On a cold Saturday afternoon — a freezing 14°F to be exact, one of the city’s coldest in years — I made my final sojourn from Brooklyn to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on the Upper West Side. My film for the day: Michael Haneke’s latest miserablist tale of a morally rotting European bourgeois family, the ironically titled Happy End (2017). Fittingly, the first film that I saw there was a Haneke picture, Amour (2012).
I bought my ticket at the box office outside, descended on an escalator, and entered into the subterranean theater that is Lincoln Plaza Cinemas one last time. The theater between 62nd and 63rd streets on Broadway will close for good, after 37 years, on January 31. According to a report by Indiewire, owners Daniel (who sadly passed away at the age of 91 just a week after the news broke of the theater’s closing on December 15) and Toby Talbot couldn’t reach an agreement on the lease renewal with the theater’s co-owner Milstein Properties, who also operate the condominiums at 30 Lincoln Plaza. (French film distributor Gaumont is the third party in the cinema’s joint venture.) Indiewire also reports that Milstein already planned on shuttering the theater a year ago. To quell the sudden public panic after the announcement, Milstein issued a statement that read:
Milstein Properties built 30 Lincoln Plaza in 1978, we are long-term members of this community and have played a central role in nurturing this special theater. There is vital structural work needed to repair and waterproof the plaza surrounding the building that cannot be completed while the space is in use, and will begin now that the cinema’s lease has expired. At the completion of this work, we expect to re-open the space as a cinema that will maintain its cultural legacy far into the future.
Whether or not the theater remains within the Talbot family remains to be seen. Will it become a part of Alamo Drafthouse or one of the multiplexes operated by AMC or Regal? That is up in the air.
The Talbots’ first foray in the movie business began with the New Yorker Theater, from 1960 to 1973, in a crime-infested Upper West Side. It was a different era; Toby Talbot shared her and her husband’s stories of the theater in her 2009 memoir The New Yorker Theater and Other Stories from a Life at the Movies. Older film buffs wax nostalgic on the theater for its retrospectives, program notes (written by the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Kerouac, Jules Feiffer, among others), and its hive of activity. In 1965, the Talbots began the distribution company New Yorker Films (it came to an end in 2009) and brought now-classic films by Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, Ousmane Sembène, and more to American filmgoers. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Talbots also operated the Metro Theater on Broadway and 100th Street, and the Manhattan Cinema Studio on Broadway and 66th Street. Lincoln Plaza Cinemas outlasted these theaters.
In its first year, 1981, the six-screen theater showed a number of Buster Keaton movies in a traveling retrospective. And over the course of its 37-year existence, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas has premiered a number of landmark contemporary films: Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988), Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999), Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Michaell Haneke’s Caché (2005), among many others. In writing this story, I spoke with various old-time New York cinephiles including Clark Frederick, who remembers seeing Federico Fellini’s City of Women (1980) there — the first film shown at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. “There were many dates, fights, and sore backs at the Lincoln Plaza, and many great films,” he said.
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas was screening restorations, re-issues, and re-runs far before they were common, including memorable ones such as the US release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) in episodes. Jim Gerow, another dyed-in-the-wool film buff, fondly remembers “lining up once a week to see each new installment” of the 14-part TV miniseries. “That was something like a major cultural event, with all the tickets bought in advance for a specific weekly time.”
Over the years, however, the quality of programming at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas has slackened, becoming home to mainstream art house fare. “The audience has gotten more aged (as have I), talkative, and more likely to bring in a smorgasbord in recent years,” Frederick said. Audiences might go to Metrograph or the newly renovated Quad Cinema for more daring, intellectually challenging movies. And yet those places have a nouveau riche and hipster vibe to them. Lincoln Plaza, on the other hand, has an irreplaceably wilted allure. The color scheme is brown-gray, the lobby has a grotto, and the concession stand sells smoked salmon sandwiches (Robert Goldblum has an article in The Jewish Week considering Lincoln Plaza as an important cultural hotspot for Jews on the Upper West Side). Artwork by one of the Talbots’s daughters and giant posters of Zero for Conduct (1933), L’Atalante (1934), Eldorado (1921), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Fantômas (1914) line the walls. A life-size model of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942) greets you as you make your way to one of the theaters. “The screens were tiny (especially number four), the projection approximate, and the staff erratic,” Frederick said. The experience, the décor, and the layout is a bit haphazard, but full of charm.
We’ll see if Milstein will stick to their word and re-open the space as a cinema “that will maintain its cultural legacy far into the future.” When Frederick heard about Lincoln Plaza’s closing, it “was like hearing of the death of a doddering but beloved aunt. One was aware of her weaknesses but grateful of her glories. As arthouses (farewell Landmark Sunshine) and bookstores disappear, one wonders what differentiates Manhattan from Moline.” In the ceaseless blight of gentrification, New Yorkers are used to seeing cultural institutions go belly up, and in their place a Whole Foods, a Pottery Barn, an Apple Store, a Starbucks, or any other faceless, corporate brick-and-mortar stores erected in its place.