Editor’s note: It is timely that veteran film distributor and film lover Gary Palmucci has written a review for us of Ben Davis’ new book Repertory Movies Theatres of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960–1994 (McFarland 2017)
The last week of December 2017 saw the passing of one of the giants in art film distribution and exhibition, Dan Talbot. In March, 1960 Dan and Toby Talbot took over the rundown –but with great decor– Yorktown Theater on New York’s Upper West Side and renamed it the New Yorker, reusing the “York” portion of the neon and starting a policy of repertory cinema mixing classics and more recent films in eclectic double features. The Talbots operated the New Yorker until 1973, often at a loss but with some surprise hits.
“The theater had a policy of no policy,” Toby Talbot wrote in The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes From a Life at the Movies. “We thought of it as our living room, playing movies we wanted to see on the screen.”” I’ll play new films, old films, foreign films, American films—whatever I think merits being shown.” Dan said. “And if the audience agreed with me, great. If they didn’t, too bad.”
Davis includes a fascinating chapter on how the Talbots operated the New Yorker with a lobby mural painted by Jules Feiffer and program notes written by Feiffer, Jonas Mekas, Terry Southern, Phillip Lopate, Herb Gold, Jack Kerouac and a very young Peter Bogdanovich.
by Gary Palmucci
Alice in the Cities– Thalia, Oct 1977. Only Angels Have Wings–
Theatre 80 St Marks, Nov 1977. The Bad and the Beautiful– Carnegie
Hall Cinema, Feb 1978. Gone With the Wind– Regency, Mar 1980. The
Chelsea Girls– Anthology Film Archives, Apr 1982. Le Deuxieme
Souffle– Bleecker St Cinema, Jan 1983….
We all keep track – and keep score – in life in different ways. For me — however my brain is processing time, wonderment, adversity — it always seems to come back to when and where I saw the thousands of movies I’ve been fortunate to see over six decades. Mostly in New York (though also many others at festivals here and abroad) and mainly in the city’s dozens of revival houses – many now just memories, but others still going strong.
The titles and theatres listed above immediately remind me of myriad details of my life at those specific moments – where I worked (or didn’t), where I lived, who I loved (or didn’t–just yet).
All of which makes Ben Davis’ recently published Repertory Movies Theatres of New York City: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960–1994 an essential piece of cinema archeology, both for me and I suspect for movie lovers of every age profession.
The book is divided into two basic eras of New York repertory theatre history. The first half covers the venerable Thalia, whose origins screening foreign–and eventually, American classics went back to the thirties; some unlikely places where foreign films would turn up, like at 42nd St grindhouses; the New Yorker, opened in 1960 by Dan Talbot and in many ways the progenitor of the modern rep house; and the downtown Bleecker Street Cinema and Charles theatres, the latter in business only for a brief but memorable year or so.
Davis reports in fascinating detail on Dan and Toby Talbot’s seminal programming at the New Yorker and later the Metro, the diverse makeup of their Upper West Side audiences and colorful “customer request logs.” The author’s persistence and good fortune pay off in tracking down some of the other original owners and managers in those early rep houses, as well as their descendants and a sampling of audience members who frequented them.
We read about early midnight shows; nights when the short-lived Charles would project any-gauge reel of film that customers would weekly bring to the theatre; the beginnings of the American indie movement; the shapings of the tastes and sensibilities of a new generation.
The book then moves into what for me was the heart of the matter, and I imagine for much of its target readership–the NY revival scene from the mid-70s to mid-90s. The half-dozen theatres that I frequented, shaped many of my own tastes and sensibilities. I even briefly worked for one.
But just before that, there’s an important, flavorful chapter from Davis on the Elgin, the funky Chelsea screen run by Ben Barenholtz, later a distributor, producer and just recently, documentary director still going strong in his 80s. The Elgin closed a few months before my NY migration but had in its heyday pioneered thematic all-night marathons and seminal midnight movies like El Topo, Pink Flamingos and The Harder They Come –a genuine innovator….
On Thursday Oct 20, 1977 I boarded a Greyhound in suburban Massachusetts with a couple of overstuffed suitcases and set out for the Port Authority, with hopes of finding some (any) sort of office job in the movie business.
But I had another, more immediate agenda that day ––a double feature of Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick—playing at the Thalia on 95th St. and Broadway.
My head had recently been spun around by his Kings of the Road and The American Friend, so of course I couldn’t resist the chance to devour in one sitting these two. Back then you could park your bags in a 50-cent PA locker for a day, which I did and then caught my first NY double feature, the first of very many. Three decades later I found myself sitting next to Dennis Hopper at a Cannes ‘tech’ screening of Wenders’ Palermo Shooting and joked “what’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?”
