I grew up at the New Yorker Theater. As I succumbed to the lure of film history in my teens I spent countless days, nights and weekends at this venerable movie house at Broadway and 88th Street. I also attended screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and the rundown Thalia further uptown, but The New Yorker felt like home. Today, as I mourn the passing of its owner Dan Talbot, memories are flooding back over the decades.
To a generation accustomed to DVDs, Blu-rays, streaming, and Turner Classic Movies it might be difficult to appreciate just how much a great revival house meant to a budding movie buff.
Where else could I have attended W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers double-features on any given Saturday or read program notes for a Humphrey Bogart retrospective written by a young Peter Bogdanovich? At least one of the theater’s program flyers was illustrated by another notable Upper West Sider, Jules Feiffer. If you look at the Feiffer drawing you’ll see, scrawled in the upper left corner, the words “OK for interview.” That’s because I had left a message that I wanted to write about the New Yorker in my mimeographed fanzine, Profile. Dan Talbot was kind enough to spend a little time with me, an enthusiastic if inexperienced reporter. As I recall we sat on a bench in the outer lobby of the theater.
At the back of the auditorium there was a ledge and a small light that shone on a book resembling a hotel register. There, patrons could write suggestions of films they wanted to see. I asked Talbot if he got good ideas from the book and he chortled, admitting that he barely looked at it. It wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear, but at least he was honest.
I honestly don’t remember much about the interior of the theater, but it didn’t strike me as a grand movie palace. I sometimes chose to sit in the balcony, for a different perspective of that day’s bill of fare. I also remember the light quality changing from reel to reel on a movie like Duck Soup because of the variant age of the projection bulbs. It didn’t matter: just getting to see these films on a big screen was a joyful experience.
It wasn’t all nostalgia at the New Yorker: this former neighborhood house was also a home for contemporary cinema from around the world. That’s what led Dan and his wife Toby to spread their wings, becoming distributors and presiding over the Lincoln Square Cinema after the New Yorker closed. Toby set down her thoughts in a book that’s well worth reading called The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies.
Another of my heroes and mentors, William K. Everson, programmed the New Yorker from time to time. In the mid-1960s he took over Monday nights, and I cherish the memory of one particular evening comprised of random serial chapters from the 1930s and 40s!
I look back at my days and nights at The New Yorker as “basic training.” It was exciting…and contagious. I’ll never forget a Friday night when I went by myself to see Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours and almost fell out of my aisle seat laughing. The theater was nearly full that evening, which would have delighted Preston Sturges and certainly pleased Dan Talbot. He loved sharing movies of all kinds with simpatico audiences, and for that I will always be grateful.