A SPECIAL PLACE: THE ORITANI THEATER IN HACKENSACK, N.J.

oritani

The Oritani Theater: 300 Main St. Hackensack N.J Photo from the Mitchell Dvoskin collection

A SPECIAL PLACE: THE ORITANI THEATER IN HACKENSACK, N.J. by MonsterZero N.J.

Everyone has a special time and place in their lives that they will always remember. For me it’s the Oritani Theater in Hackensack N.J. during the late 70s and early 80s. A place which was an important part of my youth and played a large role in developing my tastes in movies and my love of movies in general. Since I will probably mention this special theater quite often on this site, I might as well tell you a little bit about it and why it is special to me…

Grind house is a term used to describe a movie theater that showed low budget exploitation films as opposed to more mainstream movies. The Oritani triplex in Hackensack N.J. could definitely be described as a grind house, presenting badly dubbed martial arts, horror, and raunchy low budget comedies. I was fortunate enough to have experienced seeing a lot of great exploitation films on it’s screens before the video age killed the grind house and these movies went direct to videotape and now DVD.

My first visit to the Oritani theater was in 1976. It was still a single auditorium theater at that point and my parents took me there to see the cheesy rubber monster-fest, “At The Earth’s Core” which was on a double feature with the sci-fi/horror “Bug”. It was an odd double feature and a herald of things to come. I would venture there a few more times to see delightfully cheesy fair like “The Incredible Melting Man”, but it wasn’t till a few years later when visiting the Oritani would become an almost weekly occurrence.

I started high school in 1979 as a new kid in Ridgefield Park, a small town where everyone grew up together. My parents had divorced and my mother remarried and we relocated there to live with my new stepfather. I was an outcast at first and it was the other outcasts that I bonded with as friends. My pals Roger, Ray and Dorian all held similar interests and movies was one of them. Ray especially was a big horror and gore movie fan and I wonder if he still is. We weren’t old enough to drive and Hackensack was in walking distance, so Friday and Saturday nights were spent walking along the railroad tracks that paralleled the Hackensack river into town and onto Main St, where the Oritani theater was located. The Oritani was now split into a triplex, so there was at least three movies to choose from each week, more with the occasional double feature. If the weather was bad, Ray’s grandfather drove us, so we were there almost every weekend, sometimes twice. There was always something playing there to catch our interest. Worse came to worse, there was always the Fox theater across the street, which showed it’s share of exploitation flicks, too.

Obviously what we saw there was a mixed bag. I remember seeing the classic “Shogun Assassin”, as well as, one of my all time favorites, “Escape from New York”. But for every future classic, there was a “Final Exam” or a “Revenge of the Shogun Women in 3D” which evoked more laughs and mockery then chills and thrills. I discovered the films of David Cronenberg watching “Scanners” there. My first exposure to Cronenberg’s work and he has become one of my favorite filmmakers. Got to see some early Charles Band productions there like “Laserblast” and “The Day Time Ended” before he embraced DTV and started making films specifically for the home video market. I also saw “Mad Max” there starring a then unknown Mel Gibson, which was on an odd double feature with “Humanoids from the Deep”, another great B movie from Roger Corman, whose movie productions I love. I saw Corman’s answer to “Star Wars” and “Alien” respectively, “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “Galaxy of Terror” at this special theater, too. Both had production design by a then unknown James Cameron who went on to direct “Terminator”, “Aliens” and “Titanic”. Future memories formed watching future stars. You’d be surprised how many acclaimed actors and filmmakers had their start in these movies…whether they acknowledge it or not.

The audience at the Oritani was as diverse as the selection of flicks and these movies brought everybody together to laugh and shout comments at the screen as one audience. Whether it was to challenge a master’s skill in “Kill and Kill Again” or question the threat factor of one of “The Boogens”, the audience became part of the film. Some of the comments heard were better than the film viewed and I will never forget them. When the film broke before an epic battle in “Shogun Assassin” and restarted after the fight ended… well, you had to be there. I’m glad I was. Even when I revisit that B-movie classic today, it doesn’t seem quite the same with that jarring bit of missing footage now intact.

Unfortunately, video tape came along and exploitation film studios realized it was cheaper to release things directly on tape than to spend money on prints and advertising. The grind house died and the Oritani died with it. There are now a couple of stores standing where the Oritani used to be and I can’t name one of them. Don’t care to. I wish I could name the last thing I saw there* but, in it’s final run, the Oritani tried to save itself by becoming more of a mainstream movie house, so we stopped going. By then we were old enough to drive and could see these mainstream movies on a newer, bigger screen with better sound. I remember one night coming out of the Fox theater, we might have gone there to see John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, and I gazed across the street to see the Oritani marquee and feeling sad that “E.T”. was playing there and not some cool exploitation flick or low budget horror. Maybe in my heart I knew at that moment that those days were now gone and to an extent, so was the Oritani I knew and loved. And sadly, it was. The Oritani closed in 1983, the year I graduated high school. Perhaps a bit symbolic of the end of my youth, or at the very least, the end of an era. I will never forget this special theater nor the impact it had on me as a movie lover. And I cherish the memories of all the great B-Movies I discovered there, seeing them on the big screen where they belong. The spirit of the Oritani Theater still lives within this movie geek, though and on many a quiet Saturday night I get a six pack of my favorite brew and pull some of the great B-movies first seen there from out of the collection and relive some of the memories of that very special place.

The Oritani Theater  1922-1983.

*UPDATE 2/8/2015: After a lot of deliberation and checking of release dates, I have come to believe that “Friday The 13th part 3 in 3D” may very well have been the last film I saw at the Oritani Theater. If correct, Friday 8/13/1982 is the last time I was at this great theater and special place…and the 3rd “Friday The 13th”, the final film. -MZNJ
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