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It’s nearly midnight in New York’s sleazy Times Square district. A gang of 20 wild-eyed men and women are marching down Broadway, shouldering past the peep shows and street hustlers. The Crips? The Bloods? The Westies? Nah. It’s just Penn Jillette and the Movie Night mob.
Jillette, of course, is best known as the big, noisy half of Penn & Teller, those wisenheimer illusionists whose cheeky magic act is frequently featured on late-night TV and currently showcased in the off-Broadway hit, Penn & Teller Rot in Hell. But Jillette, 36, is also founder and leader of an obscure, deeply loopy cult that’s been a regular part of the Times Square scene for seven years. Once a week, every week, Jillette and his brood of Movie Night buddies meet at the Howard Johnson’s on 46th Street, take a midnight stroll through midtown Manhattan, and eventually, inevitably, wind up ( sitting in the front row of the cheesiest flick in town.
”Last week we saw Problem Child 2,” booms 6’6” Jillette during a recent Movie Night outing. ”This week it’s McBain. Unless is there another John Ritter movie around? If there’s a John Ritter movie out there, we go. No discussion. That’s a Movie Night rule.”
It’s not the only rule: Movie Night is full of mandatory hand gestures, goofy code words, and inside jokes. You could see the whole nutty ritual unfold at the McBain screening: The instant the previews came on-screen, the entire group hissed on cue, ”Yessss.” Whenever the title of another film was mentioned in the dialogue (as in, ”I don’t want to be home alone tonight”), everybody whispered, ”Wow.” When the film showed an establishing shot of a city, any city, the group muttered, ”Chicago.”
The ritual started as a gathering of a few friends, says Jillette, ”then it just sort of grew into this thing.” Most members of the gang are strangers- just regular folk (dentists, architects, real estate brokers) who found out about the event from friends of friends or by accident. Twelve-year-old Nick Jarecki (a.k.a. the Movie Night Kid), for instance, learned about it by browsing on Penn & Teller’s computer bulletin board and has been showing up for about six months.
Strangely enough, one person who isn’t a Movie Night regular is Jillette’s usually silent partner, Teller. ”I live about 45 minutes from the city,” he says, ”so I only go once every two years.” Most Movie Nighters, though, are fanatically devoted — one member even ended a Caribbean vacation a day early so as not to miss a night. ”It’s hard work watching some of these movies,” says Sal Longo, the Movie Night Dentist, ”but there’s something indefinable that pulls you back.” Adds the Movie Night Kid: ”You don’t go to Movie Night to watch the films. You go to sit with your friends, to find something you can all laugh about. That’s what Movie Night is about.”