Film

Curtains for the Ziegfeld: Say Goodbye to Manhattan’s Last Single-Screen Movie Palace

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Almost every New York film-lover has a cherished memory of the Ziegfeld Theater. Mine is the final Thursday-evening screening of the unnecessary but glorious “final cut” of Blade Runner. Diehards camped out in the first dozen rows and cheered the opening credits. That ’07 event is the kind of experience I hoped for at every subsequent visit to the Ziegfeld. Also memorable: The time the excited woman in front of me tried to shoo away Jurassic World‘s 3-D dinosaurs by waving her hands.

But anyone who caught a big-budget spectacular at the Ziegfeld in the last year knew that the venue could not go on in its present state. The Fisher brothers, the 46-year-old theater’s owners, announced last week that the Ziegfeld would close within a month — and reopen in 2017 as a schmancy all-purpose ballroom/event space.

At best, Manhattan’s soon-to-be-renovated movie palace sold out only half of its 1,131-seat auditorium’s gargantuan middle section, even for screenings of hits like Avengers: Age of Ultron or Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

The theater’s charms are sadly outdated, even if the efficient, cheerful staff — particularly at the upstairs concession stand — remain helpful. You could see any of the gargantuan monoplex’s recent offerings in nearby Times Square, where ticket prices are just as prohibitively high. (The Ziegfeld charged a lofty $15 for a 2-D movie and a sadly standard $19.50 for 3-D. In spite of this, the theater was running Cablevision — the Fishers’ tenants and the owners of the Bow Tie Cinemas chain — an annual loss of a million dollars, according to the New York Post‘s Lou Lumenick.)

Opened in 1969 after the original Ziegfeld Theatre was demolished in 1966, the cinema was originally heralded for its charming mix of Victorian décor and modern movie technology. Before the Ziegfeld debuted with underwhelming space odyssey Marooned, the New York Times‘ A.H. Weiler hailed the theater for being almost fully superintended by a “computerized console…that enables its operator to control every function in the house.”

The cutting edge is long gone, however. Lately, the Ziegfeld has mostly been frequented by nostalgists who come for the theater itself and stay for whatever title happens to be on the marquee. Sheer size
is its last enduring novelty. And that’s just not enough, says film critic Farran Smith Nehme. “Even with 3-D shows, folks who love special effects are more drawn to IMAX,” Nehme told me. “The old-time ambiance of the Ziegfeld might not mean
as much to them.”

Nehme, the author of the screwball-mystery novel Missing Reels, a kind of love letter to Manhattan repertory film, points to the landlords’ lack of sentimentality as another reason for the Ziegfeld’s demise. “Even if the theater had been doing well, it [would] have [eventually] turned into a ‘high-end events venue’ because more money could be made that way,” she says. “At least the Ziegfeld isn’t being torn down, like so many other legendary theaters.”

Still, there’s something to be said for Cablevision’s proud, stubborn refusal to chase trends, in particular its avoidance of Alamo Drafthouse–style event screenings of ersatz cult films. At the Sunshine, the Houston Street arthouse multiplex, the Landmark theater offers NYU students a slate of crowd-pleasing midnight movies: The Goonies, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The Sunshine’s owners put the property up for sale last May.

The Ziegfeld, meanwhile, will show Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and in 3-D, no less. (I saw it there, and it looks great.) For a couple more weeks, the totally inessential and absolutely beautiful jewel-box theater will needlessly promote this latest blockbuster. Its audience may have diminished, but the Ziegfeld is, to the bitter end, still going big.

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