Dec. 22, By Christian Murray
Nearly 175 Sunnyside residents—many accompanied by children—turned out for a rally Sunday afternoon in an attempt to save Sunnyside Center Cinemas from the wrecking ball.
Many residents who attended the rally, which took place outside the Queens Blvd.-theater, had been going to Center Cinemas for the past 40 years. They turned out in hope that it would not be demolished and some sort of agreement could be struck between the landlord/developer and the owner of the theater.
The cinema’s last day in operation is scheduled for Jan. 4 , and most believe that if John Ciafone, the landlord, and Rudy Prashad, the owner of the theater, can’t work out a deal by then the theater will be demolished to make way for a seven-story building.
“I grew up with this theater,” said Lisa Deller, a Sunnyside resident, who was at the rally. “I’ve been coming here for 40 years—since I moved to Sunnyside when I was 2 years old.”
Meanwhile, John Siscaretti, 51, who started the online petition to save the theater, went to the Center Cinemas when he was a young child. “My first movie here was Jungle Book,” he said.
The two organizers of the rally—Ty Sullivan and Pastor Jon Stork—made it clear from the get-go that the rally was not an anti-landlord event. However, both wanted to send Ciafone a clear message: Sunnyside is a tight-knit community and that it deserves to know what is going on.
Sullivan and Stork said they invited Ciafone to attend the rally and speak. They assured him that he would be made to feel welcome. He did not attend.
“We hope to see Rudy [Prashad], Mr. Ciafone and Councilman Van Bramer sit down and figure out a win-win for all parties involved—including Sunnyside,” Storck said to the crowd.
“Ciafone has made it clear that he will sit down with (Prashad)… after the construction is complete (in about 2 years); but we are asking him to sit down now and negotiate before the process starts.”
Furthermore, Stork said, Sunnyside residents deserve to know what Ciafone’s plans are for the site. He said that there have been so many conflicting report—whether it is affordable housing, a community center or luxury condos.
Sullivan said that it was important to save the theater for Sunnyside’s children and families.
Sullivan, known for his charisma and energy, began chants, such as: “1,2, 3, 4, 5, Keep the Cinema Alive” and “All we are saying, is give the cinema a chance,” based on the Jon Lennon song.
Prashad, the cinema owner, who had quietly attended the rally, did speak and thank Sunnysiders for coming to his theater over the years.
“I love Sunnyside,” Prashad said. “I have met some good people and made some good friends here,” he said.
He said that he hadn’t changed his prices since he took over the theater 10 years ago: “Where else in New York City can you get a $5 movie, popcorn and soda for less than $10.” He pledged that if the landlord allows him to stay the price would remain the same.
“I didn’t expect this kind of crowd to come out on a cold day,” Prashad said after the rally. “I am touched the community loves this cinema so much.”
“I hope this rally helps me stay or come back,” Prashad said. However, “I am very doubtful, since the landlord would have sat down and talked to me by now.”
He said the six month extension he turned down wouldn’t have helped him much-—since he had already made plans to leave. Furthermore, the six month extension came with a $7,000 per month increase in rent on top of what he was paying before, he said.
Roger Hitts, a long time resident, said he has fond memories of taking his daughter to the cinema: “I don’t think there is one kids’ movie that my daughter hasn’t seen here since she was two,” he said.
Now, Hitts’ daughter, Liana, is 12. “It’s a pity for her as she would have been able to walk to the theater with her friends; now she will have to be driven to Kaufman Astoria.”
A broad cross section of local groups turned out in support of the theater. They included: The Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce, Sunnyside/Woodside Boys and Girls Club, United 40s, Sunnyside Artists, Hunters Point Civic Association and Recreate Queens. Meanwhile representatives from Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan’s were in attendance. Several community Board 2 members were also present.
Brent O’Leary, who is the president of the Hunters Point Civic Association and whose parents are from the neighborhood, said:
“It’s sad to see the mom and pops get pushed out for development,” he said. “And With the theater, it is like we are losing an old friend.”
By Ty Sullivan