What palace, you may wonder? Wonder indeed: the theater used to be Loew’s 175th, an original “Wonder Theater,” but these days it’s styled the United Palace of Cultural Arts, a part-time church and rest-of-the-time cultural center. Eighty percent of the theater’s 1,800-seat orchestra section, was full of people just like me, looking up when they could at their surroundings. You never see that at Lincoln Square (it has Imax) or the Angelika or another regular movie theater, because there’s nothing to look up at. The movie in question, Lawrence of Arabia, which I grew up with — have seen it at least six times — was a perfect match for the United Palace, in what I think of as upper upper Manhattan (Washington Heights). Having operated a movie palace myself (The 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island, 1976), I know what it means when an exhibition space rivals its movie. John Huston’s epic, The Man Who Would Be King, which we ran to an almost empty house, comes to mind. I also know what a miracle it is that a palace of any size, let alone one that seats 3, 330, is open as a multi-use facility, and actually still, occasionally, shows movies.
I came out, after three hours and thirty-six minutes of sand-blown dunes, and an exhausting camel ride that really did seem twenty days long, from one side of the giant screen to the other, feeling vulnerable in a way no Pirates of the Caribbean ever would have made me feel. Arriving at a depicted oasis actually made me reach for the water bottle under my seat. The blinding eye of the sun rising on one more inexorable cinematic day of trekking, was as big, in real life, as the circular recess in the theater’s central dome. What made me thirsty, tired and dusty feeling were the psychic dimensions of the movie, which matched in scope the screen and literal surroundings. This movie requires a frame vast and ornate enough to complement it. Given that frame, Peter O’Toole dancing in the garb of a Bedouin is as real as your own very personal dream, one that you unwillingly shake yourself out of, as the house lights come up.
Later at home a neighbor casually mentioned that she has a DVD of Lawrence. Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu, Amazon, Starz, even DVD: what does it do to David Lean’s vision of a disintegrating hero lost in the desert to watch on at best a large-screen TV, let alone a Mac Book or iphone? (The video vs. film controversy I’ll reserve for another time). And how rare is it to see such a great movie in the setting it was designed for? Way back in 1962, Hollywood caved and let NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies have The Snows of Kilimanjaro and a host of other fairly recent movies. To promote its new film library, the network concocted a seductive pastiche of theater marquee lights to serve as an intro. So sad. Since then, quietly, something has been shrinking, and it isn’t just the picture.
Before that, when television had already begun to encroach on movie ticket sales, back in the early 1950‘s, Hollywood had fought back by thinking big, first with Cinerama, involving the projection of three simultaneous films at once. Cinerama gave way to the more dependable wide-screen technologies — VistaVision, CinemaScope and Ultra Panavision — as Hollywood struggled to keep audiences from straying entirely to the convenience of Bonanza and Ozzie and Harriet on the little screen at home. It worked, for a time, especially since Warner, U.A. and the brethren agreed to withhold important epic films from network exposure (black-and-white movies from the 30’s had made it to TV). But it was a tide they couldn’t hold back.
The slow slide in movie theater attendance that had accelerated in the 1940’s had become an avalanche. In 1940, roughly 50% of all Americans went to the movies at least once a week. By 1950, it was 40%, and by 1960, 20%. By 1962, 15% were still out to the flix on a weekly basis. In 1962, the year, paradoxically, that Lawrence of Arabia hit the screen in Super Panavision 70, the opportunity to stay home and watch big deal movies, some of fairly recent vintage, was just too good for a lot of people to pass up. A number of the movies NBC got their hands on had been executed for the wide screen, so had to undergo a process of “pan and scan,” — a severe cropping — to adjust to television’s then very-limited 4:3 aspect ratio. The picture wasn’t just shrinking, but changing shape. You know how that works. You buy a museum postcard of a Monet haystack painting. You think you’ve got the whole thing, but something seems off, then you realize that postcards are always a standard size, and the card maker has truncated the image of the painting to fit standard format. In movies-to-TV there is still "letterbox" which at least preserves the shape of the shot. But....
It goes without saying, screens everywhere are getting smaller, and, yes, more confined. As they shrink, they take with them a piece of the audience’s imagination. In Lawrence on the big screen, a figure contained in a desolate horizon is observed with increasing frenzy by Lawrence’s panicked guide. We — and Lawrence —see nothing for several seconds. But then, either at the same moment Lawrence recognizes the rapidly-approaching figure on horseback, or a few frames later, we see the rider, growing bigger as he approaches. The delay in recognition is important; it increases the tension, arouses the curiosity of the movie gazer, and demonstrates the vastness of the desert, as well as the illusion of its emptiness. How would this be possible on anything but a very large-screen wide-format TV? Even on that screen, the lag time between the guide’s comprehension and Lawrence’s, and ours, would be too great.
