My New York Obsession

The Best Old-School Movie Theater in Brooklyn

Who needs reclining seats, craft beers, and in-theater food service when you’ve got the unchanged charms of Cobble Hill Cinemas?

Photo by Michael K./Yelp

When fellow New Yorkers ask me where I live, I have an easy landmark to point them toward. “You know that cute little theater in Cobble Hill?” I say. “I live on that block.” If I’m talking to someone who loves movies, they usually get a little bit excited. “The one with the…murals? The paintings?” they ask. 

That’s the first thing you need to know about Cobble Hill Cinemas. The murals. The paintings. The exterior walls of the terracotta-hued building on Court Street are painted with familiarish, if slightly off, old-time cinema vignettes. On the theater’s Butler Street side, Elliott rides his bike with E.T., silhouetted by the moon. On the building’s front, on Court Street, Dorothy stands alone and smiling in front of the yellow brick road in one panel, while her friends appear in another. Laurel and Hardy also show up, but not anywhere near each other. My favorite panel of all appears second from the bottom right: Scarlett O’Hara, posing in her red dress on a staircase, glaring menacingly. She was probably painted smiling that famous fake-sweet smile, but time, elements, and decades in Brooklyn have turned her into the surly grande dame of Court Street.

Photo courtesy of Cobble Hill Cinema/Facebook

There are new murals, too. In the summer of 2018, Italian-born, Brooklyn-based mural artist and contemporary painter Frederico “Iena Cruz” Massa was commissioned by the theater’s owner to add two large-scale paintings, one on each side of the building, featuring black and white portraits of cinema legends framed by greenery and birds, in the artist’s signature style. Now the mural walls are graced with artful bits of Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and other golden age megastars. Movie star images grace the inside of the theater as well, including local-boy-done-good-then-bad Woody Allen, whose presence elicits groans from time to time.

Located near where Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens neighborhoods meet, Cobble Hill Cinemas is a five-plex that shows a mix of blockbusters and indies. It opened in the 1920s as the Lido Theater and changed hands and business strategies a few times before settling on its current incarnation in the 1990s. Its marquee, a landmark that can be seen for blocks along Court Street, maintains its 1920s feel with Cobble Hill Cinemas spelled out in an Art Deco font. It’s a favorite of location scouts, and it has been in too many movies and TV shows to count, sometimes with custom changes to the marquee to reflect the films of different eras. (My personal favorite CHC cameos were in The Americans, which was set in Washington, D.C., but shot in Brooklyn.)

The marquee is still updated by hand every Thursday evening by an employee on a ladder using magnetic letters.

Another thing you need to know about Cobble Hill Cinemas is that it is a cinephile’s theater. Alcohol is not served, the seats don’t recline, you can’t reserve a center seat, and though the place was outfitted for digital projection and even added solar panels to the roof years ago, the marquee is still updated by hand every Thursday evening by an employee on a ladder using magnetic letters. The guy who sells you your ticket usually tears it as well, and if you ask how a particular movie is, he’ll tell you, because he’s a movie lover, too. This theater boasts none of the modern frills intended to lure customers out of their homes. (The theater’s owner, Harvey Elgart, buys and restores languishing old theaters, which is exactly what I would do if I won the lottery.) It’s analog in (almost) every way, and that’s the way we theater lovers want it. Seeing, say, Mission Impossible: Fallout at Cobble Hill Cinemas is like listening to a great new record on vinyl, pops, clicks, and all. 

Photo by Noom Peerapong/Unsplash

It would be a mistake, if a common one, to think that there’s anything unintentional about Cobble Hill Cinemas’s outdated aesthetic. Old and shabby? Yes. Chic? Ehh. But its perceived shabbiness is, in fact, the point. Elgart and his gang of cineasts know their audience—the kind of people who seek out the classic movie theater experience so much they went to see Roma in the theater even though it was on Netflix. Cobble Hill Cinemas is for people who laugh at the rubes on Yelp who complain that the seats don’t recline. And if the lines around the block on weekends are any indication, the decision to stay retro is a brilliant one. 

If the lines around the block on weekends are any indication, the decision to stay retro is a brilliant one. 

I discovered the theater within months of moving to New York from Tallahassee, Florida, in the summer of 2000. In Tallahassee, I’d worked at two theaters in college: the city’s art-house, Miracle 5 (now a Whole Foods), and a curious beer-and-wings–serving second-run joint near Florida State University called I.C. Flicks (now a Target). As a result of the reciprocal agreement between theaters allowing employees to see free movies at any of the other theaters, I saw practically every film that came out in the mid-to-late ’90s in a movie theater. (I’m not even joking. It’s kinda scary.)

So my first order of business when moving to New York—and not knowing a soul—was to find cheap movies. Cobble Hill Cinemas had the best deals. In those early years, I would take the G train from my squalid apartment in Williamsburg to Cobble Hill most Saturday afternoons to catch $4 screenings of movies like Oceans 11, Amélie, and Y Tu Mamá También. The moviegoing experience is still an ingrained habit; I typically see around two films a month in the theater. 

My adventures there have included a pot brownie disaster with a friend while watching Observe and Report (PSA: Never bring an entire batch of edibles with you to a movie, and always have other food handy!), the time a child reported me for bringing in outside food (notice a theme here?), and the time I ran into a friend at the (unfortunate) Reese Witherspoon flick Home Again. She and I were the only people in our theater, which allowed us the unique opportunity to scream at the movie’s bad dialogue and do loud impressions with impunity. It was like Mystery Science Theater 3000 without an audience. 

The other big thing you need to know about Cobble Hill Cinemas—and the next thing everyone mentions after the murals when I tell them where I live—is the premovie policy trailer (you know, the video that tells you to turn off your cell phone, etc.?). This short presentation is an established, crucial, cult aspect of the CHC experience. Nobody who knows anything about this theater ever arrives late, for fear of missing the intro, which is sort of indescribable but tells you to “turn off your pagers and cell phones” and has more than 5,000 views on YouTube. Moviegoers (OK, this moviegoer) have been known to do a little dance to the music. As far as I’m concerned, it’s almost impossible not to.

Recently, I saw Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood at CHC, and the house was packed. Before the trailers played, a static screen appeared that I’d never seen before. It looked a little bit like a new policy trailer, and the crowd definitely noticed. There was actual gasping, and the couple behind me murmured “Oh, no!” in unison. I felt the collective anxiety of the full room until the last trailer played and the familiar “Welcome to the gates of heaven”–style music cue (which, now that I think about it, is nearly identical to HBO’s) sounded. There was a collective sigh of relief as we all realized that everything was in its place. 

Cobble Hill Cinemas may eventually enter the 21st century but, thank God, it didn’t that night.

Lindsay Robertson is an editor, writer, and recovering blogger.