This past spring, first-time filmmaker Michael Ien Cohen heard that the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington wanted to book a one-night screening of his debut feature, a skateboarding-inspired documentary titled “Humanity Stoked.” The film had already won several awards at festivals, but for Cohen, who grew up on Long Island, this screening was special. He drove to the Cinema and met with its co-director, Charlotte Sky.
Cohen, 56, reminded Sky that some 30 years ago he had shown up to the Cinema and confessed that he dreamed of being a filmmaker. He recalled Sky and her husband, Vic Skolnick, showing him around the venue, offering what advice they could and telling him to come back when he’d made a movie. If it was any good, they said, they’d show it.
After all this time, he told Sky, “I can’t believe you kept your promise.”
Sky, now 92, had a different take: “You kept your promise,” she said.
It began with one bed sheet
Few movie theaters are as deeply ingrained in their communities as the Cinema Arts Centre, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Launched with little more than a borrowed projector and a bed sheet for a screen, the Cinema has grown into one of Long Island’s major cultural institutions, known for boosting local talent and providing audiences an education in non-mainstream cinema. The Cinema has survived the multiplex boom of the 1980s, the streaming era and the COVID-19 pandemic when many other theaters didn’t. Family-run from its very first day — and a not-for-profit for almost as long — the Cinema Arts Centre is one of the oldest continually operating art-movie houses in America.
“I think maybe you need a family that looks at this like a family business,” says Ed Burns, the Valley Stream-raised director of “The Brothers McMullen” and a regular guest at the Cinema throughout his career. “They have that kind of love for it. And that’s maybe why they’re still here and so many of the other theaters are gone.”
Right idea at the right time for LI
The Cinema was the right idea at the right time. The 1960s had seen an explosion in daring new films from overseas — France, Sweden, Italy — while maverick American filmmakers like Robert Altman and John Cassavetes were breaking with Hollywood convention. Anti-establishment dramas like “The Graduate” and “Five Easy Pieces” were connecting with the counterculture generation.
By the early 1970s, then, art house culture was booming in New York City. But on Long Island, not so much.
Enter Vic Skolnick and Charlotte Sky, a couple of cultured, progressive types from Brooklyn. He was a pipe-smoking history professor at C.W. Post, she had a background in dancing. Both were dedicated film fans, but after moving to Long Island in 1972, they felt like their movie options had dwindled.
“Since suburbs just have the chain theaters, it’s just the fare that comes out of Hollywood studios,” Skolnick recalled in a 1983 interview. “When we moved to Long Island and had the shock of not having the choices we had living in the city, I began thinking seriously of an idea … to start a cinema in a small community where people did not know about the vast amounts of films that were available.”
So Sky arranged to rent a local space, the New Circle Dance Studio at 237 E. Main St., on Saturday nights. There, she and Vic hung a king-size bed sheet on one wall and used a borrowed projector to show movies. The name of the venue: The New Circle Cinema. Its first program: Robert Rossen’s underrated drama “Lilith” (1964), preceded by “That’s Me” (1963), a short film whose star and co-writer was Alan Arkin. Patrons brought their own chairs, and tea was served during the pauses between reel changes.
Meanwhile, Skolnick gained a reputation for his pre-screening lectures. “People were not bored by it, they actually liked the idea of being introduced to these films,” Sky says. “We were giving an education to people about cinema.”
It didn’t take a cinéaste, however, to see that the studio’s low ceiling, mirrored walls and makeshift screen resulted in a subpar viewing experience. So in 1974 the venue was moved to a space in an old firehouse at 235 Main Street near Rte. 110 — initially on the first floor and later upstairs — and re-christened the New Community Cinema Club. The vibe was bohemian, with secondhand chairs and sofas purchased from the Salvation Army downstairs; the screen was so close to the restroom that the old toilet — the kind with an elevated tank and a pull chain — sometimes competed with the dialogue.
Thursday and Friday shows were added, but Sky and Skolnick still worked part-time jobs, including driving delivery trucks, to keep the venue afloat.
“We took a chance that there were a lot of people who were like us, who loved films but just didn’t get to the city to see them,” Sky recalls. “It wasn’t like it is now, where you can find things on your television screen.”
Fire-safety concerns led to the Cinema’s third and final move in 1977 to its present site: a former elementary school building at 423 Park Ave. In late 1989, a Vienna-born movie-lover named Ursula Niarakis caught a screening of “Dangerous Liaisons” there and was impressed by the venue’s ambitions. It so happened Niarakis was the head of the philanthropic Hoffman Foundation (founded by a wealthy car importer who lived in Old Brookville), which ended up giving the Cinema $1 million to expand and upgrade its facilities. In 1991, the newly renovated venue began operating as the Cinema Arts Centre. (The new name looked better on grant applications, according to Sky: “It made us sound like we were much bigger than we actually were.”)
Over the years, the Cinema has played host to many a filmmaker, including David Lynch, Robert Altman and Wim Wenders. The indie filmmaker Hal Hartley, of Lindenhurst, who soaked up movies at the Cinema before heading to film school, returned there to hold the East Coast premiere of his trailblazing indie debut, “The Unbelievable Truth,” in 1989.
"The New Community Cinema was indispensable to my filmmaking career,” Hartley said at the time, adding, “it was almost mythic.”
Joining the family business
It was probably inevitable that Skolnick and Sky’s son, Dylan Skolnick, would join the family business. A lifelong fixture at the Cinema — Sky recalls him sitting in the first few rows at screenings even as a boy — Dylan studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts with the intention of becoming a filmmaker. Instead, he found himself gravitating back to the Cinema and, in the mid-1990s, made the decision to work there full time.
“Part of the reason the filmmaking career never got off the ground is because I was devoting so much time to the Cinema,” says Dylan, 56. “So eventually I ended up in the family business.”
During Dylan’s tenure, the Cinema has launched a number of new programs: a Night Owl series of cult movies, a Preview Club of film not yet in release, the Cinema for Kids matinees on Sundays and, this year, the venue’s first-ever Jewish film festival. During the dark days of the pandemic, Dylan kept the Cinema alive for its members — roughly 9,000 at last count — by offering “virtual” screenings for home viewings. During that period, he also personally hit the phones and asked members to help keep the Cinema afloat. He raised roughly $600,000.
“You could say it’s more than a cinema, it’s a vital community center,” says Foster Hirsch, a professor of film at Brooklyn College and the author of several books who has been a regular speaker there. “Many loyal friendships have been formed at the Cinema, and many loyal customers have become friends.”
Vic Skolnick's legacy
Vic Skolnick died in the summer of 2010. A memorial service at the Cinema drew more than 600 people, including Isabella Rossellini, who thanked him for providing “a fantastic safe harbor where we can show our work."
After so many years of struggling to establish the Cinema, “I think Vic would be feeling that the acceptance was finally here and people really appreciated what it meant to bring this to Long Island,” Sky says. “Vic felt very proud of what the Cinema had finally achieved.”
The Cinema has celebrated its half-century this year with a series of favorite films from the past decades, screened in reverse chronological order, beginning with 2017’s “Lady Bird.” That series was scheduled to culminate in a Dec. 1 party with screenings of 1972’s “The Godfather,” 1975’s “Nashville” and a recreation of the Cinema’s very first program, the Rossen-Arkin combination.
Dylan says he considered throwing a gala ball, as the Cinema did for its 40th anniversary, but formal occasions aren’t really his style. “We thought for this one, we wanted to have a party and do what we do best,” he says, “which is showing movies and bringing people together to socialize and watch them.”
Correction: Michael Ien Cohen grew up on Long island. An earlier version of this story misstated the location.