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Babylon Cinemas, village attraction for 92 years, closes, leaves downtown void

Babylon Cinemas closed on Sept 7, 2014. Bow

Babylon Cinemas closed on Sept 7, 2014. Bow Tie Cinemas, the last of a series of owners, turned out the lights on 92 years of history on Sunday after the 7:45 p.m. showing of "Guardians of the Galaxy." Credit: Ed Betz

The Babylon, a nearly century-old movie theater where a fluorescent blue-lettered sign and bright marquee were fixtures of life in the village, has closed.

Bow Tie Cinemas, the last of a series of owners, turned out the lights on 92 years of history on Sunday after the 7:45 p.m. showing of "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Joseph Masher, Bow Tie's chief operating officer, said business at the Babylon, known in its latest incarnation as Babylon Cinemas, had worsened after the 2008 opening of a 16-screen Regal multiplex in Deer Park.

"We've tried everything to help Babylon," he said. "Installed digital projectors, greatly improved the sound, improved the building, significantly lowered ticket prices -- nothing worked."

Masher said Bow Tie, based in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has no immediate plans for the building on Main Street. The company, which took over the three-screen theater last year when it bought Cablevision-owned Clearview Cinemas, is the largest exhibitor in the metro region and still operates seven theaters across Long Island.

In the 1960s, the Babylon was a destination for hundreds of teenagers, including Mayor Ralph Scordino, enjoying unchaperoned freedom.

"When Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' first came out, one of the clowns we used to hang out with brought in pigeons and set them free," he recalled.

The Babylon began its life in 1922 as the Capitol, said Orlando Lopes, New York director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, a preservation group. Archival photographs show the marquee advertising the 1925 Western silent movie "Beyond the Border" and 1948's "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid." When "Superman" came out in 1978, the theater showed it for 16 straight weeks on what was then a single, giant screen, Lopes said.

He said the loss of the Babylon underscores a decades-long trend of industry consolidation in the region. "From the time I moved out here in '77, Long Island has gone from 175 theaters to maybe 25," he said. "We may have the same number of screens, but there are fewer locations where you can go to see movies."

Many small theaters have struggled with modernization costs such as the transition from film to digital. Hampton Arts Cinema in Westhampton Beach nearly closed during the summer; Glen Cove Cinemas closed last year but reopened in the spring after a $1 million renovation.

The Babylon survived even as similar theaters in Amityville and Lindenhurst went out of business, but its role in local life waned in recent years. While family-owned Bow Tie does not release attendance or revenue figures, owners of neighboring businesses said they saw few people coming in and out of the theater.

Restaurants now draw more visitors to Babylon's small downtown, according to Scordino, who said the closure would have a minimal effect on commerce.

Robert Sunshine, director of the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York State, a trade group, said the Babylon's predicament was increasingly common. "People want a choice. . . . They want to go to a theater with eight, nine, 10 screens" and amenities to match, he said.

Business owners are concerned about what may come next for the nearly 700-seat theater building, but they are also nostalgic, said Jon Taylor, owner of Village Art and Frame and former president of the Chamber of Commerce.

"It's another part of a vanishing Long Island," he said. "It's a sad thing."

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