--The New Yorker Theater and Other Stories From at Life at the Movies, by Toby Talbot, 2009.
As a an ex-movie-house operator (St. George Theatre, Staten Island, 1976) I try to keep up on the history and art of theater management, such as it is; how could I have missed the story of another couple struggling to keep a movie theater open? And not just one theater, but a series, eventually, of three!
The New Yorker Theatre has been gone for some time — a sad story — but Toby and her husband Dan went on to run three other Manhattan art houses: Cinema Studio, the Metro and, finally, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas which lasted till 2009. Toby and Dan (he’s sadly now deceased) are celebrities of sorts in the rag-tag fraternity of ex-movie theater operators. They lasted long enough to actually retire! —whereas most of the rest of us, myself and husband included, washed out and went on to other careers. That said, we have some things in common with the Talbots.
What kind of work, after all, IS running a movie house? My mother, back in Ohio, didn’t ask. It was enough that her daughter had run off — at the end of her junior year in Cincinnati. It was New York City I ended up in, involving myself in all sorts of nebulous and flaky enterprises. By 1976 I was running a movie theater with my husband, who’d briefly worked for two celebrities, then failed as a freelance TV producer. Our theater, the St. George, was hardly an art house. On the Staten Island side of the harbor, it had a daunting number (2, 672) seats to fill; meanwhile, who in our audience knew from Bertolucci? He’d envisioned the New Yorker as a “wild cinema university,” while the only thing wild at the St. George was the audience itself, which demanded, “action,” as much as they could get. We gave it to them: Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, mixed in with genre-benders like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Well, it was a living.
Like the Talbots, we didn’t know where we were going, learning — as they were — while we went. They just got farther than we did; well, they were in Manhattan, where support for what they were doing kept them more or less in the black.
The theater, she says, “...is gone but its marquee still glimmers in my mind.” Amen, sister. I miss the glimmer of our old marquee, though it leaked badly and was problematic to keep lit and set – with those very breakable aluminum marquee letters. Changing them once a week required heroics of great proportion on the part of one teenage staffer or another, teetering on a rickety wooden ladder on an uphill slant, often as not in the wind.
Our theater, these days, still stands and, is, remarkably, open, getting its living mostly from live acts of major and minor proportion, Doo-wop revivals, K.D.Lang, you name it. A hard-working local family keeps the new electronic marquee lit and everything in order. A classic red velvet and gilded plaster cave of a theater, it was always all about the building. And, though our sweeping “wide” screen with its grape soda stains is long gone, new management has acquired a modest screen on which to run the occasional film series. Well it ain’t a rep house, but anyplace that shows movies in this age of streaming has my vote.
“As we shaped it, it shaped us,” Talbot notes; I agree completely. While she and Dan went on to run three cherished art houses, we got a seat-of-our-pants one-year education in running a storefront business, which served us well in future endeavors. Selling tickets, worrying about how to pay the carting company or get together enough money for a downpayment on The Exorcist, sweating how to make payroll for our largely teenage staff (minimum wage $2.30 cents an hour) — grew us up.
And there is nothing like watching a great movie in bits and pieces, dropping in to sit down for parts of Silent Movie, or Blazing Saddles. It was quite an era. Eight of the films we ran have made it into the Library of Congress, some of the best Hollywood had to offer in the turbulent seventies. Other films we screened are cult classics, like Cooley High.
Talbot reflects, “I thought it would go on forever.” I’ll second that motion. That’s how it is when you’re still under thirty.
1. I was privileged once, as a patron of the New Yorker, to hear Myrna Loy speak before a screening of The Thin Man, just one of the many joys the Talbots provided.
2. Recently I profiled an all-volunteer effort to resurrect the art house tradition on the Upper West Side, just across the street from the Talbots’ last theater, the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, whose marquee has been blank since 2009. This group of enthusiasts are hoping to resurrect the Lincoln Plaza, and, who knows?