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PJ Cinemas

File photo by Kyle Barr

By Sabrina Artusa

After many gloomy months in quarantine, movie theater-starved citizens can now return to PJ Cinemas.

The Port Jefferson Station-based theater, owned by Phil Solomon, officially reopened May 28 after tentative operation and eventual closure during quarantine.

PJ Cinemas has long been a cornerstone of Port Jefferson life. Many Port Jeffersonians grew up in front of its screens, snacking on popcorn, splurging on candy and laying back in the dimmed theater to enjoy a movie with family and friends. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic suspended its operation, halting these happy excursions. Deprived of their local movie theater, many residents have not seen a film on the big screen in more than 15 months.

Most businesses were affected by the COVID-19 virus, and PJ Cinemas was no exception. Although closing was less than ideal, manager Brian Fiederlein recognized that it was necessary in order to “do our part for the community” and “ensure the safety of the staff as well as the patrons.” 

With the worst of the pandemic behind us, Fiederlein is optimistic and excited about reopening. However, the process has not been easy. Seven months after the initiation of quarantine, PJ Cinemas experimented with reopening for a brief time in October, but was forced to close again soon after. 

In regards to this latest reopening, Fiederlein said that it is “energizing to get back to working” but the process of getting acclimated to the state guidelines required “a lot of hustle.”

This time around, however, reopening is more promising. Fiederlein said he has a “more solid belief that things are safe.” 

In December there was no “light at the end of the tunnel” — vaccinations were not yet released and there was not any indication of the virus alleviating, so remaining open was unsustainable.

Fiederlein feels that he and his staff have a moral obligation to secure the safety of moviegoers. 

So, in determining when to reopen, Fiederlein posed the question: “How can we get people back to the movies safely?” Increasing vaccination rates helped answer this question. 

The PJ Cinemas staff had several factors to consider in the reopening process: infection rates, hospitalization rates, product and vaccination availability. Presently, the movie theater is under little restriction — patrons can watch a movie mask-free, as long as they are vaccinated. 

Since reopening, the theater has been awash in accounts of filmgoers’ excitement to be back. “Every day there are more stories about how long people have been waiting,” Fiederlein said. He added that although incoming business is “nowhere where it was pre-COVID,” he is happy to be “getting excitement back into the place — but also safely.”

“There is a buzz in the community,” Fiederlein said. “It’s good to be back.”

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File photo by Kyle Barr

After more than seven months being shuttered, PJ Cinemas is looking to have people back in their seats Friday, Oct. 30.

It’s something that’s been a long time coming for Phil Solomon, the owner of the Port Jefferson Station-based theater. The local cinema had to close down in March due to COVID-19. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) made the announcement that movie theaters could open again at 25% capacity starting Oct. 23.

Solomon said his theater is going heavy with new filters, including MERV 13 filters, but also new HVAC ductwork units that purifies the air in each individual theater.  

“Not only is it doing what Governor Cuomo has asked but it goes beyond that,” the theater owner said. “We’re doing this to keep the public and especially our staff safe.”

All staff are mandated to wear face masks and face shields. The theater will also be added tempered glass barriers around the box office and concession stands, both on the main floor and upstairs. Each barrier is given a mahogany wood border that Solomon said makes it look like the place “has been built this way.” 

Capacity is limited for each of the seven theater rooms. There will be stanchions to mark which seats are available and which are not. Every other row will be blocked off, and in between showings the occupied row will be sanitized. While each row is cleaned, the seats originally blocked off will be made available for the next showing.

The question of what movies would be available once theaters could reopen was something that has dogged the theater owner for months. However, his booker gave Solomon the good news there were several available, including “Come Play,” “The War with Grandpa,” “Honest Thief,” 

 “Tenet” and “On the Rocks.” He said despite everything it’s a good selection, including a Robert De Nero flick (“Grandpa”), which often gets butts in seats, and Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending thriller (“Tenet”) that originally came out earlier this year, but never aired in New York.

“Right now, product is a big issue because distributors are not moving a lot of the product for six months or a year,” Solomon said. The seventh screen remains unused, and Solomon said they are waiting to see what can be used to fill that space. 

Of course, all this work won’t help unless people come back to the theater. Solomon went by the old proverb of “book it, and they will come,” and he’s “hoping it works now — we’re giving it our best shot.”

It’s been a difficult few months since he was made to close, saying it had been “frightening.” After he closed he had to furlough his workforce. He said he was able to apply for and get a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which he used to pay a few employees and use the rest to pay for intervening costs. Though even if he wanted to open in that time, there were very few new movies coming out to show.

“A hamburger store could be told, ‘OK, you can open,’ and they have hamburgers,” Solomon said. “We were like the hamburger store that had no hamburgers, we would have none to sell to the public.”

Because of the slate of movies on offer, he said it’s working out better than he originally feared. The man is known for recording entertaining voicemail descriptions of each movie on offer when people call up the theater, with his recognizable, “Heeeeyyyy,” being the first thing they hear. Now, moviegoers will get the opportunity to hear it again. The theater purchased large signs to put out on the road to let people know PJ Cinemas is open again. On the front window of the theater there’s now a sign reading “Heyyyyy! Reopening Fri, Oct. 30!”

“The community appreciates us as an asset, and we appreciate the community,” he said.