Tribute to Chinatown’s Music Palace Theater

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I’ll come clean: I’ve done shameful things in the Music Palace. I’ve eaten dinner, breakfast, lunch. Slept all day, dozed off for a few minutes, worked my way through a pack of cigarettes in one sitting, gotten drunk, dug through their trash, smoked dope, taken speed, had sex, argued with a cell phone user, played with a kitty, and had a party. To be fair, the sex and the dinner were both before they started turning on the lights between shows… Knowing what I know now I would’ve held off.

The Music Palace has been a big part of my life in New York, and now that it’s gone I feel embarrassed I didn’t go to more movies, I didn’t drag enough people there, I should’ve seen everything that played, not just some things. It’s like a friend has died and I hate myself for not writing them more often. As the world fills up with refrigerated multiplexes crammed with auditorium-style seating serving popcorn shrimp and cheese fries, I find that their audiences are louder, ruder and less charming than the Music Palace audiences. And you could drink beer at the Music Palace.

The last grindhouse theater left in New York City, the last grindhouse theater left on the East Coast, the Music Palace sat on the corner of Hester and Bowery, one block north of Canal, like a great, decaying monolith. Its rotting bulk, reeking of mothballs, was a cool dark cavern lit only by the shimmering light of the projector. Pleasantly dank and relaxing in the summer, painfully cold in the winter, its seats were so filthy they looked like they were melting. The “Coming Attractions” clip and the “Intermission” clip they showed were both vintage 70’s. The projector that showed them was vintage 50’s. Sitting in the smoking balcony, after a particularly exciting scene, the rows would light up like fireflies as everyone pulled out their cigarettes and got smoking. The air was always full of the sound of crackling shopping bags as people fished out their box lunches, beers, Cokes, or rattled open newspapers, having decided, for some reason, to read it at the theater.

It always amazed me that more people didn’t go. A double feature of RAPED BY AN ANGEL 4: THE RAPER’S UNION and BODY WEAPON for $6.00 seemed to make far more economic sense than THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE for $9.50. But despite being within walking distance of NYU the audience was usually Chinese only. Spontaneous segregation at its worst. And so hepcats not even eleven blocks away continued to beat their breasts and tear their hair over the mall-ification of moviegoing, decrying the death of the grindhouse theaters, the lack of foreign movies on US screens, the predictability of Hollywood films, printing out their zines and drinking their Brooklyn Lager in despair while the Music Palace slowly died downtown of neglect.

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What killed it? Bollywood, India’s film industry, lives and dies by its overseas audience. A big movie like TAAL will make $20 million in the US alone on the independent theater circuit. There are approximately eight Indian theaters in the tri-state area, two new ones are going up in the Bronx. Meanwhile, Chinese movie theaters have died out one by one. Do Chinese people in America just not care? Is it VCDs? DVDs? Maybe it’s the owner of the Music Palace? Could he have catered to a Western audience with cleaner seats and some advertising? Maybe it was the white people who stayed away in droves.

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alexander fu sheng hong kong movie star

Some of us saw a movie at the Music Palace and were born again. For me it was ALWAYS BE THE WINNER followed by LOVE ON DELIVERY – I couldn’t go back after that. I’d seen God. Other people had it happen to them and we all grabbed as many innocent bystanders as we could and drug them after us. “You can drink!” we’d say, “You can smoke. The movies are crazy. It’s only six dollars.” They’d come once. In the six years I’ve been going none of them ever asked to go back.

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So why’d it die? What if it had charged more than six dollars? What if it had rigidly enforced a “No outside food” policy? Would I have liked it as much? Would the movies have had the same impact, would I be this crazy about Hong Kong? I don’t think so. The Music Palace made me love Hong Kong movies, at the same time that Hong Kong movies made me love the Music Palace. For years it was a refuge, a lowdown dive, a den of sin and a place to worship the movies, not the concessions counter. It was an antidote to the sterile multiplexes, and it felt like it was mine.

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Of course I shared it, every year with less and less people. I wonder what happened to some of them. There was the Hat Man: a gaunt, alcoholic Caucasian who wore a baseball hat and sat in the balcony. Whenever something in a movie flipped his switch he’d grab the brim of his hat in both hands and rock back and forth saying, “Uuuuuugggghhhhh”. He vanished after EXTREME CRISIS. There was the Cat Man, who would spread out newspapers on the floor in front of the first row on the far right hand side of the Palace. He had lots of shopping bags and a white kitty on a string. Sometimes it’d escape and run under your feet during a movie, leading you to believe you were being attacked by the world’s cleanest rat. He used to put his kitty into and out of various bags during the movies, but it didn’t seem to mind. Whenever it got off its string it always came back. There was The Cop, a crazy short fellow in a security guard outfit who carried everything he seemed to own on his utility belt, like Batman. There was the bald retarded Chinese guy up in the balcony who used to burst into enthusiastic applause whenever there was an onscreen kiss. Various old men used to sit behind me with unvarying regularity and read the subtitles out loud. One of them, car chases made him angry, and whenever tires squealed he began to cuss in Cantonese, personally offended by the sight of cars hurtling down Hong Kong streets way over the speed limit.

These guys don’t have anywhere to go now. I wonder how they felt when they showed up at the Music Palace and couldn’t get in. Probably a lot like I did when I walked by it on Saturday morning and saw the posters turned around, backs to the street. I can’t believe that in all of America, from coast to coast, there’s no more Music Palace. No one’ll ever see movies again the way I did, no one’ll ever know what it was like to pay six bucks to see a movie you’d never even heard of while you ate your lunch. Knowing that if that movie wasn’t good there’d be another one on, right after. Those days are gone. Apparently, there’s no room in America for the Music Palace, and I guess that says more about America than it does about the Palace.

I wish there was something I could do to make it come back, but I think the only thing I can do is be sad. It’s a simple thing that happened, really. The Music Palace was there for almost fifty years. And then one day, it was gone.

-Grady Hendrix (July 2000)

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Excerpt from the ‘Asian Entertainment in NYC’ newsletter (the precursor of Subway Cinema News) informing about the Music Palace Theater’s closing

Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2000
From: “Kazee, Paul”

Subject: Asian Entertainment in NYC – Update 6/30/2000

…………..

Sammi Cheng, Kelly Chen, and Leon Lai are all coming to Atlantic City; a HK film festival is coming to Anthology Film Archives; a HK film festival is coming to Cinema Village; the Asian American Film Festival is coming to the French Institute; a John Woo festival is coming to Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinema; a Yuen Biao double feature is coming to The Den; Kurasawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Oshima, Teshigahara, and Satyajit Ray films are coming to the Film Forum; a newly re-subtitled print of Kurasawa’s RAN is coming to the Japan Society and Lincoln Plaza; Kurasawa’s MADADAYO is coming to the Asian American International Film Festival; and finally, the Music Palace will forever close its doors after the last show today (Friday, June 30th). I find it somehow poetic that they are going out with a Wong Jing/Jackie Chan collaboration and a Cat. III adaptation of a literary ghost-sex tale. Bye Bye Music Palace. What the hell am I going to do with my Sunday afternoons now?

…………..

The last double feature to play at the Music Palace was CITY HUNTER (dir. Wong Jing, 1993) and LIU JAI: HOME FOR THE INTIMATE GHOSTS (dir. Lam Yee Hung, 1991)

Read the New York Times article about the Music Palace and other old Chinatown theaters – Movie House, and an Era, Go Dark in Chinatown.

music palace theater new york
The former site of the Music Palace Theater on the Bowery

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