I quickly became a regular at each of the asterismal revival houses that had somehow sprung up in the city’s very rocky socio-economic mid-70s climate. Ironically, a summer 2017 retro series titled “Ford to City- Drop Dead” played in New York to packed houses at our pre-eminent Film Forum: Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, An Unmarried Woman et al.
Davis smartly devotes a chapter to each theater, so I’ll try to break them down with at least a paragraph:
Carnegie Hall & Bleecker St Cinemas — In many ways the ‘crown jewels’ of that era’s rep circuit. The Carnegie was in fact rescued from becoming a porn house (reader, I saw the ‘books’: the initial, 1973 playdate was one Simon Nuchtern’s The Debauchers). Both screens then wrangled by the eruptive Sid Geffen, a former Utica NY car salesman who somehow –at least for a time– prospered at each theatre, along with, later, his partner in life and programming, French auteurist Jackie Raynal. They published the Thousand Eyes magazine to promote their screenings.
The Regency– 68 St & Broadway’s showcase for major studio — especially MGM — thematic retrospectives, under the saturnine but, once you got to know him, warmly encyclopedic Frank Rowley. We are still friends to this day.
Theatre 80 St Marks— Lower East Side 16mm haven for studio musicals, comedies, dramas (often ‘resurrected’), and some Selznick and other uber-indie-producer output. Proprietor Howard Otway valiantly kept the venue running, despite rear-projection and various other intractable drawbacks, into the mid-90s.
The Thalia– that 95 St & Broadway architectural anomaly, shaped
somewhat like a moderately inverse boomerang, where I worked in
various capacities for a mid-80s year….but we’re getting ahead of
ourselves, dominating the frame here….
It needs to be said, if it hasn’t fully been already, that author Ben Davis has done heroic work simply in documenting this history, the ownership and committed lives shining out from the day to day drudgery of managing any movie theatre. And you invariably get that from Ben’s dedicated “shoe leather” : running down the progeny, hitting the microfilm (a hilarious concept, now) getting lucky with various peoples’ memories and researching hard-copy clipping files. In delving into these he reveals much about what made these theatres “tick,” and how they affected so many of our perceptions and thus, our personal and professional lives.
As I said upfront, Ben Davis is primarily an archeologist of these decades, the main strength of his chronicle is in a sheer persistence of locating people and the innumerable snippets of recollections and tear-sheets, hard and ethereal, from the period.
For more “in-country,” evocative accounts of this era you’ll need to consult writers such as Philip Lopate, especially his book Totally, Tenderly, Tragically and its chapter “Anticipation of La Notte: The Heroic Age of Moviegoing”;Jonathan Rosenbaum (check out his comments on Davis’ book); and John Pierson’s Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes and the film about running his family’s theater in Fiji, Reel Paradise. They’re sounding different tides.
So back to the Thalia, where I worked for a peripatetic year under then-owner Richard Schwarz, who’d taken over the theatre after it had been shuttered for a half-decade in the early 70s. A troubled but yet often generous young man, half theatre-mechanic/ half film-historian, more than half-impossible (among his idiosyncrasies was frequently changing lenses in the middle of screenings, along with numerous other disruptive duties), he nonetheless in his tragically short life imparted no little cock-eyed wisdom to those of us who passed through the theatre and went on to better things, including Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein, crack distribution execs Michael Silberman, Eamonn Bowles, and savant/animation producer Greg Ford.
In Ben Davis’ book you’ll get a strong sense of all of this. Regrettably, I bypassed his 2014 requests for an interview, though there was little I could have related that he didn’t glean elsewhere.
The irony and the beauty, at least to me, is that whatever socio-economic forces that we now weekly agonize about, a new generation of revival theatre enthusiasts –abetted of course by the ever-evolving technologies of home video and an easily accessible database and history– is embracing a new, densely-tiered programming model . Here in NY we have MOMA (arguably the first repertory cinema in New York), Film Forum, the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Walter Reade Cinema and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Metrograph, Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of the Moving Image, Spectacle, the IFC Center, the beautifully renovated Quad with an exciting mix of classics and premieres, plus some films at Symphony Space (next to the uptown Thalia site); and in once-sloughed-off Brooklyn there are the BAMcinématek, Nitehawk, and Alamo Drafthouse.
Screen Slate does a great job of keeping film lovers informed about these New York offerings.
In Los Angeles there are the all-35mm (!) New Beverly, American Cinematheque’s Egyptian and Aero Theaters, Downtown Independent, Cinefamily (currently on leave) plus programs at the LA County Museum’s Bing, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the UCLA Film & Television Archives’ Billy Wilder Theater.
