Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In Memoriam: The Ziegfeld Theater, 1969-2016

Last week the Siren was in Midtown, meeting a friend for drinks, and she passed the Ziegfeld Theater, Manhattan’s most glorious movie venue. And she saw that The Force Awakens was playing there, and thought, “Hey, that one’s practically a license to print money. I know the Ziegfeld's had some problems, but I bet Star Wars is helping a lot."

Given her prophetic abilities as they stand currently revealed, you can take the Siren’s theory about what killed the Ziegfeld for whatever it’s worth. But dead the Ziegfeld most certainly is. A "high-end event space"? Thank you so much, O Titans of Business! We were running out of those in Manhattan!!

Here's the Siren's theory, anyway. Take it or leave it.

Real estate killed the Ziegfeld.

But not in the way you may be thinking (i.e., the theater's own rent). Real estate killed the Ziegfeld's audience.

Movies, as the Siren wrote in her novel, are the people’s art form. For all the glitzy premieres held at the theater, like any other venue it needed people who could attend regularly. And as the years went by, fewer and fewer working-stiff film lovers lived within striking distance of the Ziegfeld. It is at 141 West 54th Street in Manhattan, between 6th and 7th Avenues. It’s close to a lot of subway trains. But the Ziegfeld is a long-ass haul from much of Brooklyn. It is a shlep from much of Queens, where a lot of shallow-pocketed cinephiles also live. From the Bronx or Staten Island, fuggedaboudit. Combine that with the rise of ever-more-pristine home video versions of the crowd-pleasers that once were the Ziegfeld’s bread and butter, and, well.

You can call it laziness, if you want to be a scold. But when you’re scraping by, as so many ordinary New Yorkers are, time is money. An hour to get there, an hour to get back, after long hours of however you’re earning a living — that isn’t a small physical and mental consideration. If you are paying a sitter a typical NYC rate, it’s a pretty large monetary factor as well.

Who does live close to the Ziegfeld these days? Well, there’s this charming edifice, which casts a shadow like a middle finger raised to Central Park, and is filled with condominiums bought as investment properties, many of them empty for large blocks of the year. (More are on the way.) When these owners are in town, the Siren suspects they spend more time at expense-account restaurants and the offices of personal shoppers than they do in the red-velvet seats of the Ziegfeld.

There are many hotels in the immediate vicinity, full of tourists on the phone to the concierge, begging for tickets to Hamilton. When you spend New York money for a visit here, a ticket to a movie seems like awfully weak tea. “The Force Awakens? Really? C'mon honey, we can see that back in Phoenix. If we can’t swing Hamilton, let’s try The Book of Mormon.”

The Ziegfeld was a swell location for the Siren when she lived on Avenue A, and even better when she lived on 125th Street and Broadway. She can remember when they still allowed smoking in the balcony. She can remember standing on 6th Avenue, very far back on the line to see a dazzling 70mm version of Vertigo. Such was the space at the Ziegfeld that even though it was sold out, she had a great view. The Siren can still hear the sympathetic groan that went up from the audience after a certain tragic death in Lawrence of Arabia.

Probably the last time the Siren went to the Ziegfeld was for the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, god bless ’em. It was All About Eve. The great Elaine Stritch introduced the movie and took questions afterward. A Bright Young Thing asked a question about “back in your day.” There was a pause of terrifying length. And then The Goddess Elaine responded, “This IS my day.”

Oh my god, how the Siren will miss the sound of more than a thousand film fans laughing when a good line brings down the house.

But here is the memory of the great Ziegfeld that the Siren will carry forever, the way a besotted fan remembers every syllable a star uttered while signing an autograph.

It was perhaps one month after 9/11. The Siren’s BFF, a film editor, talked her into getting on the subway and coming uptown to see Funny Girl at the Ziegfeld. This man doesn’t like musicals. He’s no Barbra Streisand fan. If he loves William Wyler as the Siren does, he has yet to elaborate on it. But insist he did, and thus did the Siren haul her cookies up to West 54th Street.

The movie was preceded by a preview for Ice Age, which involved a squirrel precipitating an enormous, thunderous, crashing avalanche of massive fragments from an infinitely towering wall of ice. The squirrel runs like crazy to avoid being crushed.

Why this struck anyone as a fine-and-dandy preview to run on a gigantic screen, in October 2001, in New York City, the Siren will never know. She sat in horrified silence, and her BFF managed only to mutter, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Mercifully, Funny Girl began. And on the screen at the Ziegfeld, that film bloomed. The streets of New York, backlot or location, beckoned. Streisand’s blazing talent never seemed more apparent. Up comes this number.

