Jerry Lewis Cinema
When the 70s arrived, little, rectangular theaters starting popping up across the island. Each featured a smiling caricature of beloved comedian, Jerry Lewis, and family-friendly movies. Unfortunately, when the decade ended, so did the Jerry Lewis Cinema.
The idea was simple enough. With the success of fast-food franchising in the 60s, Lewis partnered with Network Cinema Corporate in 1969 to create a chain of franchised movie theaters bearing his name and likeness.
Each theater was small, less than 300 seats, and all were designed in the same way. The concept was that, everything was automated and as little as two employees could run one of these places. Early advertisements boasted “if you can press a button, you can own a Jerry Lewis Cinema.” Within five years, there were over 200 across the country.
Here is a rare look inside one of the last remaining Jerry Lewis Cinemas, in Frankfort, Indiana. That’s a long way from the island, I know, but the inside here looks remarkably similar to what I remember about the Ronkonkoma location. See if you agree.
The concept was enough to entice a number of franchisees across the island as well. Jerry Lewis Cinemas opened in multiple areas including Lake Ronkonkoma, Massapequa, East Meadow and Center Moriches. Some locations were “Twins”, esentially two of the theaters built together.
The Jerry Lewis Cinema focused on family entertainment (one of the things that helped to hurt them in the end). Some of the decades biggest blockbusters, like Smokey and the Bandit, would never make it to their screens. Still, families flocked to the small, inexpensive theaters through the 1970s.
Two things I remember most are the Saturday matinees and the summer Disney double-features. On Saturdays, they would run series of films, one per weekend, such as Planet of the Apes, Sinbad, Godzilla, those types of film series. I spent countless Saturdays with friends seeing all of the latest adventures on the big screen, especially when it was raining outside.
Even better though, when summer arrived, parents could drop their bored and restless kids off to watch pairs of Disney films. Parents loved the four hours of peace and quiet and kids loved the entertainment. I think this is how I first saw every classic Disney movie, from Lady and the Tramp to The Jungle Book. It was one of the great joys of summer every year and an inexpensive way to keep our parents sane. Maybe someone should still do it.
Meanwhile, all was not well with the Jerry Lewis Cinemas business model. Turns out, Jerry and company had greatly exaggerated the ease in which one could operate these places. It took more than pressing a button, it took business expertise. Things also weren’t quite as “automated” as advertised, with equipment regularly breaking down much to the frustration of those who thought it was going to be easy.
As you might expect, lawsuits started piling up from all the owners, who felt the company failed to live up to its expectations in preparing them for success. Like most get-rich-quick schemes, bankruptcy soon followed for many of them. There are still plenty of bitter feelings about Jerry from those that didn’t enjoy their experience as a cinema owner.
One by one, the little theater rectanges started changing their names or closing. The Ronkonkoma location became the budget-priced Lakeside Cinema for a few years before turning into an OTB (Off-Track Betting). Today, it is a Panera Bread. Today, someone is sitting and eating a salad in the same place I saw 101 Dalmations. Sigh.
Let’s face it, they may not have been the fanciest, most state-of-the-art places to see a movie, even then. But many of carry around great memories of our time spent there in childhood, not so much for the place, but for the great movies we saw there.
Did you go to the Jerry Lewis Cinema back in the day? What locations did I miss? I would love to hear all of your memories of these little theaters in the comments section below!