Good-bye to the Rowdiest Movie Theater in Brooklyn

Photo: Matteo Mobilio

When the Regal Court Street Stadium 12 opened over two decades ago at the intersection of Court and State Streets in downtown Brooklyn, it would’ve been hard to envision anyone mourning its demise.

This was no fabulous mid-century movie palace like the Ziegfeld and the Astor Plaza (both since shuttered) or the Paris (which would have been a goner if Netflix hadn’t snapped it up). No, the Regal UA Court Street, as it was known when it closed down last Sunday, was one of those gigantic, bustling suburban-style multiplexes that old-timers used to lament were “ruining cinema.” In accordance with East Coast urban norms, everything was stacked in a multilayered vertical space, the levels joined by escalators and elevators; if you went to the Regal often enough, you learned to factor in ten extra minutes of travel time in case your film was playing on the top floor (at least the view was lovely).

Back then, there were other theaters in that part of Brooklyn, including the Brooklyn Heights Cinemas I & II (closed in 2014 and converted to condos in 2017), the Pavilion in Park Slope (legendary for its seediness and chronic understaffing, it was adapted into a dine-in by Nitehawk), and the adorable Cobble Hill Cinemas farther south on Court Street (which was declared a goner the instant its giant neighbor opened but is still chugging along). And, of course, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn’s polestar for art and repertory programming. But many had a fondness for the famously rowdy Regal because it was a true neighborhood theater, drawing an economically and demographically diverse crowd from Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene to Boerum Hill and Windsor Terrace.

The programming reflected the theater’s cast-a-wide-net mandate. This was the go-to place for the new Star Wars or Jackass or Hangover as well as midrange horror and action pictures, Oscars contenders, and even art-house flicks that had earned their way into the mainstream. It helped that it was within walking distance of Atlantic Avenue, with its restaurants and bars, and next door to a Barnes & Noble (with a magazine rack that carried buff bait like Sight & Sound, Empire, Cinéaste, and Film Comment). Because it was a neighborhood theater, just ten minutes’ walk from my family’s apartment at State and Hoyt, it played host to so many personally resonant moments it’s hard to know where to begin listing them.

There was the time when a packed house for The Simpsons Movie sang along with Homer’s song “Spider-Pig.” And the time I took my kids to see Where the Wild Things Are on opening night, waited too late to buy tickets, and ended up crammed into the furthest front-row seat on the right-hand side of the theater, mashed against the wall; I was miserable throughout the previews, but once the movie began, it was so wonderful I forgot about where I was sitting.

My daughter and I used to attend double features on weekend afternoons, each picking a film. One Saturday in December 2008, I chose the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and she picked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The former was so dull we left halfway through (“My first walkout!” she said and high-fived me). I had been widowed two years earlier, and when Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) told Benjamin (Brad Pitt), “We’re meant to lose the people we love … How else would we know how important they are to us?” I burst into tears and had to leave the theater because I couldn’t stop crying. I continued in a stall of a men’s room that was otherwise unoccupied.

After a few minutes, the door opened, and I heard an employee pushing a mop bucket with a squeaky wheel. “Hey, dude, are you okay?” he asked. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I called out. “It’s that damn movie that’s got me like this.”

And now, a whole damn theater. — Matt Zoller Seitz

Picture it: It’s late summer 2017, you have a MoviePass account, and you’ve smuggled a bagel with cream cheese into a mid-afternoon weekend screening of the Reese Witherspoon film Home Again. The film already takes place in a surreal, very literally white universe full of peppy, handsome young men devoid of any sexual drive except for a strong desire to please Reese Witherspoon. Midway through, a fly starts to crawl over the projector, but no one in the audience seems to notice or care because it just makes the movie all the more surreal. Later on, Reese’s character starts flirting with her ex, Michael Sheen, whom the movie has told us is not a good fit for her. They lean in to kiss. Someone in the audience shouted, “Don’t do it!” Really, only at the UA Court Street would an inoffensive rom-com guarantee audience interaction. That was a perfect day at the movies. I’ll miss the place a lot. — Jackson McHenry, Vulture staff writer