At about 2:30 Brice is boarding the ferry and you get a glimpse of lower Manhattan — without the World Trade Center, a view that until recently, the Siren had never known and her friend only vaguely remembered. We watched this on the screen at the Ziegfeld, with that sound system wrapping us in Streisand’s eternally New York voice. Streisand/Brice stood on the ferry's deck, belting out Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's anthem as the boat pulled across the harbor. The Siren started crying. She looked at her friend, and he was touching the corners of his eyes.

We glanced at each other some minutes after the number was over, and started to laugh. Because we were both such saps, because this film was so much better than we had ever given it credit for being, because the city was beautiful in 1968, and by god, it would be again. We were probably annoyingly loud, very much the sort who could inspire a blog post about bad movie manners, had blogs been more of a thing in 2001. But it didn’t matter much, because we were sitting more or less dead center, and there were only about a dozen other people in the Ziegfeld.


john_burke100 said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. Thanks as always, Siren.

John/24Frames said...

Even back in the days when Times Square was filled with movie theaters the Ziegfeld was off by itself away from the Broadway crowds. I do remember seeing a few films there. The most memorable being Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

Someone Said said...

The only film I saw here was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That theater's screen made every film memorable, and better.

Maltydog said...

Great post. Had not heard about this, and very sad to find out about it. On the other hand, there has not been a program scheduled at this theatre in years that I had any interest in seeing. I don't get out for movies that much, but I did get out for Chimes at Midnight at the Film Forum. Otherwise, I would just as soon watch at home with my plasma screen,it's not much worse then most theatres these days.

Jeff Gee said...

I used to walk uptown to the Ziegfeld from 10th Street and Avenue A to meet friends who'd driven in from New Jersey. Barry Lyndon, Close Encounters, Apocalypse Now. "Hey, this place is a big deal," said one of my friends on his first visit there. "Not like those frigging rat holes you're always dragging us to."

('Rat holes' = Carnegie Hall Cinema, The Elgin, The Thalia, Theater 80 St. Marks, The First Avenue Screening Room at the foot of the 59th Street Bridge. They were big deals, too.)

Vin said...

They showed the Hateful Eight at our Art Deco theatre in Yarraville in Melbourne this week and Tarantino and two of his mates turned up. In person and unannounced!

Its summer here and the weathers good and anyway, why not.

Your right about the Ziegfeld being lost to real estate, and not in a good way.

But I wrote to thank you for the wonderful and evocative writing and the way this particular post spins recollections of New York and the movies around the planet.

Winston Smith said...

John/24 Frames - I was in HS when Apocalype Now came out and skipped school to watch this incredible movie at one of my favorite movie theaters - The Zeigfield. The scene when the Tiger jumps out of the jungle was so incredible and opening and closing was dreamlike. Off the top of my head I remember seeing Roger Rabbit and The Last Temptation of Christ there also but I know I saw many many more.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this, Ms. Smith-Nehme. I was there exactly once in my life, but it was a good 'un. Two girlfriends and I came down from Amherst for the weekend when I was in college to see the 1989 "director's cut" of LAWRENCE, one of the most significant film restoration projects of them all -- it opened up the floodgates for so many other re-jiggered classics in the Wild 90s, when I went on to film school. That was a heady and incredible experience; I am so sorry to hear that this great venue is no more.

Anonymous said...

Reading this post makes me weep for the future of my neighborhood . . . Hollywood. Thankfully, no iconic movie theaters are being razed. But my neighborhood is slowly being transformed into a gentrified jungle for half-occupied and rather unattractive looking condominiums.

Lemora said...

Your post describes what is happening to downtown Berkeley, CA. Neoclassical, WWI era buildings are being razed and replaced with very tall, ugly condominium towers. Shoddy construction recently caused the collapse of a fifth floor balcony that killed at least five students. You probably read about this in New York City --the Irish Prime Minister came over for a memorial. We still have several vintage single screen cinemas around town (with gently multiplexed former balconies) that are thriving. You do see ancient movie lovers on walkers lining up. While I am at the younger end of this demographic, I am heartened at the presence of so many older movie lovers who make the effort. Our one repertory house, the UC Theater, sadly remains boarded up. Rumors abound as to what a developer is about to do to it, on the order of "large event venue." My childhood cinema, likely the very first one my parents carried me to in the early 1950's, has long been a bookstore. From time to time, during my recent stay in Los Angeles as their caregiver, I would visit the former Studio City Theater. The historic facade and towering vertical sign have been preserved. The auditorium's wall murals, a Hawaiian fantasy with marcelled bathing beauties from 1931, are long gone. But, the art deco wall lamps, with bright cobalt blue glass, are still there, and still glowing. Here, I fell madly in love with Bobby Driscoll as Peter Pan in 1953, and thrilled to the adventures of Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell in "Hit The Deck!" in 1954 (I think.) I was unaware of the significance of the Zeigfeld. Thanks for this piece.

