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The Reel Queens: Boro’s only art house boasts old-style charm

The theater, which was built as a first-run cinema in the early 1930s at 81-05 Lefferts Blvd., offers a small-town moviegoing experience in the nation's largest city, boasting ticket prices between $6.50 and $9.50, a concession stand filled with homemade goodies and a staff that knows many of its patrons by name."I think people like that this is a warm environment to go to the movies and not the cold feeling you often get when you go to a multiplex," said theater owner Harvey Elgarth. "We operate as an old-fashioned neighborhood theater where people often get to know the staff."The theater's offerings have undergone several changes during its 75 years in Kew Gardens, starting as a mainstream movie house known as the Austin in 1933, switching to a foreign and art film theater in the Rugoff Theatres chain from the 1950s through the 1970s, becoming an adult movie theater in the 1980s, closing during the following decade and reopening in 2000 as an indie cinema.Elgarth, who also owns the Cobble Hill Cinemas in Brooklyn, said the process of attracting moviegoers to the theater following its revival was a challenge."It was a struggle in its first year and a half to get people to know that the theater was here," he said. "It's not in a mainstream visibility area - you'd have to know about it to come to it. But we are basically the only theater in the borough that is playing these types of films. So, now we have a devoted audience that comes once or twice a week once we change films."Carol Gonzalez, who has sold tickets and concessions from the theater since its reopening, said the theater attracts movie lovers of all ages, but that its regulars are mostly the neighborhood's elderly population."Our regulars stand in front of the theater every Friday morning before we open," she said. "If we do not get any new films on Friday, they are very disappointed."The theater's interior captures the essence of a quaint small-town theater, from its posters of classic films such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The French Connection" and old magazine covers of Photoplay and Motion Picture adorning its walls to music by Frank Sinatra and jazz greats playing softly in the background. Visitors can watch classic films on several televisions in the film's lobby as they wait for their film to start. On a recent day, a handful of afternoon moviegoers sat on sofas in a small waiting room adjoining the lobby and watched "The African Queen."In addition to moviegoing staples such as popcorn and candy, the theater's concession stand features a variety of cookies baked by its employees, including oatmeal raisin and butter cookies with raspberry, as well as ice cream and a variety of coffees and teas. Despite its old-fashioned decor, the theater's lineup often features the best of American independent filmmaking and world cinema. The current slate includes several of last year's most critically acclaimed and award-nominated films, such as "There Will Be Blood," "Juno," "Atonement," "The Kite Runner," "The Savages" and "The Orphanage."In the coming weeks, the theater will screen "Cassandra's Dream," a thriller by Woody Allen that opens Friday; "4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days," the critically lauded Romanian film that took home the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival; and "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," which stars Frances McDormand.Tickets can be purchased at the theater or at its Web site, Gardens Cinemas offers cheaper ticket prices at various times throughout the week. Admission for children and seniors is always $6.50, but that ticket price is also offered to all patrons all day on Tuesday and Thursday, Monday and Friday until 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday until 2 p.m., Elgarth said."If people do not want to spend the full ticket price, they certainly have a lot of leeway time," he said.The theater typically receives its films one or two weeks after they open in Manhattan, he said.All of the theater's movies are shown on 35 mm film but its sound is state-of-the-art Dolby digital. Weekend shows are often sold out, but unlike going to a Manhattan art-house theater, moviegoers are not forced to stand in line for an hour prior to the screening for a good seat. "People say they like to come here rather than travel all the way to Manhattan," Gonzalez said. "We get mobbed on the weekends but it does not feel like you have people breathing down your neck."

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