Dumb, loud spectacles and jump-scare slashers were the main excuses to watch anything at Court Street because you likely weren’t going to catch all the dialogue over the audience chaos anyway. On opening night of Final Destination 2 (2003), a screaming match broke out — as they often did — which escalated as a woman took off her shirt and slapped a guy with her bare breasts. In turn, her disapproving boyfriend started a fistfight with the stranger, which spilled out into the aisle. They tripped over an old man whose son (grandson?) started whaling on both of them. Twenty minutes later, a popcorn fight broke out. I got drenched in soda, but at least nobody pulled out a gun, as I’ve witnessed there on three occasions. From the widespread cackling over Kurt Russell’s drowning scene in Poseidon (2006) to the widespread confusion over the avant-garde comic mayhem in Crank: High Voltage (2009), the closest thing to a bona fide grindhouse theater in post-Giuliani NYC was never boring, even when the movies were. — Aaron Hillis, film programmer 

The vibe of the physical space was lame, generic corporate theater chain. The layout created constant escalator bottlenecks. And if you were foolish enough not to bring your own snacks, the concession stands were impossible to find. What made it fun was all the weirdos who went there. I remember seeing The Others in a completely packed house, stuck in the first or second row. The lady next to us reacted so loudly and enthusiastically to everything that happened onscreen that I figured it must be her new favorite movie ever. Then at the very end, after the big reveal (spoiler: Nicole Kidman was a ghost the whole time) and the camera pulls away in that final tracking shot, this woman stood up and screamed, “WHAT?? There’s no fuckin’ monsters in this??” and angrily stormed out.

This poor woman had held out hope for an hour and 40 minutes only to end her night with disappointment. I hope she snuck into Jurassic Park III, which was playing on the next screen over and did have monsters. — Michael Bonfiglio, filmmaker

The Regal Court Street theater was my childhood movie theater. Once my horizons expanded to other theaters in the city, I stopped visiting for a long period, but having a MoviePass account in 2017 reinvigorated my drive to visit my home theater. I didn’t have to pay money for garbage movies like the Ed Helms–Owen Wilson buddy comedy Father Figures, which I watched with a moderate-size crowd on a weeknight. No one was laughing. Then came a moment when Wilson utters his signature catchphrase: “Wow.” A guy in the theater immediately shouted his best Owen Wilson impression at the screen: “Wow.” I echoed back one of my own: “Oh, wow!” Now several other people in the audience were chiming in with their own “oh, wows,” as if we were all declaring we were Spartacus. This went on for two whole minutes, everyone cracking up at the “oh, wows” now drowning out everything else onscreen. If that isn’t a compliment to the community that Regal Court Street built, I don’t know what is. — Rendy Jones, film critic, Rendy Reviews

The Regal was the place to be as a 12-year-old on a Friday night. You’d start by hanging out at the Barnes & Nobles next door until it was movie time or the B&N staff caught on that it wasn’t water in that Poland Spring bottle the nine of us kept passing back and forth. My friends had more than a few sexual escapades in the building: One described the hand job he received during a crowded screening of Saw as “life-changing.” It was one of few places where customers felt at liberty to act out against corporate America. It was a free-for-all. You dropped trash anywhere but the garbage: in the theaters, the hallways, down the gap between the escalators, watching it fall five stories from the top floor. The staff — bless their souls — seemed to give less than a shit. You were free to shout obscenities, down your Bacardi Gold, or find out what kind of noise half a box of Sno Caps makes when dropped from fifty feet. Amid the dizzying chaos, maybe you’d even get to catch a movie, too. — Matteo Mobilio, associate photo editor, New York Magazine

The best part of Regal Court Street was the fact that the escalators were designed by M.C. Escher, which made it incredibly easy to sneak into a second or third movie after buying a ticket to just one film. I’ll never know what happens in those first 15 minutes of The Spy Who Dumped Me, but I do know I crept into it with a third of a bag of popcorn in hand after seeing BlacKKKlansman one cold March Saturday when I had nothing else to do. (For legal reasons, this did not really happen.) The second best part was that you knew the crowd would be reactive, which is the best way to watch a movie. So I was surprised while sitting through a late-night screening of Crazy Rich Asians to find the audience relatively mum. Right up until the wedding scene where the aisle is gorgeously flooded with water for dramatic effect. At which point somebody yelled, “Oh they craaaazy rich.” And they were. It was perfect. — Madison Malone Kircher, host of Slate’s ICYMI

