a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Movie Night

I was dismayed to hear that the Howard Johnson's in Times Square recently shut down for good. Because for about 8 years (circa 1990-1998) I was there almost every Friday Night.

Because it was Movie Night.

For those of you who never heard of it, on Movie Night a bunch of people (numbering from 2 to 60, depending on the night) would get together at the back of the Times Square HoJos restaurant, where for about an hour and a half we'd eat and talk. And then, at midnight, we'd go see a movie in Times Square.

The thing that gave it cachet was that it was set up by Penn Jillette, who for long stretches was there about 60% of the time. Holy crap. Fucking Penn Jillette.

(Okay, now I'm going to start dropping names, but I'm not going to do it in an "I'm cool because I was once in the proximity of famous people" kind of way. In fact, to counteract these charges, let me establish up front that I am not cool. I'm Newman from Seinfeld.)

(Actually, the other day while waiting for a table at a restaurant, a man thought I was Laker's coach Phil Jackson. Which is flattering, except for the fact that Phil Jackson is about EIGHT INCHES TALLER THAN ME. So... maybe a thin Newman, crossed with a short Phil Jackson, if Phil Jackson wasn't cool. And you're drunk in a restaurant waiting area.)

When Penn Jillette started Movie Night, he actually would pick up the tab at HoJos, until too many hangers-on started showing up; then it was pay-your-own-way. But I didn't care; I wasn't there for the free food. I was there because it was Penn Jillette, who when he was there would dominate the table, with stories and anecdotes and just being Penn (and for the record, Penn in real life is just like Penn in his act. Teller, on the other hand, talks, though he was never there much).

And he'd bring the occasional celebrity along with him. Lou Reed was there one night. Another night, I sat next to Debbie Harry (who was quiet, but nice). Michael McKean was there once, and I think I asked him some really stupid question about Spinal Tap, though I guess that's better than asking him to do his Lenny.

And the movie itself was a kick too. We'd go to see the worst movie opening that weekend in Times Square, which usually provided a wide range of options, some which you've never heard of (the first movie I ever saw at Movie Night was "Crackhouse". I think Anthony Geary was in it.) The rules said that everyone had to sit in the front row of the theater, plus there was a bunch of esoteric rules as well -- when a character in the movie said the name of the movie, everyone had to politely clap (I think "Candyman" holds the record). When a character said the name of another movie, you had to say "wow". It was goofy stuff, but fun, and we tried not to piss off the other people in the theater too much (though, if you go to see a crappy movie in a Times Square theater at midnight, you have no reasonable expectation of audience silence).

(And yes, when I had my brief (18 month?) stint as a Times Square movie theater manager, I used to get the group into my theater for free. And I'm sure, if I ever ran into Penn today, he'd give me a vague look, and maybe say "Oh yeah (lying) I remember you. (Politely) How's it going?)

Sometimes we had to range a little farther to find a movie that fit the criteria. One night we wound up seeing "Longtime Companion", a very serious AIDS movie, which managed to do it so well that everyone was dead quiet throughout. Some nights a few brave souls would go see a second movie, around 2:30 in the morning, at the Embassy Theater, which was open all night; it would be four guys in the front row, and about 30 sleeping, snoring drunks in the seats behind us. Good times.

And there were long stretches when Penn didn't show up. And that was cool too. Because when he wasn't there, it was a smaller, non-Penn-dominated crowd. The other regulars were nice people, and it was nice to have a place to go every Friday night, where people just showed up or didn't, but you always knew that someone would be there. And the other regulars were interesting too, most just ordinary people -- Sal was a dentist, Maryanne wrote magazine articles, Jamy was the best close-up magician I ever saw. Another guy had a great act in which, among other things, he ate a lightbulb. But he was still an ordinary guy.

