Bay Ridge’s Alpine Cinemas reopened to the public just in time for its centennial — making it one of the longest-operated theaters in the Big Apple.
“Alpine Cinemas is the oldest theater in the five boroughs,” said Nick Nicolaou, owner of the movie theater, which celebrated 100 years on June 6.
The Fifth Avenue cinema closed during the statewide shutdowns in March 2020 as all nonessential businesses were forced to, though the movie theater didn’t open its doors again until June 7 of this year— a few months after Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized businesses of its kind to resume operations on March 5.
Nicolaou said he used the downtime to begin upgrades and conduct long-awaited repairs to the building, something he said he’d wanted to do for a very long time.
“We thought maybe with COVID and being down [it would be a good time to start],” he said, “I always wanted to fix it up.”
He bought the beloved theater 14 years ago, at a time when it would have closed if he didn’t — all while knowing it may be a money pit, as it desperately needed repairs and was in an area said to have disproportionally high property taxes.
“The real estate company… was trying to sell it for a year and no one wanted to buy it,” Nicolaou told Brooklyn Paper.
But the theater-enthusiast took on the challenge anyway, citing a belief that cinemas bring both a cultural and social aspect to their neighborhoods.
“A neighborhood movie theater, without people really realizing it, is bringing people together,” Nicolaou said, “and you say ‘Hey, what is the harm? I shared the movie with 300 strangers of all different backgrounds. We laughed and cried together.’”
Similarly, Nicolaou believes that going to the movies should be accessible to all families — no matter their income level. Because of this, his cinemas (he owns two more in addition to the Alpine) are some of the few in New York City that haven’t raised their ticket prices above $10.
“The Alpine Theater is the champion theater out of all the five boroughs to provide the lowest possible allowed ticket prices,” said Nicolaou, who got his start in the industry at age 15, when he worked as an usher for RKO Theaters in Manhattan.
He’s since spent more than four decades in the business, and has at one time owned 10 cinemas across the city. Now, with just three left in his possession, Nicolaou says he’ll continue to work hard for his remaining theaters, all of which he chose to save due to their longstanding tenure in their communities.
“I kept three theaters that I felt should be preserved for the history and the memories,” Nicolaou said regarding the Alpine, Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills, Queens and Cinema Village in Manhattan’s West Village.
Despite Alpine Cinemas being out of operation for over a year, Nicolaou was required to pay over a million dollars in both federal and state taxes for his business and storefront — forcing him to take out over $3 million in loans between the levy and other operational expenses, he told Brooklyn Paper.
“We are doing our best to keep ourselves above water by taking loans and more loans,” Nicolaou said. “[My staff and I are] giving up our lives to survive the theater, we have basically given everything up because we believe in the moviegoing experience.”
While the pandemic compounded the financial loss movie theaters are facing, small cinemas closing their doors is not incidental to the health crisis, said Nicolaou, who blamed the rise of streaming and the high-tax structure imposed on small theaters.
“I hold the Department of Finance partly, not fully, responsible for doing their part in having most of our neighborhood movie theaters in New York shut down forever,” Nicolaou said.
Speaking with Brooklyn Paper, he pleaded for the city and state’s elected officials to take notice of the ongoing situation and work to preserve the few cultural establishments that are left, either through stimulus money or by re-evaluating the tax burden put on movie theaters — something, he contended, would have a lasting impact.
“Where we had hundreds of them, now we only have a handful,” Nicolaou said.
Adding salt to the wounds, the business owner’s sky-high tax liability during the pandemic left him unable to complete renovations, and it prevented him from celebrating the theater’s 100-year anniversary how he planned. Still, Nicolaou decided to open just ahead of the summer movie season to provide a sense of normalcy and a communal space for Bay Ridge and beyond.
“We did what we could,” he said.
The Alpine is currently showing “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” with approximately three different showtimes each day and will begin showing “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” and “In the Heights” starting June 10, according to its website. When catching any of those flicks, movie-goers will get to see some of the cinema’s renovations, which include new floors, higher ceilings, new countertops and an LCD screen showing previews for upcoming releases.
At one of the Alpine’s first showings in over a year, longtime patrons told Brooklyn Paper they would have visited no matter what movie was playing, and that they’re just excited to return to their neighborhood theater.
“First movie,” said an overjoyed Hamsa Elsyied. “We are more excited to see what the movie theater looks like.”