Talk about a time warp: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the 1975 musical that mixed science fiction, glam-rock and campy sexuality to become a midnight-movie sensation, celebrates its 45th anniversary this year.
For Long Islanders, the milestone may conjure up bittersweet memories of the Uniondale Mini Cinema, a counter-cultural beacon that hosted "Rocky Horror" screenings for years before eventually closing its doors.
If you were a young cinephile on Long Island in the 1970s, you probably found your way to the Mini Cinema, a boxy brick building with 415 seats and a single screen. At the time, repertory cinemas were thriving. Los Angeles had its still-famous Nuart Theatre, Manhattan had the influential Waverly Theater (now the IFC Center) and many college towns boasted their own venues. Long Island had no such cinematic presence until Ralph Donnelly, a Bellmore-raised impresario who would go on to wear many hats in the movie industry, opened the Mini Cinema on a nondescript stretch of Jerusalem Ave. in 1970.
Despite or perhaps because of Long Island’s provincial reputation, the Mini Cinema found an eager audience. The theater courted a college-age, post-hippie generation by showing edgy, transgressive titles that couldn’t be seen anywhere else in the area. (Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre, now Long Island’s premiere art-house theater, wouldn’t launch until a few years later.) The Mini-Cinema became the place to see underground fare like Alejandro Jodorowski's acid-western "El Topo" and John Waters' bad-taste classic "Pink Flamingos." Rock-concert films were a staple, as were Marx Brothers all-nighters that ended at six in the morning.
With ticket-prices running as low as $2 for a double feature, the Mini Cinema offered a pop-cultural education at a bargain price.
"It was very much a communal experience," says Adam Sohmer, who grew up in Queens but spent every weekend he could at the Mini Cinema while visiting family in Islip, Bay Shore and Lindenhurst. Sohmer, 59, recalls excitedly scouring the theater's newsletter-style program, "Sam" (named for Samuel Marx, father of the Marx Brothers), to see what was coming. The theater introduced him to the Beatles' surreal television film "The Magical Mystery Tour" (then difficult to find in the U.S.), Monty Python's sketch-comedy anthology "And Now for Something Completely Different" (years before the troupe arrived on American television) and Robert Downey's racially charged satire "Putney Swope," among other rarefied titles.
"On a good night, when there was a popular film, you'd pick up on the vibe as soon as you got into the parking lot," says Sohmer. "It was tailgating, before anyone was using that that term. We'd hang out and smoke and talk to other people. You'd see all types there. You might see someone partaking a little too much, let's say. But everyone was really friendly, and it was fun."
The Mini Cinema also played a part in Long Island's music scene. The Good Rats, a popular local band, played at least one concert there, in 1978. The theater also screened "The Harder They Come" (1973), the Jamaican film that helped introduce reggae to American audiences. (The film features music by and a brief appearance of Toots Hibbert, the reggae pioneer who died this month.) At times, the Mini Cinema took on an almost Woodstock-ian atmosphere: Patrons who searched the aisles after screenings could often find leftover drug stashes, according to one recollection posted on the internet.
"It was just so unabashedly counter-culture," recalls Scott Alderman, 59, , who grew up in Syosset and Huntington and would go on to become a concert promoter. Alderman recalls taking LSD and watching the concert film "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones" at the Cinema in 1978 – an evening that opens his self-published memoir, "Get Off." "You could smoke pot and watch Marx Brothers movies," Alderman says wistfully. "It was just the best place ever."
One of the Mini Cinema's biggest claims to fame was as a home base for "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." An American film adaptation of Richard O'Brien's British stage musical from 1973, "Rocky Horror" told the story of two newlyweds (played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who stumble into the castle of a space-alien transvestite named Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry, in his career-defining role). Released in the summer of 1975, the film was dismissed by critics as little more than a kinky curio and fizzled upon release.
Little by little, the film drew repeat viewers. Lore has it that one of the first instances of audience participation came from a man in the Waverly Theater who shouted an off-color line at the screen. Halloween screenings reportedly helped start the tradition of fans dressing up as their favorite characters. By the late '70s, "Rocky Horror" had become a bona-fide subculture, with audiences showing up for their 10th or 20th screening, reciting dialogue with split-second accuracy and dancing in sync to the film’s informal theme song, "The Time Warp."
Those who gathered at the Mini Cinema took pride in a suburban branch of what was mostly a Manhattan-based cult. Leaflets given out at the theater read, "We can be better than the crowds in the city!!" Fans were so faithful that the Mini-Cinema added Sunday afternoon showings that began at a civilized 2 o’clock. "It’s like a religion," one fan told a Newsday reporter in 1977. Even today, "Rocky Horror" remains the longest-running theatrical release in history. (Disney, which acquired the film when it absorbed 20th Century Fox, is celebrating the 45th anniversary with a limited edition Blu-ray SteelBook.)
It’s unclear what brought the Mini Cinema to an end. The late 1970s and early 1980s, which ushered in the age of the multiplex, could be tough times for independent theaters. Some time in 1975, Donnelly’s other venue, the First Avenue Screening Room in Manhattan, had abandoned European art-films in favor of what the New York Times described as "male homosexual movies." The Mini Cinema reportedly closed in 1981. The location is now occupied by a church, which seems fitting: For loyal patrons, that's precisely what the Mini Cinema was.