The films were often masked incorrectly, projected out of focus. The escalators seemed to never work, and every surface just felt … sticky. They didn’t have 4DX there, but it didn’t matter; every opening weekend screening offered its own fully immersive experience. It’s where I saw The Witch with a perplexed, borderline furious audience: “The fuck was that?” someone yelled at the closing credits. The ambiance was frequently, wonderfully rowdy — I saw both Magic Mikes at Court Street, and each time felt closer to a bachelorette party than a movie screening. On the theater’s final day, I went with friends to see the new Scream. Even on a snowy Sunday night in a theater only a quarter full, we intrepid moviegoers were treated to both public vomiting and a fistfight. Of course we were. Bless Court Street for dying exactly as it lived. — Chris Wells, director of distribution (U.S.), Mubi

One day in the summer, I played hooky from work and went to see a midday showing of some Sex and the City movie (I don’t remember if it was the first or the second). There were only a handful of people in the showing, and I settled in for an afternoon of mindless entertainment and junk food. During a group-shopping-trip montage, the trunk of a Mercedes SUV opens to reveal piles of luxury shopping bags from all the high-end brands. From behind me, a man declared, “Now that’s what I call shoppin’!” and the rest of the theater laughed, me included. And he was right! Whenever I see someone on the street with a lot of bags, I think about this and the Court Street Regal. RIP. — Kate McKean, literary agent

For a good chunk of my late 20s in New York, I was caught in inescapable riptides of depression. And for years, the Regal UA Court Street theater was my closest therapist’s office. Living a brisk walk away from a movie theater came with advantages: a time-killing activity with a clear reward, the sublime anonymity of a dark room, and the shared community of an audience crying, gasping, or just yelling at, say, Thanos getting whacked with Mjolnir or the house sound crapping out at the start of a special screening of a Deep Space Nine documentary. While other theaters more militantly enforced their quiet policies, UA Court Street practically goaded you to raucous, decibel levels — so long as you were on the same page as everyone around you. — Eric Vilas-Boas, Streamliner editor, Vulture

When I wanted to see something so bad it had to be good, this is where I wanted to be. I’ll never forget watching Magic Mike XXL in a near-empty theater except for a group of older women a few rows down from me who stood up and hollered anytime the men started dancing, especially when the crew heads to Rome’s all-male, abs-aplenty strip club. The crowd in the theater felt just as rowdy as the one in the film. It’s sad, of course, to lose the theater, but I will certainly not miss those agonizing single-file escalators. — Diana Budds, senior story producer, Curbed

What I remember about the Court Street theater is less the movies themselves than what happened before and during them: Scaling the Seussian escalator arrangement. Gonzo conversations overheard at the concessions. And especially, for me, the entrance.

There was a partition when you walked in. Guests buying from the box office went to the right, purchased tickets, and then proceeded through a doorway to the ticket-taker. Anyone using the self-service ticketing terminals, or who had tickets printed out or on their phone, went to the left, passed through the same doorway on the other side of the partition, and then encountered the same ticket-taker, who was stationed across from those ticketing kiosks. I have drawn how I recall the layout; I will caveat that my memory is operating at 40 percent effectiveness right now:

On slow days it was fine, you transacted and entered, no problem. But on a busy night: madness. More art:

It was a historic achievement in the annals of inadvertent bottlenecking. I loved it. You’d head to the theater, already hyped to see Don’t Breathe with a lively crowd on opening night, and then have to navigate a scrum of eager moviegoers just to enter the place. Few things could further ratchet up my excitement for a much-anticipated film quite like being in a boiling-over stew with other amped-up fans, and I will miss that experience. — Neil Janowitz, Vulture Editor

It was a place where the better show was often in the audience. It could be a lively pack of teens asking you mid-movie if you’ll run to the liquor store across the street to procure some vodka (“orrr peppermint schnapps,” slurred the white girl in the back) or a man sitting next to you eating a halved honeydew directly from the rind with a spoon while searching for nude photos of the star on his phone. Catcalls. Fistfights. Pandemonium.

It was a movie theater that could turn the wrong audience off from ever going to the movies again. It was also a theater that could gift the right audience one of the best nights of their lives. In many ways, it was a relic of a different approach to film exhibition; one that turned a blind eye to, if not embraced, wild-eyed riffraff heckling a terrible movie. And if you were lucky enough to ever witness that chaotic energy firsthand, you understand why so many New Yorkers are holding their torches high for the Regal UA Court Street theater. — Mike Sampson, Alamo Drafthouse creative area director

Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the January 31, 2022, issue of New York Magazine.

Good-bye to the Rowdiest Movie Theater in Brooklyn