Let’s go to the movies

UA the movies in Patchogue, NY after it closed down and before it was demolished.

Time and time again, I find myself mesmerized about how disposable the culture of my childhood really is.  Granted, Hollywood in recent years has been finding ways to pillage and plunder the cartoons and movies that I loved when I was growing up, but when I think of the places where I spent most of my time, they are the malls and multiplexes that seem to be nothing but demonized.  I mean, I guess that people interested in historical preservation really wouldn’t have any interest in saving a concrete multiplex whose design is as bland and nondescript as any of the thousands that have been built, torn down, and rebuilt in the last 40 years; and I guess that said design, like a cookie-cutter multi-use stadium, dictates that it falls without any ceremony.  After all, what replaces the multiplexes and shopping malls are stadium-seating megaplexes and town centres that are upgrades and more aesthetically pleasing to the community.  Nobody misses those eyesores.

Except me, that is.  And probably others in my generation who are products of that transitional part of the late-20th Century when “medium” was “small,” but “mega,” “super,” or “extreme” sizes hadn’t been conceived. You know, when there was still something left of what most people get nostalgic for when they talk about “America” or the “American Dream.” I think the assessment that my generation doesn’t have much to look back on really is only because the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were all about knocking down the “smaller” feel of our parents’ enterprises and creating cold, impersonal places. The place, for me, that will always epitomize the era is the United Artists Patchogue 13 multiplex, which was located on Sunrise Highway, just east of Nicolls Road. 

Not only was it the multiplex where I saw the majority of the first-run movies of my youth (second place is Sayville Theater, a triplex still in operation in downtown Sayville, and definitely the subject of a future post), but UA Patchogue 13 epitomizes the rampant destruction of some mythic “real America” that my generation’s era is known for because it was originally an indoor/outdoor theater.  It began as the Patchogue Drive-In and when I first visited it, it was an all-weather drive in, with a large building that housed one screen and a parking lot with a drive-in movie screen. I only saw one movie there when I was a kid — my dad took my friend Chris and I to see Return of the Jedi.

The “experience” of the drive-in was destroyed for the moneymaker of the multiplex around 1985 or 1986 and that indoor theater building was expanded and 12 more screens were added, along with three concession stands, and some video games. Since most of the surrounding indoor theaters had been shut down — the Plaza Theater in East Patchogue; the Sunwave Theater on the corner of Sunrise and Waverly, next to Play World; the triplex in downtown Patchogue; the Oakdale Theater; and the indoor/outdoor in Bay Shore, near Toys R Us — there really wasn’t another place to go to the movies. Okay, we had Sayville Theater, which is still in business today, but even though I could walk there, I headed to Patchogue for the big movies.

Part of the reason for that was because Patchogue was newer and shinier; part of it was because the staff there was really lax about letting twelve-year-olds into R-rated movies. These days, theaters check I.D., but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even my parents knew what we were going to see most of the time. When my friends and I went to the movies, we weren’t going to see The Little Mermaid. We were going to see Predator, The Running Man, Hard to Kill, Out for Justice, Kickboxer, Rambo III, and Double Impact. And don’t worry, I turned out fine, even if I saw Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare before I was seventeen.

It was adolescent ritual, just like taking a girl to a drive-in and necking in the front seat when you were supposed to be watching the movie might have been for my parents’ generation (or at least that’s what 1950s nostalgia flicks tell me). But if I were to believe any self-proclaimed expert (read: crotchety old bastard) on popular culture, I have nothing to look fondly upon. After all, in the post-drive-in, disposable multiplex culture, you’re not supposed to have an “experience” when you go to the movies. You’re just supposed to sit down, see some Michael Bay-directed piece of crap, and eat a mega-sized tub of popcorn that will add to the already nasty case of morbid obesity you’ve got going.

Never mind that I can recall several movies that I saw and who I saw them with because movie-going is a social experience to begin with. I’ve since gone to movies by myself, but when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have been caught dead going to a movie alone. Jeremy and I went to see every bad horror movie ever made, Harris and I made junk like Batman & Robin tolerable by cracking jokes in an empty theater for 90 minutes, and Catherine surprisingly laughed hysterically through There’s Something About Mary. If there were something else to do, we probably would have gone and done that; however, Sayville can be boring when you’re a teenager and alternatives were shooting pool in either Bayport or Oakdale, or drinking in the woods.

