The communal experience of watching a great movie or TV show

One Sunday night during my first semester of law school at New York University, I had reached my fill of studying, so I decided to catch a movie. I checked the Village Voice and saw that “Singin’ in the Rain,” the classic 1952 musical starring Gene Kelly, was playing at the Theatre 80 St. Marks movie house in the East Village. I had never seen the movie before, but I thought I’d enjoy it.

So I trekked over to the theatre and plunked down my five bucks at the ticket window. I expected that the theatre would be pretty empty — I mean, c’mon, who goes to see a 30-year-old movie on a Sunday night? —  but lo and behold, hardly any free seats remained!

Within a half hour into the screening, I knew I was watching what would become my favorite movie. I was thoroughly entertained, enchanted, and uplifted. And what added so much to the experience was that people were clapping, enthusiastically, after each of the iconic musical numbers, such as Gene Kelly’s signature performance of the title song (click above!) and Donald O’Connor’s dazzling, funny song-and-dance number, “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

I had never before been at a theatre where strangers cheered scenes of a movie in each other’s company. We reveled in that film, and obviously it made for a lifetime memory.

Theatre 80, East Village, Manhattan (photo: DY)

Theatre 80, East Village, Manhattan (photo: DY)

Going to see movies at Theatre 80 and other revival movie houses would become a staple of my New York experience. At times I would drag someone along, and on other occasions I’d just go by myself. How cool it was to watch classic old movies on a big screen!

Seasons 1 & 2 are on DVD

Seasons 1 & 2 are on DVD

At the risk of sounding like the first year of law school was a cakewalk (rest assured, it wasn’t), another good memory of communing before a screen occurred every week in the Hayden Hall dormitory where most first-year law students lived. The dorm had a TV room, and dozens of us would gather to watch “Hill Street Blues” and “Cheers” as a group study break.

“Cheers” was at the start of its long run, and we enjoyed it. But it was “Hill Street Blues” — a cop show that anticipated just how good TV dramas could become — that most captured our attention. Largely unknown actors such as Daniel Travanti (Capt. Frank Furillo), Bruce Weitz (Sgt. Mick Belker), and Betty Thomas (Sgt. Lucy Bates) made for one of the best ensemble casts in television history, and the developing storylines maintained our interest from week to week.

Back in the day: Lots of NYC cockroaches, but a nice TV room (Photo: DY)

Hayden Hall, NYU, Washington Square: Back in the day, lots of cockroaches, but a nice TV room (Photo: DY)

Such communal viewing experiences are few and far between these days. The old Theatre 80 still stands and is used for performing arts events, but it’s no longer a movie theatre. The widespread availability of VCRs pretty much killed off the revival houses, and with them went the experience of watching a classic movie in the company of others.

I have no idea if the TV room in Hayden Hall is still around, but even if it is, I’d be surprised if it plays the same community-enhancing role for the undergraduates who now live there. Most of them probably have their own TVs or use their laptops to watch the latest small screen programs.

As the rows of DVDs running along my bookshelves and my Netflix subscription attest, I appreciate being able to pop in a disc of a favorite movie or TV show. But I know it’s not the same as applauding with others for “Singin’ in the Rain” at Theatre 80, or rooting with friends for Captain Furillo and his squad to catch the bad guys and survive City Hall politics on “Hill Street Blues.”

3 responses

  1. This is exactly why Scandal is such a big hit- it has a communal twitter aspect no other show can rival! Just a new era of community room!

    1. Yes, the online world has created its own space like that!

      For years I participated in an “old fashioned” e-mail exchange with college pals about the TV series “24,” starring Kiefer Sutherland. We’d dissect each episode during the days that followed, and rev up again for the next one. It was a lot of fun!

  2. Dave, as one of your “24” correspondents, I am inclined to take your recommendations very seriously indeed! So although I am not usually a big fan of musicals, I will give “Singing in the Rain” a try – I’ve never seen it!

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