nd Street palace. It is sorely missed.

© 2007 by Steven Puchalski.