Screenings Call

T here’s an old-timey, drive-in feel to the announcement about “the terrific taste of an ice-cold Pepsi” before a movie at the Criterion. The screen fills with bubbling, icy cola and the theater’s surround sound gurgles and fizzes.

The graphics are simple, the pitch is straight-up and the theater’s corporate tagline—“moviegoing the way it used to be, only better”—is pretty spot-on. Small auditoriums, deep red carpeting, raked upholstered seating and tubs of popcorn flavored with real butter seem out of a bygone era. But two cozy screening rooms, self-serve kiosks and the service of wine, beer and the occasional mimosa feel fresh and contemporary.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Housed below a clock tower in the onetime United Illuminating building on Temple Street, the Criterion has been around since 2004. In a nod to the building’s history, 1930s-era mechanical valves and dials uncovered during renovation are on view in the restroom entrances. Criterion’s obvious appeal is that it’s the only downtown cinema showing new releases like Incredibles 2, Sorry to Bother You and Leave No Trace as well as the highly anticipated Ant-Man and the Wasp, the newest Marvel Studios offering, all with digital projection and sound and frequent showtimes.

But in addition, two screening rooms off the lobby, each with about 40 seats, play indie and lesser-known films on Blu-ray discs. A “very independent” film might even be played from a USB drive, according to the employee who showed me around. Pickier film buffs might notice a screening room difference in picture quality, but the crowd coming out of a recent Tuesday night screening of American Animals was raving about the movie, one they’d otherwise have to drive all the way to Fairfield or Hartford to see.

Other offerings that make the Criterion a standout are screenings of “cult classics” like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Psycho, GoodFellas and Grease. Night owls flock to the Insomnia Theater series on the first Friday and Saturday of every month at 11:30 p.m., when seats are $5.50 with discounts for holders of Criterion Club BLUE Cards ($1 off) and GOLD Cards (free). The same deal applies on the first Saturday and Sunday of the month at 11:30 a.m., when the Movies & Mimosas series offers just what it says. If mimosas aren’t your thing, you can order wine and beer to go with your movie any time (wine $7 for 6 ounces or $10 for 10 ounces; beer $5.50 to $6.50 on tap and in bottles). Service is in the small cafe area in the lobby, but you can carry your drink into the theater just like any other concession.

Quirks and all, the Criterion is officially corporate, part of Bow Tie Cinemas—according to Variety magazine, the oldest theater chain in America. Bow Tie was founded by B.S. Moss in 1900 with streetside nickelodeon machines followed by vaudeville theaters, the corporate website says. In the 1930s, Moss shifted the business to motion pictures. The name Bow Tie comes from the criss-crossed shape formed by Broadway and 7th Avenue at Times Square. There, Moss opened the forerunner of New Haven’s theater, also named the Criterion, in 1936. A mural on the wall displays photographs of Moss along with celebrities whose films showed or even premiered at his theaters, including Humphrey Bogart, Grace Kelly, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren and others. Still owned by the Moss family, Bow Tie now has 50 locations nationwide.

My crew eventually settled in to watch the mild but moving Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the Mr. Rogers biopic, along with about two dozen other moviegoers. Not bad for a Tuesday night, when regular tickets are discounted from the usual $11.50 to $7. Strangely, nearly everyone lingered through the credits, and even when the screen went black, we sat in silence for a moment, as if not quite sure what we should do when we walked back out into the world.

As we filed out in the dark, thinking about neighbors both literal and figurative, it seemed only fitting to find ourselves in the Criterion lobby—part of a theater chain, yes, but also part of our neighborhood.

Criterion Cinemas
86 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Admission: $11.50 regular; $8.50 children and seniors; $8 college students (Mon-Thurs)
Box Office: (203) 498-7001
www.bowtiecinemas.com/criterion-cinemas

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-8 photographed by Dan Mims. Image 9 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 depicts Criterion employees Jonathan Marchese and Charles Treadway III.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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