The Heroic Age of New York Movie Theaters

Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Empire cinema, New York City, 1983

I have spent large chunks of my life in repertory movie theaters. Coming to cinephilia at the height of auteurism, and being both an auteurist and a completist, eager to see all of my favorite directors’ works, I would track down obscure titles, like The Model and the Marriage Broker during my George Cukor phase, or Two Guys in Manhattan by the ever-cherished Jean-Pierre Melville. Often, these minor films were not that great, but they taught me something about a master’s artistic range and development. (And sometimes they were very great, like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Miss Oyu.) Since I knew that these rarities typically had short runs, perhaps only a day, I would scan the listings of the repertory movies theaters for revivals and prepare to pounce. In this wise, I haunted The Thalia, The New Yorker, The Charles, Theatre 80 St. Marks, The Regency, The Elgin, The Bleecker Street Cinema, The Film Forum, and many another venue that revived older films. Of course, I still kept up with the new releases, but my first concern was to fill in the gaps.

A new study by Ben Davis, Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde 1960–1994, with copious photographs, has just been published. I confess I approached it with trepidation, fearing it would get wrong somehow the passion to which I had given so much time and energy, rather like going to a mass political demonstration and coming home to see it distorted in the nightly news. I also worried that this subject which was so meaningful to me would not matter much to the reading public; and in seeing it thus diminished, I would realize that I had wasted my life. Not that I would take back any of the sublime movie-going moments that I had experienced from youth to middle age; just that I would be embarrassed to find myself grouped with a pack of obsessive, nerdy aesthetes, who in their prolonged-adolescent fandom had over-valued their idols and mistaken the shadow for the act.

As it turns out, Davis has done a superb job (I was almost disappointed not to be disappointed) of capturing the phenomenon of New York repertory movie theaters and placing it in historical context. His prose is clear, intelligent, engaging; his anecdotal examples colorful and often humorous; his research impeccably extensive and his facts for the most part accurate. He has interviewed everyone on the scene who is still alive—even me (the index shows I am quoted fourteen times, although I have but a dim recollection of being interviewed.) Davis has divided the book into a first wave, taking us through the Sixties, with separate chapters on Dan Talbot’s New Yorker, Lionel Rogosin’s Bleecker Street Cinema, Walter Langsford and Edwin Stein Jr.’s Charles, and Martin and Ursula Lewis’s Thalia in its first incarnation, followed by a second wave, from the Seventies on, focusing on Chuck Zlatkin and Steve Gould’s Elgin, Howard Otway’s Theatre 80 St. Marks, Frank Rowley’s Regency, The Thalia reborn under Richard Schwarz, and Sid Geffen and Jackie Raynal’s Carnegie Hall Cinema.

The peculiarities of each of these owners and their venues are duly noted: Rowley’s meticulous presentation of MGM classics, including stationing underlings to clap at the end of big musical numbers; Schwarz’s temper tantrums and love of B-movies, The Thalia’s impossibly parabolic slope and permeable acoustics, The Bleecker Street’s tendency to run behind schedule, so that its small lobby was often packed with disgruntled queues, Theatre 80’s odd, fuzzy rear-view projection, Sid Geffen’s imperial schemes in complete disregard of his lack of capital.… Overall, these pioneers come across as a bunch of wildly idealistic missionaries, lovers of film much more interested in spreading the gospel of cinema than in making money. They took chances, they played hunches, they went against the grain of commercial conformity, they artfully constructed balanced double bills, they connived to get their hands on the best possible prints. And eventually, most of them went under. 

“It was not the VCR revolution that did the theater in,” Davis explains, “but the real estate revolution. Much like the closing of the Elgin, the Bleecker’s closing pitted a real estate developer who saw the property as a profitable investment against a theater owner who treasured it as a cultural resource. It was a doomed struggle.”