At a certain point, Penn moved out to Vegas, and then (aside from Penn's few-times-a-year visits) it was just a core group of regulars, 5-12 people every Friday night. But we kept it going, people joining, people leaving. I finally moved out to L.A. in 1998, but I heard the group was still meeting every week for a while. And then I lost touch.

Long before I came out here, another regular moved out, and tried to get Movie Night started in L.A. But it's a different culture -- there is no real Times Square equivalent, no ready source for bad midnight movies. Still, if anyone has any ideas -- and wants to set up a regular Friday Night gathering in the L.A area, I'm all ears.

Goodbye, Ho-Jos. I hope there are still a few regulars who have found a new place in Times Square to get together on Friday nights.

And if you are ever in a Times Square movie theater on a Friday night at midnight, and hear polite clapping coming from the front row, tell them Scott said hi.


At 2:58 PM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hey man! Got here via The Blank Page. Welcome to the scribosphere. I too am a script reader and writer, also formerly of NYC now in LA. Looking forward to more cross-polination amongst readerships. :-)

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Scott. I've enjoyed reading through your entries. I'm going to be graduating from college and moving to LA in the near future. I'm interested in getting a jo as a reader. Any advice?

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Like any business, breaking in can be tough -- people are looking to hire readers with experience, and you can't get experience unless you get hired.

My advice is just to call around, and see if anyone is looking; target small production companies or agencies. Put together some coverage samples, to show you can write -- or offer to read for free for a while, just to build up experience.

It's almost impossible to get enough work to make a living at reading off the bat, but if you have another job to support yourself, reading can initially be a good way to make some spare cash. And once you hone your critical/coverage writing skills, you may decide to make it a fulltime job.

Good luck...

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

Hope I'm not stepping on your toes here, and if so, please say so! But I'd also recommend reading the book, "Reading for a Living" by T.L. Katahn. An excellent (and perhaps the only) primer on this job.

At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 3:41 AM, Blogger The Gambino Crime Family said...

Great story. You'd think a Hojo on Times Square would simply coin money these days but who knows? Maybe they didn't actually own the building.

Just curious, but what was the transition like during this period? Was it Taxi Driver one minute, Disneyland the next, or was it more gradual?

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

It was more gradual. First the porn places started disappearing, then they knocked down all the great old movie theaters on Times Square (which still showed movie, usually double features, but the theaters were seedy as hell, so no big loss).

Times Square is a lot shinier now, but it has definitely lost some character.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Jen in Germany said...

Scott - I am mourning your movie nights - unlike you, who tapered off - I was introduced and evicted in the same article. It sounds like it was great.

If you are ever in Munich - we have "Surprise Movie" on Friday night at Cinema - the oldest original format movie house (and the most profitable stand alone theater in Germany). Tickets are 1/2 price - and no one except the projectionist knows what will be run. It will always be a movie that hasn't premiered in Germany - sometimes we get movies that haven't come out in the States. We saw Ray three weeks before it opened - zum beispeil...

It's a lot of fun - so if you are ever in Munich and have a window Friday at 11:30PM...

Great site.

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

That sounds extremely cool -- wish I was there.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger The Gambino Crime Family said...

It is a little depressing to think about how Manhattan's becoming one big mall but at least I read somewhere that the Thalia is open again. That's something.

Then again, I grew in North Jersey in the late 70s/early 80s, back when New York was this perpetually dying city on the Hudson. It was vibrant and alive but sad little b-n-ter that I am, I couldn't quite imagine living there.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Fun Joel said...

Gambino --

I used to live right around the corner from the Thalia. I tkept makign fitful attempts to reopen in various incarnations (my favorite was a few month period when they were playing a number of Bollywood movies -- wish I made it to one of those). Then, above Symphony Space and the Thalia, they built a large luxury apartment building. In keeping with this, they renovated the Thalia, and Symphony Space. Not at all the same thing -- more of a restaurant, if I recall correctly. Maybe shows the occassional flick. I forget. But at least it is nice and opened again!


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