Unknown said...

Wonderful essay, Siren. Sparked two significant memories I have of the theater. I frequented it when I worked at Orion Pictures in the late 1980's (office was located at Fifth and 55th in the Coca Cola building).

- I saw the "Lawrence" restoration five times (!) over the course of the summer of 1989. The giant screen and the scope of the film were a perfect match. It completely captured my imagination.

- In 1988, I saw "The Last Temptation of Christ" on opening day. That film sparked massive religious protests all across the country, including New York City. So much so that 54th Street (in front of the theater) was completely shut down and cordoned off. Protesters packed the street from Sixth Avenue all the way down the block to the front of the theater entrance. Waiting on line, ticket holders were shouted at (scripture and verse, mostly) and berated for being there to see Scorsese's passion project. But even more impressive than the massive crowd of spiritual warriors was the small crowd of twenty or so counter-protesters (set up in a separate cordoned off area, directly across from the theater entrance with about ten feet separating them from the religious folks) who simply and forcefully yelled "Fight AIDS not Art!"over and over and over again; trying to make an impression over the din. Their mantra probably didn't change any minds that night but it was the sanest perspective on everything that was going on there that evening.

Maltydog said...

I saw both "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Last Temptation of Christ" at the Ziegfeld, and the main thing I remember at the latter film was that they checked everyone's bags at the door, something that a lot rarer in those days then it is now. They gave some kind of innocuous reason, why, something about sneaking food in, I think, but I assumed there had been some kind of bomb threat from religious fanatics.

John Fitzpatrick said...

The restoration of LAWRENCE. I missed the opening, which had Lean, Coates, Spielberg, Scorsese, and Columbia President Dawn Steel together on stage. But a few days later, the movie itself was a true event in an appropriate space. There was applause for the overture, for the Columbia logo, for O'Toole's entrance, for various names in the credits . . . The theater was packed for weeks.

Unknown said...

Sad, definitely! I've been in New York for 4 years and only got to go to the Ziegfeld 4 or 5 times, but so glad I did. And what a great way to go out, with "Star Wars." It's not often you sit with an audience and hear applause and cheering throughout a movie...and practically everyone sat through all 9 minutes of end credits!

It was my Mom's favorite movie theatre growing up, and as I stood in line, she called from Miami and asked me to send her pictures of the lobby and the theater itself. She got to see her favorite movie, "Funny Girl," there a few years ago while visiting family. So I guess it's held a special charm on me for numerous reasons.

G said...

My memorable visits:

Seeing Apocalypse Now - I think its the first film I saw with sound design so it was like you could 'feel' the helicopters going over your head. They also handed out programs and I *think* I saw Coppola in the audience.

Lawrence of Arabia - the overture, the curtains sweeping open, that shot of an endless desert. I had seen the film on TV over the years and had liked it but not been that impressed - but this was the only way to REALLY see it.

Pennies from Heaven - Gordon Willis' cinematography was a dream, but what was really amazing and probably could only have been seen to be understood - was when Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters stepped out of the black and white Astaire/Rogers movie to dance in front of the screen in color - it LOOKED REAL. That is, the configuration of the Ziegfeld was such that Martins/Peters appeared life sized, so it was as if the actual actors showed up to do this. It was an amazing optical illusion and completely fitting for the movie itself. Not sure if in theaters with a smaller screen this would work.


mas82730 said...

Wow, Siren, had you figured for a Barbraphobe. Glad to hear you don't think she's just an obnoxious loudmouth. She is spectacularly talented, IMO.

Vanwall said...

Architecturally, most of my past has been erased already. I'll be a Nowhere Man soon. People leave, and things become redundant to the landholders faster today, as well. I can't say I look forward to travelling that much anymore, either, so much of what I'm looking for is already gone from wherever I end up, I feel like I'm running in the frames of a nitrate film being eyed by a silver processor. To paraphrase the Feral Kid, "They live now only in my memories"....

The Siren said...

Mas82730, gosh no, although historically that's been true of some commenters. But me, I love Barbra - not at all times and in all things, but she's one of those razzle-dazzle showpeople I go for in a big way.

john said...

About 1940 or so< as a kid, I watched the Hippodrome being gutted and being replaced by some dreck commercial buildings and Herr Trump not even a gleam in Pop's eye.

john said...

Don't forget the "New YorKer" embellished with Roxy seats and, for the late 50s early 60s, an opening into film literature: D.W. Griffiths venture into Inflation ridden Weimar Germany: "Is nt Life Wonderful!"