Unless you’re a cinemaphile, who’s sought out one of Quentin Tarantino’s or Christopher Nolan’s most recent releases — on film — you’re likely not even to know where the nearest theater offering 70 mm projection might be. I have to admit I went to Nolan’s Dunkirk without even bothering to check out the specs in advance. Despite this, I left thinking “Wow, I feel as though I actually was on the beach in France for all those hours, being shot at.” The scope of Nolan’s vision in that movie is similar to the scope of Lean’s in Lawrence. Nolan shot Dunkirk in a combination of 70 mm and IMAX, resulting in an aspect ratio of 1.43:1. That’s the tallest frame you can get, creating a visceral experience that makes you feel as though you’re there. Nolan describes it as “virtual reality without the goggles.” Well, so I didn’t see it in Imax, but I did see it on-screen at a theater which supports 70-mm, and the scope of the director’s vision apparently got across.
We live in an age that lacks scope, cinematic and otherwise. What has become of us? When you conceive a movie for Netflix, a movie which will probably never see a real movie screen, let alone a screen sized to present a big idea, you’re trapped in a tiny world-view.
Since this blog post began on the subject of that delicious evening in August when I crossed the desert on a camel, I’d like to give the last few words to the theater itself. In 1969, when Loew’s cut its Wonder Theaters (and other venues) loose, their 175th Street Theatre, occupying a full city block, was as vulnerable as Cincinnati’s Albee (razed in 1977), the Kings in Brooklyn (shuttered in the mid-seventies, the home, for many years to come, of the sadly homeless and gang shoot-outs), and the Loews Triboro in Queens (dark since 1974 and demolished, according to the New York Post,in that very dark year, 1977). But not so for the United Palace, saved by faith. Or, more notably, by a preacher whose ministry focussed on the good feelings brought on by economic prosperity. What better place to feel prosperous than a gleaming movie palace? And so the theater began its apprenticeship as a church, morphing into a dual-purpose facility gradually, as church and occasional rental hall and then, after Reverend Ike achieved his heavenly reward, passing to his son Xavier, a musician. He fulfilled his dream of creating an arts and cultural center to transform lives through the arts in Washington Heights, by expanding the former Loews theater to its current dual cultural and religious status.
The icing on the gilded movie-palace cake is that this Thomas Lamb theater’s original Robert Morton 4 manual 23 rank organ, recently removed for renovation by the New York Theater Organ Society,will return soon, refurbished and ready for action. I’m going up there when it does.
Of the five Wonder Theaters, so named for their Robert Morgan “wonder” organs, the UPCA is the only one whose original instrument remains.
Afterthought 2: This just in from Robert Endres, whom I originally met at the St. George Theatre and who was, for many years, the head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall. Beyond being a generous friend, he’s a tech genius of all things projection. Here he’s answering a question I asked about viewing availabilities in NYC:
With regards to 70mm theatres, both the Regal on 42nd Street and the Loew’s/AMC Lincoln Square have 70mm equipment (kinda) as does the Village East. The “kinda” is because some of the 70mm projectors put in by Weinstein for “Hateful 8” were bought by Warner Bros.They have their own crew that’s called when they need to have 70mm projection.The projectors also “travel” between screens in some of the multiplexes so it’s hard to tell just what size screen the picture may be shown on. One of the projectionists is from New Jersey where he’s a stage hand most of the time, but has made a pretty good living lately running Warner 70mm equipment at both the Regal and Lincoln Square. Another house that has 70mm equipment is Cinema I on the East Side. I know they’ve run a few pictures that I didn’t even know were available on 70mm such as Wonder Woman. Alas, with the exception of Lincoln Square, all of the screens are flat rather than curved. The Lincoln Square screen has a shallow curve but nothing like the deeply curved screens used for three and single projector Cinerama and Todd A-O and 70mm Panavision. None of the D-150 screens have survived either. With the exception of the Cinerama Dome in L.A. and the Cinerama theatre in Seattle I don’t think there are any curved screens left, although both of those houses can run three strip Cinerama.
Why is the dearth of screen curvature sad? Here’s a partial explanation.
NOTE: Thanks to Matt Lambros at After the Final Curtain for the wonderful photo!