I was 13 years old and I remember stopping at the old Kossar’s on Grand Street, buying half a dozen warm bialys in a brown paper bag, and going next door to the Essex Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. Snuggled into my seat smack in the middle of the theatre, I bit into a warm bialy as the opening credits began to roll for Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof. The Essex is long gone and today a community health care facility stands in its place. I often wonder where all those cinematic ghosts and shadows have gone. I often wonder where the thrill of going to a theatre, seeing the lights dim and the curtains part, and that tickle that rises in your stomach that something magical was going to happen has gone.
This weekend, a brand new repertory cinema opened on Ludlow Street, just north of Canal – the Metrograph – and I took myself to see just what the fuss was all about. It’s true that a new movie theatre hadn’t opened on the Lower East Side since the Sunshine in the early ‘90s, so that was cause enough for celebration. But more importantly, what was earth-shattering was the fact that a new movie theatre actually OPENED rather than closed. With the sad passing of the Ziegfeld Theatre on West 54thStreet some weeks ago, I was already grieving the loss of yet another movie palace. And I mean palace. Not some black, characterless box nestled among many in a multiplex of mediocrity. The Ziegfeld was the last of its kind here in a metropolis that thrives on innovation and change. Apparently, no one went anymore. No one bothered to pay the $15 to go sit in one of 1,131 red velvet seats, watch those golden curtains part and see a film on a 70mm screen. Not even its final film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens – the biggest box office hit of all time (and even adjusted for inflation STILL one of the biggest hits of all time) – was enough to draw a crowd. What happened? Why did we stop caring?
Going to the movies used to be like going to a Broadway show. It was an event. You got dressed up and it was special. It was a big deal. But technology and convenience of accessibility have made movie going somewhat obsolete. Some will say that the decline in the quality of the movies is what killed the movie palaces but I beg to differ. There were always bad movies. We just only tend to remember the golden ones, rather than the tarnished ones. I think it’s because we stopped caring about the setting and environment of where we got our movies. Opulence became bad. Maybe it was the Vietnam War. Maybe it was Woodstock and letting it all hang out. But somewhere the notion of sitting in an opulent setting to watch a film became unfashionable. And nothing is worse in this society than unfashionable. So, we tore down those huge movie palaces. In my youth, in addition to the Ziegfeld where I first saw Cabaret, Gandhi, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypse Now, Hair and Lawrence of Arabia and had my mind blown, there was the Rivoli where I saw The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, Hello Dolly and Man of La Mancha on its gigantic curved Cinerama screen, and the Criterion where I saw Patton, Barbra Streisand in her movie debut in Funny Girl, My Fair Lady and Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I remember the beautiful printed programs that were sold as souvenirs. I remember the overtures that were played before the curtains parted. I remember reserved seating. I remember ushers in uniforms. I remember intermissions. It was something special.
Then the magic slowly disappeared.
There was a palpable excitement Saturday afternoon when I went to the new Metrograph to see a screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s seminal TheLast Picture Show. How appropriate to see this evocation of the dying Old West set in a dusty Texas town in the 50s where the crumbling movie theatre represented what used to be and what had gone. As I stood in the lobby waiting for the theater to open, I looked around and took in the new furnishings, the cool and funky ticket desk next to the refreshment stand which looks like a hipster’s vision of an Automat, the requisite café serving slightly overpriced cappuccinos, the slightly over precious journal program that both lists the schedule for the Spring as well as treatises on the importance of film, the young, hip staff and the even more precious hipster crowd waiting with me. In fact, I suddenly felt very old when I realized that most of the people waiting in the lobby with me probably didn’t see The Last Picture Show when it was first released in 1971 because they weren’t even born yet. Not only that, they had never experienced going to a movie in a movie palace. They’ve only known colorless black boxes or streaming on their TVs and computers. Their only reference to “the magic of movies” was CGI.
As we were let into the brand new main auditorium (there’s a smaller 2nd theatre) where The Last Picture Show would be screened, there was a reminder of the old magic. Ushers stood at the door and directed everyone to their seats (reserved seating). And as I took my very comfortable seat with copious legroom, I looked up and saw a balcony! A balcony. When was the last time you saw one of those in a movie theatre? I looked at the screen in front of me and saw it was a very nice 35mm-sized screen and not one of those postage stamp-sized ones. Alas, there was no curtain to part but my heart did beat a bit faster when the lights dimmed and the Columbia Pictures logo came up in glorious black-and-white. And as those first tumbleweeds rolled across the screen and the deserted streets of the dusty Texas town came into view, a tear rolled down my cheek. At that moment, I was transported back to that 1971 afternoon at the Essex when I bit into my bialy and the opening strains of Fiddler on the Roof’s overture began. Here I was 45 years later, transported again to another place and time, all reality forgotten and my imagination set free.
The magic of the movies.
David Eng is the VP of Marketing & Communications at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum