Toby Talbot


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

Cover Interview of November 26, 2009

The wide angle

The sixties was a golden age in cinema, turbulent in politics, transitional in urban change.  We were lucky, there at the hub where time and place converged:  French New Wave, ‘68 uprisings at Columbia University, the emergence of the Upper West Side as a desirable neighborhood.

Dan had previously been the Eastern Story editor for Warner Brother, and had edited Film: An Anthology, an essay collection including Erwin Panofsky, James Agee, and Pauline Kael, which is used in classrooms to this day.  He became the film critic for the Progressive Magazine, a liberal political monthly.  I was teaching Spanish literature at Columbia University and witnessed first-hand those volatile events.  The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) declared our New Yorker a “liberated zone.”

Running a movie-house goes beyond flashing a film on the screen.  Struggles and obstacles abound.  Where to find the print?  Will the projectionist arrive on time and be alert to reel change?  How to cope with a powerful projectionist union?  Do the bathrooms have enough toilet paper?  How to apprehend pickpockets? How to meet labyrinthine city regulations?  How to confront things that bug an exhibitor—whisperers, snorers, commentators, pigeons on the marquee?  Such are the nitty-gritty details.  Our theater was a family store:  Dan the programmer, I the matron (legally required), my mother at the candy-stand, my father lobby vigilante.  You had to pay attention to detail.

On Monday nights we started a film society with special programs.  Silent films—D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Fritz Lang’s The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—were accompanied on the piano by Arthur Kleiner, a full-time pianist at the Museum of Modern Art.  We had Special Series of one-week bills: Emil Jannings, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Bette Davis, Mae West.  Program notes were written by aficionados and movie mavens such as Bill Everson on The Golem, Jonas Mekas on Shor, Jules Feiffer on Gold Diggers of 1933, Jack Gelber on Foolish Wives, and Jack Kerouac on Nosferatu— program notes are included in the book.

The most successful film in our series was Triumph of the Will, which had not been shown in the United States for years.  On the evening of June 27, 1960, a line formed around the theater, students from Columbia University eager to see that legendary film of the 1934 Nazi Part rally, shot in the Nuremberg stadium by Leni Riefenstahl.

From the outset patrons began filling our 300-page Guest Books in the lobby with their names and miscellaneous remarks—some of these pages appear in the book.  There was an obvious hunger for film, thousands of film requests in several hundred ledgers.  Susan Sontag asked for Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, Pagnol’s Les Lettres de Mon Moulin, Visconti’s Senso and La Terra Trema, and Tod Browning’s Freaks.  P. Adams Sitney, avant-garde critic, wanted Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or, The Great Dictator, and more Chaplin.  W. H. Auden put in for Les Visiteurs du Sol, City Lights, any Carole Lombard film, any Jean Harlow, and early Marilyn Monroe.  John Simon groused: “Improve the sound system and fix the seats.”  And Dan replied, “Right on both accounts.”  But on the very next page, a patron shot back: “Can anyone stop John Simon from mumbling during the show?”  No one could.