Toby Talbot


On her book The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies

Cover Interview of November 26, 2009

In a nutshell

This memoir is an inside account of the New Yorker Theater that my husband Dan and I opened on March 17, 1960.  An Art Deco relief of Diana the Huntress and her hound hung above its marquee, announcing our first program of Henry V, starring Lawrence Olivier, and co-featured with The Red Balloon, a fantasy by the French director Albert Lamorisse.  Olivier and a chorus advise the audience to ”eke out our performance with your mind.”  What better counsel for the rapture of art?  What better counsel for a fledgling art-house on the scruffy Upper West Side?  The New Yorker ran from 1960 to 1973.

The New Yorker began as a revival house.  Our second program was Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Marcel Pagnol’s Harvest, followed then by Fritz Lang, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers,  Orson Welles,  and films of the thirties and forties.  Double bills of classics, screwball comedies, Westerns, gangster movies, and musicals were “mis-matched”—Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine got paired with Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.  Before we knew it, theaters around the country were copying our programs.  Two years later, our distribution company was born with Before the Revolution, by a 21-year-old unknown Italian director, one Bernardo Bertolucci, and Pull my Daisy, a quirky Beat generation riff by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, narrated by Jack Kerouac.  Now we would also play first-runs.

The New Yorker Theater was what Bertolucci called a kind of wild cinema university, like Henri Langlois’s cinematheque in Paris.  It came at a ripe moment—when audiences came to view film as an art form and not just popular entertainment.  Moviegoers flocked to the New Yorker not only from the neighborhood and nearby Columbia University but from the five boroughs.  They could see Murnau, Eisenstein, Griffith, von Sternberg, Lubitsch, Rossellini and Renoir—what Jean-Paul Sartre called “the frenzy on the screen.”

What started as a “venture” became an adventure.  In his Forward to the book, Martin Scorsese writes that The New Yorker and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies is “a book about the love of cinema.”  Love of cinema was evident on every page of our ledger, listing all of our programs, the source of the films, and attendance.  In our youth, we had cut our teeth on Open City, The Bicycle Thief, Symphonie Pastorale, and I Know Where I’m Going.  Now we had the privilege of playing what we loved:  John Ford’s The Searchers, Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1932, Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu, Yasojiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

In that first decade of the New Yorker, no program was repeated.