The San Francisco bay area once had dozens of repertory venues and still supports the Roxie, Castro, The Cinematheque, Artists’ Television Access, Other Cinema, SF MOMA (in partnership with SFFILM), Alamo New Mission, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, Rafael Film Center, The New Parkway, Stanford, Camera Cinemas, Niles Silent Film Museum (plus nearly 100 festivals a year including the purely revival Noir City and San Francisco Silent Film Festival) …..and many others around the country.
The chronicle that Ben Davis has in his book tenaciously laid out deserves our gratitude. His 19 pages of Chapter Notes/citations and extensive bibliography allows those interested to dig deeper into this piece of buried movie history that Davis has opened.
As many of us “target readers” advance further along some sort of still-dedicated path, how can we not also be reminded of Hamilton‘s indelible last lines, how important it is to us and to those just over our shoulders, “who lives/who dies/ who tells your story?”
Very few books have been written about art and revival cinemas, making Ben Davis’ fascinating entry a landmark—and hopefully an inspiration for Davis and others to write about these cinemas elsewhere.
Toby Talbot wrote a wonderful book about their fortunes and fates operating theaters and acquiring adventurous movies for distribution. The New York
In a tribute to Dan Talbot, written the day after his memorial service, Tom Bruggerman covers many of Talbot’s successes in distribution after closing the New Yorker theater.
New Yorker Films introduced American audiences to Bernardo Bertolucci, Errol Morris, Chantal Akerman, Hong Sang-soo, Jia Zhang-ke, Ousmane Sembène, Ermanno Olmi, Robert Kramer, Chantal Akerman, Nagisa Oshima, Peter Watkins, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Emir Kusturica, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Jerzy Skolimowski, Wayne Wang, Chris Marker, Juzo Itami, Zhang Yimou, Agnieszka Holland and Theo Angelopoulos among others. Talbot enthusiastically heralded “The New German Cinema” of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as well as new and classic works from established French New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer and Louis Malle while helping us discover international masters such as Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi and Jean Vigo. Perhaps his biggest successes were Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, launched into national success when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel raved about it on their television show, and Shoah, Claude Lanzman’s ten-hour documentary about the Holocaust, strategically released with one of the most carefully planned marketing plans in the history of specialized films. These filmmakers works have formed a major part of the foundation of revival cinemas everywhere.
After closing the New Yorker, the Talbots opened first run art houses, tried repertory again at the beautiful Metro and eventually became partners and the driving force behind the very successful Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Two weeks before Dan’s death it was announced that the Talbots would not be renewing the lease but the owner promised it will return after building repairs and cinema refurbishments, programmed in the Talbot tradition. Time will tell.
In Spring, 2017 Dan Talbot wrote his own article, “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor” in Cineaste Magazine. Cynthia Rowell wrote a fine introduction online. The article itself is only available in the print edition that can be purchased here or found at many local and college libraries.
Manohla Dargis’ New York Times interview with Talbot offers insight into how he would seek out films at festivals, in this case Cannes.
The Art House Convergence is an annual gathering of people working with repertory and first run art cinemas worldwide. It takes place just prior to the Sundance Film Festival in nearby Midway, Utah each January. The 2018 Convergence sells out with over 600 participants Each year several theaters make short presentations about their venues and these entertaining and insightful videos are viewable at Art House Tales.
For her book about movie theaters and the alternative film scene in San Francisco, Left in the Dark editor Julie Lindow collects numerous essays by Rebecca Solnit, Eddie Muller, Laura Horak, Gary Meyer and others combined with photos by R.A. McBride fr a unique perspective.
Phillip Lopate is know as an essayist and he grew up loving movies, attending film society and repertory cinema screenings. His book about that love affair is a terrific read, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies.
The comic Patton Oswalt has a long affair with movies too. They are also a form of therapy. In Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
Scroll down on this link to hear Oswalt talk about a night at the New Beverly Cinema, the repertory theater that he attended three nights a week.
His follow up, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland includes his experiences working in a multiplex theater.
Christian Bruno has made the short film Ed & Pauline about Berkeley’s Studio-Guild twin repertory cinemas operated by Pauline Kael and Ed Landberg.
Bruno is finishing a feature about the bay area repertory cinema scene, Strand: A Natural History of Cinema.
A critical symposium on repertory film programming appeared in Cineaste, Spring 2010 as well as a collection of symposia, Cineaste on Film Criticism, Programming and Preservation in the New Millennium. Both are available from the publisher.
For current showings check out Screen Slate where you will also find listings for video and film art installations.
For photos, old ads and comments on your favorite theaters (open and closed) across America check out Cinema Treasures.
And finally do not miss the feature documentary Cinemania (2002) reviewed here by Roger Ebert. It is about the culture of intense cinephilia in New York where five obsessed movie buffs, human movie encyclopedias, see two to five films every day and even keep track of where the best film prints are showing.
It is available on Amazon.
There are extra interviews online including answers to “What is your favorite seat?”