Since the book is structured along a rise-and-fall arc, it concludes with a brief chapter that finds faint signs of revival in the “microcinemas”—casual venues such as Rooftop Films, Light Industry and Union Docs—which have sprung up recently. Myself, I do not think we need lament so lachrymosely the decline of the repertory houses, since new ones such as the Metrograph and the renovated Quad keep appearing, the venerable Film Forum keeps chugging along, and the nonprofit institutions, such as MoMA, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of the Moving Image, Japan Society, BAM, and the Asia Society, do a bang-up job of presenting new and old global cinema. Probably every intriguing new film will pass through New York at one point or another, and the city continues to rank with Paris as the premier place for watching movies. Added to these showcases, the digital distributers and broadcasters like FilmStruck, the Criterion Collection, and Turner Classic Movies have done a remarkable job of rescuing worthy old films.


What has changed, then, is not much the opportunity to see good films but the way they are packaged. In brief, we have gone from a time in the Sixties when the emphasis was placed on making a more or less agreed-upon canon available to the novice film buff, to a smorgasbord of “edgy” hors d’oeuvres and a neglect of the meat-and-potatoes classics. This trend began with the rediscovery of film noir and pre-Code Hollywood, then extended to “bad movies” seasons featuring the likes of Ed Wood, to J-horror, giallo softcore porn, sexual or ethnic identity niche packages, and so forth. All of these fringe subgenres have value in filling out the capaciousness of cinema, but the result is that it is now easier to see a sadistic gore-fest like Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer than the transcendently compassionate works of Max Ophuls, or a Mario Brava psychological horror film (good as those are) than the masterworks of John Ford. Many of the old Thalia/New Yorker staples rarely get projected: Hollywood Seventies movies seem to have replaced the second-tier classics by G.W. Pabst, Marcel Carné, V.I. Pudovkin, Rouben Mamoulian, René Clair, Robert Flaherty, Jacques Feyder, Julien Duvivier…

Paradoxically, it was the inventive enterprise of the repertory movie theaters in rescuing neglected or forgotten films that helped undermine the old secure narrative about the development of film art, from Griffith to German Expressionism to the Soviet montage directors to the French Poetic Cinema. But not to worry: it is still possible to track down anything and everything, provided one has sufficient patience. Meanwhile, Ben Davis has performed an extremely useful service in recapturing this piece of the endangered past and arguing for its importance as a living archive that preserved the history of movies as an art form. 

For me, also, the book has been a poignant, thrilling, and at times painful walk down Memory Lane. It made me recall showing Jonas Mekas in the Charles lobby the schedule for the film program I had organized as an undergraduate at Columbia, and his sniffing at my inclusion of Henry King’s The Gunfighter, saying I would have done better to exhibit Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (which happened to be playing that night at the Charles). I remember taking a date to see Mizoguchi’s The Crucified Lovers at The New Yorker and being so bowled over by its tragic beauty, while she was somewhat mystified by my enthusiasm, that I knew there was no hope for our affair. I remember taking another date to Theatre 80 St. Mark’s for its ritual New Year’s Eve champagne show; it was Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, and the movie if not the champagne was completely satisfying. I remember writing articles for The Thousand Eyes, the Carnegie Hall Cinema’s ambitious rag, and someone sending in an angry letter attacking me for clinging to narrative film. I remember my itch to work at a repertory theater, which led me to apply for a job with Ursula Lewis, the owner of The Thalia who was looking for a programmer for her uptown theater, the Heights. Needless to say, I didn’t impress her with my unprofitable schemes for showing obscure back titles of minor auteurs like Paul Wendkos and Gerd Oswald.

Finally, I remember Dan Talbot, by this point a friend, dissuading me from my dream of hiring on with him: “Phillip, it’s not glamorous being an assistant manager of a movie house. You end up having to roust overdosed junkies in the toilet or mopping up their vomit.” The image has stayed with me.

Ben Davis’s Repertory Movie Theaters of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960-1994 is published by McFarland.

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