After spending the last 15 years mostly in the dark, the landmark Thalia movie theater will reopen next week with a new name (the Leonard Nimoy Thalia), new improvements (a café, larger screen, better sightlines), and a new repertory-film calendar thanks to Symphony Space. A bitter 11-year real estate battle ended in 1996, finally allowing Symphony Space—the cultural institution renowned for its “Selected Shorts” program—to redevelop its site on Broadway, including the venerable art-house cinema around the corner on 95th Street. In addition to showing films, the Thalia will also serve as a small performance venue.
It won’t be the first time the location has undergone major changes. Originally constructed in 1915 as a loading dock for an open-air market, it later became a skating rink restaurant and finally a movie theater in 1938. The Thalia was a cinephile’s paradise into the early ’70s, with double bills like Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch and Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run. In the ’80s, the theater became a refuge for eccentricities such as Ed Wood titles, C-grade noir, and coincidentally, one of Thalia benefactor Leonard Nimoy’s first films, Zombies of the Stratosphere, according to former Thalia staffer Bruce Goldstein, who is currently director of repertory programming at Film Forum. In the ’90s, occasional efforts from Bollywood bookings to New Line indies (Naked, The Ballad of Little Jo) never proved successful.
With longtime film programmer Fabiano Canosa at the helm, Symphony Space organizers are hoping the new Thalia will regain the reputation it had when art-film-goers trekked there to catch the latest Godard, Fellini, or old Hollywood gem. But it won’t be easy, says Canosa and Symphony Space executive vice president Joanne Cossa. “All of the repertory houses in New York failed when multiplexes came in,” says Cossa. “No one could commercially make a go of it, so repertory cinemas are left for the nonprofits.”
“The biggest challenge is getting prints,” explains Canosa. “Some prints are 30 to 40 years old, and sometimes studios will send you any old print.” Canosa relates numerous horror stories from over the years, such as a screening of the 1935 MGM musical Naughty Marietta, with the film’s trademark “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” sequence missing. “The audience nearly killed me,” he says.
According to Canosa, the repertory-theater circuit has dwindled in recent years, which makes it difficult for studios to recoup the cost of film restoration, especially for onetime screenings. “Many of these classics are only booked four or five times a year,” he explains, “so it’s not profitable for distributors to strike new prints anymore.” The other problem, explains Canosa, is actually locating films amid the frequent buyouts and bankruptcies in the industry.
Canosa’s ambitious Thalia calendar gets under way with a free “New York Movie Marathon” (April 13-14), followed by weekends of French cinema classics (April 20-July 21). In the summer, the schedule goes daily with a double-feature festival—the difficult-to-pull-off kind pioneered by Thalia programming legend Ursula Lewis, who left in 1977. Canosa promises such pairings as Kandahar and De Sica’s Two Women (“stories of two women during different wars”), and Time Regained with Un Amour de Swann (“the two Prousts”). In the fall, the Thalia returns with weekend-only programs: a miniseries called “All About Eves” (think Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck) and a survey of Latin American cinema. “We want to establish the moviegoing experience as it used to be,” says Canosa.
But with DVD sales and multiplexing on the rise, the fate of repertory programming may be at risk. “It’s hard to say,” says Film Forum’s Goldstein. “When I first started, everyone thought there would be no revival business, because video was taking off. But audiences still want to see these movies in theaters. Let’s face it, people want to go out.”