Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Final Act For The Continental Theatre - Another entertainment & social loss for Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman of Rego-Forest Preservation Council

After a 51-year run, the Forest Hills community waved adieu to its quaint neighborhood twin movie theater, UA Brandon Cinemas on April 21st. Situated at 70-20 Austin Street, it was long known as the Continental Theatre, named after its close proximity to Continental Avenue. This restful destination in the heart of the business district was on the agenda for dates, couples, singles, and families with children, who would make a day of dining out and patronizing Austin Street’s shops. The marquee boasted mainstream films ranging from Star Wars to Les Miserables to The Great Gatsby. Operated by Regal Entertainment Group and owned by local developer Heskel Elias, the marquee now reads “Coming Soon: PM Pediatrics.” 
Back in March, this column reported that Austin Street may soon become “medical center row,” since medical facilities on Austin Street’s west end are slated to expand eastward within a 4-block radius. Austin Street is known for its unique boutique shops and restaurants, but reality shifted throughout the last decade as a number of longtime and recently established independent small businesses shuttered. This is mostly due to rent increases and demographic changes. Small businesses are frequently displaced by large chains, inclusive of banks, pharmacies, and a recent rise in medical establishments. 

Pasta Del Giorno at 70-49 Austin Street closed in February, in addition to its neighbor, Second Time Around. Construction is now underway for an urgent care facility. In October 2013, an out-of-context glass building housing a ProHealth Urgent Care Center was proposed for 71-53 Austin Street, which has since received violations and stalled.

When the Continental Theatre opened in 1963, Forest Hills residents were welcomed by the “Continental” script neon sign, and first saw Jean Genet’s “The Balcony” at a Walter Reade Theatre. An ad praised it as “New York’s and the world’s first split-level theatre,” which was only a 5 minute commute from the 1964 World’s Fair. It read, “From the beautifully decored lounge, you can either step down to the orchestra level or easily make your way up to the mezzanine. Here is a truly refreshing entrĂ©e into the experience of movie-going.” This dramatic innovation was designed by Architect John J. McNamara, and was also noteworthy for its art gallery for local artists, carefully selected films at an intimate ambiance, and rooftop parking. 

 In a public statement, landlord Heskel Elias called the property’s redevelopment for PM Pediatrics “exciting” and “more profitable” for The Heskel Group. Rego Park resident Gloria Nash responded, “It's all about who can afford the highest rents, rather than balance or quality of life, but it's no longer a community vision when a significant percentage of the population is left out.” She backed up her claim by questioning, “What percentage has a need for pediatric services, especially in light of no shortage of pediatric services in the area? What percentage has an interest in a theater which increases our enjoyment?”  

Other locals also mourn the theater’s loss. “PM Pediatrics already has 10 New York locations, so why does Heskel need to ruin a five decade entertainment space to open another?” asked Jennifer Cohen of Forest Hills. “It’s just a matter of time when people will be asking ‘Which Austin Street urgent care center should we visit? The one on 69th, 70th, 71st, or 72nd?’” 

Forest Hills resident Anita Nelson offered a suggestion. “The Austin Street corridor needs a nice art theater like the Kew Gardens Cinema, and if it hosted live entertainment, that would fill a void and be a huge bonus to Forest Hills. Currently, live entertainment is only available at bars.”

The UA Brandon’s closure echoes the loss of the cherished Trylon Theater, the Forest Hills Theatre, and the Drake. This leaves the 9-screen Midway Theatre on Queens Boulevard as the sole theater in the immediate vicinity, and the 5-screen Cinemart Cinemas somewhat further on Metropolitan Avenue.

“Close a restaurant or a dress shop, and there are others that open up,” said Nash, who continued, “But close a theater, and what other social and community options will open to replace that?” 

 A similar rendition of this feature story appeared in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

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