New Plaza Cinema: Rising on NYC’s Upper West Side

From the ashes of an iconic film house comes an exciting new venture.

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New Plaza Cinema

As with the iconic chess match with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, feisty film lovers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side are engaged in a fight for survival.

After the six-screen Lincoln Plaza Cinemas lost its lease last January after a remarkable 37-year run on Broadway near Lincoln Center, a band of passionate moviegoers formed a nonprofit group called New Plaza Cinema, and set out to create a new independent film house on the Upper West Side. Two weeks after the news broke, Dan Talbot, the exhibitor who ran Lincoln Plaza, died at age 91. He was an influential curator who brought a bevy of independent films to satisfy the sophisticated tastes of the residents of the Upper West Side and beyond.

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On Sept. 15, New Plaza Cinema held a dessert reception at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, where the new group was temporarily in residence earlier this year. At the event, longtime PBS figure Bill Moyers said that creating a successor to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas will “keep the culture of the West Side alive.” He added, “This is a very important embryonic moment for continuing the cultural tradition that has made the West Side what it is, and the political tradition of progressive politics that has made the United States what it is.”

Moyers, who has lived on the Upper West Side since the 1980s, described visiting Lincoln Plaza Cinemas twice or more in a single weekend. He cited the words of Joseph Campbell, scholar of religion and mythology, who he famously interviewed: “People have to have their stories. But if they have stories, they need to have people who will listen to those stories and share them.”

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Sponsoring the JCC gathering was real estate businessman Rick Wohlfarth. He said that at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, he’d rely on the annual Woody Allen offerings and such delightful non-Hollywood fare as Cinema Paradiso and Life is Beautiful. “It showed us worlds beyond the Hudson River,” he noted.

Many diehard devotees agree. “Lincoln Plaza Cinemas was beloved by the community — it was beneficial for so many people,” said attorney Norma Lewis, whose grassroots efforts began immediately after Talbot’s memorial last December, handing out fliers as attendees filed out, asking people to get involved. About 30 people came to the first meeting last February. As of July, according to a story in Variety, the mailing list of 500 had grown to over 5,500. “We’ve done pretty well in six months, wouldn’t you say?,” she asks.

After a popular eight-week run at the JCC, New Plaza Cinema headed to Symphony Space, an Upper West Side institution with a commitment to film within its Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. There, New Plaza Cinema has been showing films like RBG, the documentary on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and some of the best films of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and director Akira Kurosawa. As part of its Fall Festival, running through Nov. 29, there will also be a new documentary by Peter Bogdanovich about silent film genius Buster Keaton, four screenings of The Wife, starring Glenn Close, and some films already receiving Oscar buzz.

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There are still other signs that Talbot’s legacy will be secured. The Film Society of Lincoln Center recently paid tribute to him by holding a retrospective as part of the 56th New York Film Festival. It included showing Before the Revolution, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, which launched Talbot’s distribution company in 1965, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man for Himself. As the festival description explains, early on Talbot told the French director, “I love your work and would like to distribute anything you make.” There was also Louis Malle’s unlikely hit, My Dinner with Andre, featuring actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory talking over a restaurant meal. Talbot helped find the funding to produce it.

At the JCC reception, New Plaza Cinema supporter Claudine Bacher was the toastmistress. She declared that Lincoln Plaza Cinemas represented sophisticated, entertaining, thoughtful films — a role that New Plaza Cinema aims to fulfill. Raising her glass, she said, “Let’s drink a toast to a place that, even if it’s not there now, it is in our minds and our hearts and will rise again.”