I sometimes see a crowd gathered in front of a storefront on Broadway, between 88th and 89th Street, staring with rapt concentration into the window. Occasionally they break out in laughter.
They are a random looking group–some in suits, some with groceries, some in shorts with baseball caps turned backwards–and they hardly ever look at each other. Most of them are standing contrapunto, on the verge of stepping away, back into the stream of Broadway and whatever they were doing before their eye was caught. Standing in their midst, though, I feel a sense of camaraderie. Everyone is sharing in the plain good luck of having found something interesting, and then there is the vague sense of relief that the occasion for gathering isn’t anger or indignation or a chance to rubberneck at some disaster, but simply an opportunity to cage a few free chuckles.
The crowd has gathered to watch Charley Chaplin. Video To Go often plays one of his movies in their window. Modern Times or The Great Dictator can be seen with the sound of traffic and the occasional car stereo replacing piano as accompaniment. The unusual soundtrack aside, the peals of laughter that erupt with some regularity are quite familiar. Some of those watching might be recollecting long ago dates at long lost revival houses, while others might be encountering the funny guy with the mustache and baggy pants for the first time. The size of the audience tends to build during each skit and then dissipates when the gag is over, only to build back up when things get going again, which is more or less right away. Chaplin’s movies are standard fare for the video monitor in the window, and a clerk at the store recently remarked that his movies are the only ones that draw a crowd. “But no one ever rents them,” she said.
Harold Brodkey wrote a great piece about this store and the role it played in Broadway circa the late 80’s-early 90’s. It took up an entire section of Talk of the Town in 1992.