So what if they happen to be 81 and 83 (Ms. Rossabi) respectively? The concession workers and ticket sellers are about the same age. The article continues, describing a recent showing of Mr. Klein, the 1976 World War II psychological thriller; "Ann Logan, 71, yelled directions to customers as she sat in her walker; Norma Levy, 76, sold tickets from rolls of red paper stubs and stashed money into a little metal box; Rita Lee, 88, helped sell refreshments at a foldout table."
If this sounds like a small-town operation, be surprised: the pop-up is on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where art house enthusiasts mourn the closing of the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, two years ago across the street. Despite general dinginess and water leaking from its ceilings, its concession stand sold lox sandwiches, and most quarrels — about sound during foreign films — were amicable enough. Operational from 1981 till a little past the death of one of its two founders, Dan Talbot (and his wife, Toby), it was arguably the best art house in the city, affiliated with a French chain. Its landlord, Milstein Properties, recently declined to renew its lease, citing the expense of repairs, and the theater has displayed a sadly blank marquee ever since. The pop-up cinema just across the street, New Plaza, is, according to the Times, “...trying to establish itself at a time when independent theaters are in a death struggle with streaming video and a generation of moviegoers demanding in-theater craft brews and plush recliner seats.”
Yep, it’s a troubled time for traditional movie theaters, on a downward slope since the seventies, when I was part of a young group of hopeful entrepreneurs, who strove mightily for a few months in 1975 and the better part of 1976 to keep a 2,672-seat movie palace open, with a movie on-screen, hence this continuing blog.
Recently, I profiled another operation in rural Pennsylvania, the Mahoning, a drive-in theater, that’s gotten around the problem of not replacing their original projectors with (very expensive) digital projection, by being extremely clever in programming and social media.
Over a year ago, I devoted this column to the Majestic, a Rapp and Rapp theater in Streator, Illinois, the project of the indefatigable Katie Troccoli and her hard-working family. The Majestic appears, sadly, not to be in operation as of this writing, but knowing Katie, it may rise again.
What do all these theater operations, past and present, open and otherwise, have in common? They either are or were entirely volunteer. What does it say about us as a culture that the movies — that ritual of sitting together in the dark — that held us together through two world wars, Vietnam, the sixties and seventies, even the high-rolling eighties — has devolved to the level of lemonade-stand entrepreneurship?
Interestingly, the staff of the pop-up New Plaza, might have helped us run the St. George in 1976. In those days, these same ushers and concession workers would have fit right in; they’re only a little older than I am right now. Is this the last gasp of boomers and pre-boomers, who remember the sense of community movie theaters used to afford?
What is it about community, which seems to have almost vanished in a country — and a world — where people don’t talk with people who don’t agree with them, and typically either watch Fox or MSNBC (or vote pro- or anti- Brexit)? Are we afraid of sitting next to each other in the dark? Or just too lazy to go out?
The staff of the New Plaza are likely MSNBC watchers at home, but that is not necessarily true of the mixed bag of people who will show up next spring in Pennsylvania, to get the Mahoning ready for another season. From what I can discern, they just love drive-in theaters, and the variegated fare they remember from growing up at them. This is how it was for us at the St. George in Staten Island, while we struggled to keep ten red and gold doors open.
In September, 2018, Thomas Beller (“The Death of a Movie Theater,” The New Yorker), quoted his mother on the closing of Lincoln Plaza:
“It is not so much the physical place as it is the atmosphere. The level of the films. The world of the films selected that created, in turn, a world of its own that encompassed us. The physical space became dear to us. I want to hug it so it could not be taken away from us. But it is not hug-able.”
That’s how I feel about The Paris, recently closed, but saved again, perversely, by Netflix for premiers, something I suppose we’re expected to be grateful for. It’s how I felt about the Albee in downtown Cincinnati where I grew up, which kept its appointment with a wrecking crew in 1977, about the time we were forced out of the St. George in Staten Island. We had never intended to be volunteers there, but we had no choice, barely able to pay our teen concession and box-office workers, and eventually unable to make the steep monthly rent.
So here’s to the New Plaza, on the Upper West Side, where two or three million dollars (what it would take to occupy the vacant Lincoln Plaza across the street) isn’t an out-of-this-world donation for someone whose brownstone is valued at far more. According to New Plaza volunteer, Barry Schulman, “We only need one of those people. Maybe two. We’ll let them name the place.”
Good luck guys.
1. New Plaza’s single-screen auditorium, rented from the New York Institute of Technology, seats 259 people, and is secure to the volunteers until at least May, 2020. Meanwhile, they’re looking for donations!
2. My husband, when he was nine or ten, operated his first movie theater in a neighbor’s backyard, the screen a bed-sheet, bottles of Kool-Aid for sale, the clientele on bicycles. You could say it was a pop-up drive-in!