NEW YORK -- It was never very comfortable. The sound system was bad and, usually, so were the prints. People in line were always selling things: film magazines, old movie stills and other, less legal commodities.
But when the Bleecker Street Cinema dies next week, so will one of New York's cultural emblems. Despite the existence of Hollywood, or maybe because of it, this city has always considered itself the intellectual center of American film.
For 30 years, the rambling Italianate building in Greenwich Village has provided New Yorkers with a beguiling collection of independent films from America and around the world. When Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building for 12 hours and called it a movie, the film showed without interruption at the Bleecker Street Cinema. Woody Allen portrayed it in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" as a kind of filmmaker's promised land. In "Desperately Seeking Susan," Rosanna Arquette fell in love with the theater's projectionist.
Somehow, the place managed to struggle through the emergence of a world dominated by videos, probably because generations of the city's loyal cineastes had taped eclectic Bleecker Street schedules to their refrigerator doors. But the real estate epidemic, which has claimed half a dozen of Manhattan's finest revival houses from the deliciously faded Art Deco Thalia to the Regency and New Yorker, has finally collected its most famous film prize.
"It's like losing your children," said Jackie Raynal-Sarre, who has owned the theater at the corner of LaGuardia Place since 1974. "We tried everything we could. We sold our apartment in Paris. But we just couldn't raise enough money to pay the rent."
It is a refrain heard time and again in a city so expensive that Bohemians and Beatniks faded from view long before the first five-film cineplex opened here. Blockbusters starring Sylvester Stallone make money. "Jesus of Montreal," the current allegorical offering about art and truth, does not.
To the occasional film fan, loss of even this theater will hardly make an impact because Manhattan still has more movie houses than some states. Thousands of films seem to show each week, and many are revivals or independents or from foreign countries. But small-budget films have never had an easy time, and the Bleecker Street Cinema served as a gateway for other venues. If a film succeeded there with the savvy New York crowd, distribution companies would feel far better about giving it a try on the road.
"Even in the hard-edged real world, this is difficult to take," said Jonas Mekas, who runs the Anthology Film Archives and has long been a leader in New York's world of penetrating, avant-garde cinema. "It is one of the most important theaters in the nation, and it has been from the start."
Raynal-Sarre appealed to several of her most famous supporters for funds, including Allen and actor Richard Gere, and both were willing to help, she said. But her landlord asked for a 75 percent rent increase to $275,000 a year and has since steadfastly avoided public comment.
Even if she built a kitchen and, like the Angelika Film Center a few blocks south, began to peddle $6 mozzarella sandwiches and cappucino to SoHo's hungry film fans, Raynal-Sarre could not have found enough cash to keep the theater in the black.
"We practically live here," said Roland Wilson, a New York University student who said he tries to see as many as possible of the 1,000 films that play each year on the two screens. "They might as well take away my dorm."
The work of dozens of the modern cinema's boldest and most provocative directors debuted at the Bleecker Street Cinema. "Scorpio Rising," Kenneth Anger's surrealistic devotional to an American motorcyclist, premiered there. So has the often indigestible work of the influential German directors, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
"It started really as a club for the New York intellectual," said Mekas, whose brother was its first manager. "It was a time when people had dreams and illusions for art and film. Every night, they would come to the basement and fight about culture."
In the first years of the century, the building, with an edifice since redesigned by the noted architect Raymond Hood, was home to artists and musicians. Enrico Caruso lived in the penthouse for more than a decade. Later, the ground floor became Mori's, a restaurant said to have been Mayor Jimmy Walker's favorite hangout.
But it was as a film center and cultural crossroads that the theater gained lasting renown. Bob Dylan often crossed the street from The Bitter End, where he performed in the early 1960s, to watch a film.
"This theater has always been about art," said Howard Brodsky, a projectionist there for the last eight years. "At some point, people in New York have to decide whether they are willing to completely forsake their cultural enterprises."
Even today, the theater is one of few at which a patron can attend a lecture on the relationship between cinema and psychoanalysis before seeing a film. Its patrons range from bored suburban teenagers on an obligatory pilgrimage to the Village, to the producers, directors and film industry intellectuals who inhabit what remains of New York's literary and visual avant-garde.
The walls are lined with stills from the works of Robert Bresson and Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard and Errol Morris. A picture of Francois Truffaut hangs sullenly over the popcorn machine.
"You aren't suggesting they are going to shut this place down," said a woman named Susan Anton ("Yeah, like that movie star") as she exited after a recent screening of "Fun Down There," a new independent film by Roger Stigliano. "I saw Bernadette Peters watching 'Wings of Desire' in here once. And I saw Cher making out."
Told that the theater was closing because the rent had become too high, she shrugged as if she had heard it all before.
"The yuppies win again," she said.