I played a lot of pool as an adolescent but my friends and I didn’t really imbibe, mainly because outside of the few guys I played hockey with on a regular basis, I didn’t have much of a social life. , so it was movies for us. Yeah, I longed for a girlfriend just like any other pimple-faced geek does, but wanting some and actually getting some are two different things, and it was way more pleasant to sit in an air-conditioned theater on a Friday watching Jean-Claude Van Damme kick someone’s ass than to sit around in my non-air-conditioned bedroom wondering whether or not Kim knew I existed.  I’m sure that my friends, even if they never said it (I was the lovesick one out of all of us), probably felt the same way.

But honestly, the one person I saw the most movies with and probably had the most fun with at UA Patchogue 13 was not Jeremy, Harris, or Catherine, but my father.  My dad was the person who had taken me to see Return of the Jedi back in the day and he’d accompanied me to at least a couple of the Star Trek movies, but the type of flick we were always willing to see was the late-1980s/early 1990s crappy action flicks that were ubiquitous.  If it starred Schwarzenegger, Seagal, or Van Damme, we were there.  Considering he’d been letting me rent them since I was nine and first watched Commando at my friend Evan’s house, it made perfect sense.

A night out with my dad usually started with a 7:00 or 8:00 show.  We’d go by ourselves or we’d pick up my friend Tom and his friend Rob and then head out to watch Marked for Death or Lionheart.  We always made a point to make sure that we were there for the previews, which meant that we usually showed up at the movie theater twenty minutes before curtain and had to sit through a slideshow of word jumbles and movie trivia that by the time I was fifteen, I’d seen so many times that I knew all of the answers by heart.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I knew the exactly order of the slideshow—first you’d have a slide telling you that could rent the theater for events, then you’d have some movie line that you had to figure out, then a slide for the great things at the concession stand, and then the answer.

Fifteen minutes later, a worn-out piece of film would give the fire exit/emergency procedure information and then we’d be into it.  We’d talk about how good or bad the movies in the previews looked, but that was pretty much it for the most part, as we really did pay attention to the movie, whereas a night out with my friends would be spent making side remarks at the movie.  And the movies weren’t particularly great, but we didn’t care, as long as they looked cool.

Afterwards, we’d go out.  Sometimes we hit a diner for cheeseburger deluxes or omelets; sometimes we’d go to Friendly’s where my dad would devour a super Sunday inside five minutes.  If his friend Rob was there, Tom and I would listen to stories of how he dealt with some punk-assed teenagers at a drive-thru by lowering his snow plow and pushing them along (stunts which earned him the nickname “The Road Warrior”); if it was just my dad, we’d talk about the movie or other movies that were awesome.  It never once occurred to me that most other kids my age wouldn’t admit that they hung out with their parents on a weekend night (in fact, in my head, I can still hear “You go to the movies with your DAD?!”), or that I was supposed to be reluctant about going with him or something.  It’s just what we did.

Which is what makes that multiplex important.  I guess that on some level, the perpetual popcorn and butter smell and weird red-tinted lighting of the UA Patchogue theater is not worth protected site status (obviously, considering the building was knocked down three years ago), but walking into the front entrance, where the sign had a broken light because Tom once threw a rock at it, with the sun setting behind us on a finally starting-to-get-cool June or July evening with my dad makes it worth it.


  1. I used to work there. I think I started a few weeks after it opened. Maybe it was because I was so young or it was my first “real” job, but It has to be one of the best couple of years of my life. My boss at the time would have preview parties thursday night after all the coustomers would leave. The staff could invite their friends, hangout, drink. It was the best. I made some great friends working there and had sooooo much fun. I am 41 years old now and I can say that working there was on my list of bests in my life!!! It makes me sad to think of it gone!!!

  2. I used to come here so much as a kid my grandma usually took me to see movies here in the 90s and early 2000s I was only born in 1990 so I never got to see the drive in. Such a great atmosphere it was felt like I was watching a movie at home on a big screen tv my parents couldn’t afford at the time. I used to eat the whole tub of popcorn extra butter no problem and a little bit of my sisters candy then we would go to California diner next door and I’d have pasta with meat sauce always lol.. Last movie I saw here was just with my grandma in January 2005 King Kong. I wish I would of gotten to see it going down to have one last memory of united artists. So sad I miss it terribly just like the old arcade I used to go to every weekend especially during summer vacation sports plus in lake grove ny I miss that place terribly too another story. Me and my grandma drive by it and I just get choked up a little seeing just woods and high grass now best movie theatre ever. Thank god for regal cinemas still being in business on portion road lake ronkonkoma that’s another childhood theatre I used to go to and I still go there at 23. Rip united artists one of the great ones!

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