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New York Plays Itself: Touring the City’s Celluloid History

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If you squint hard enough at the Museum of Arts and Design, you can almost make out the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering up Broadway, across Columbus Circle, toward Central Park West. At least, that’s how it felt on the TCM Classic Film Tour. Over three hours, across a route spanning the Upper West Side through the park to the East River, this journey by bus past the cinematic landmarks of New York City references more than a hundred movies (Ghostbusters among them), dating from 1898 to 1998.

New York City, the birthplace of the American film industry (OK, along with New Jersey), is a massive, if unintentional, pop culture time capsule. Location scout Nick Carr’s blog Scouting New York appraises every nook and cranny and bodega of the city with an artist’s eye, documenting in photographs how famous film locations have changed throughout the years. And, unsurprisingly, there’s a thriving breed of tourism specifically devoted to pilgrimages to TV and movie sites, whatever your taste: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Seinfeld, superheroes, Real Housewives, or — if you don’t mind traveling beyond the Lincoln Tunnel, to the hinterlands of the Garden State — The Sopranos. This TCM-flavored expedition, offered through On Location Tours, specifically limits its purview to classic films shot in Manhattan.

Actor and producer Sarah Louise Lilley served as tour guide on a recent Sunday morning. Lilley, who moved to the United States from England as a teenager, speaks with the slightest glimmer of a British accent — which, as she enthusiastically expounds on movie legends of yore, it’s easy to reimagine as a Katherine Hepburn mid-Atlantic lilt. (I’m not sure if this effect would hold true on On Location’s Sex and the City Hotspots tour, which Lilley has also hosted.) At times, there was an almost virtual reality–like quality to the experience, when Lilley’s commentary and film clips, cued up to play on overhead monitors when we passed the real-life locations within them, transformed the present-day city seen from the bus windows into a long-lost version of itself. As we passed through Columbus Circle, we saw a tour bus packed with bumbling out-of-towners in 1950’s Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, the political rally in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle plots to assassinate a senator, and the apartment building where Lois Lane resides in Superman. A little farther north, the Dakota’s facade had recently been cleaned, looking much less dark and foreboding than it did in Rosemary’s Baby. Had Lilley not pointed it out, the subway grate at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue where Marilyn Monroe famously posed in The Seven Year Itch could have been any one of the city’s thousands and thousands more just like it, unglamorously trod on every day by locals and visitors alike. I wasn’t the only New Yorker on my particular tour, which also hosted a family of tourists from South Africa. Lilley and her fellow TCM guide Jason Silverman report attracting movie fans of all ages, from newborns up to Lilley’s own grandmother, then ninety-six. “I’ve had kids who were ten years old completely clean up in the trivia contest,” says Silverman.

Lilley and Silverman, residents of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem, respectively, have been guides for TCM since this tour was first offered in 2013. (The tour’s blueprint has largely remained the same in that time, although movie-related news and anniversaries bring certain films and their associated landmarks to the forefront.) On January 30 at 8 p.m., they’ll appear on the Turner Classic Movies network to introduce four perennial New York–centric favorites: King Kong, The Producers, On the Town, and North by Northwest. As a lifelong movie buff, Lilley calls the experience of shooting with host Ben Mankiewicz a “dream come true.” Lilley, whose acting credits include The Mysteries of Laura, was “indoctrinated” into loving classic film by her father. She suffered from colic as an infant, and he discovered that the only way to stop her screaming was to pace back and forth with his daughter on his shoulder, old movies playing on the television. “He said by the time I was three months old, I’d seen Casablanca hundreds of times,” Lilley recalls. Silverman’s cinematic education began only a little later. “At the age of six, instead of watching whatever the latest cartoon was, my family was like, ‘Great, it’s time to watch Gone With the Wind,’ ” says the Chicago-native actor, seen in The Wolf of Wall Street as a quaalude-buying teenager. “I remember distinctly at the age of ten, on holiday break in Florida, my father sat me down and showed me The Godfather.”

The Ansonia (Three Days of the Condor, The Sunshine Boys, and Single White Female), once an opulent residential hotel that kept dairy cows on its roof to provide fresh milk for guests, casts its regal gaze onto Verdi Square, a triangle of green space bound by 72nd and 73rd streets, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue. This was once known as Needle Park, the title location for the Joan Didion–scripted, Al Pacino–starring heroin drama The Panic in Needle Park. “All those movies in the Seventies showed a really dark, dangerous side of New York City, and that’s so different than the happy little farmers’ market area that is there now. I love those stops that really give you windows back in time and spark your imagination,” Lilley says.

We took in Lincoln Center’s Revson Fountain, immortalized by The Producers and Moonstruck. Then the TVs on the bus played a dancing sequence from West Side Story (soon to be remade by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner), set among the soon-to-be-demolished tenements of San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that stood on the site of Lincoln Center’s campus until Robert Moses had other ideas. In most locations, the particular businesses that populated films’ famous shots are long gone, made ghosts by Manhattan’s breakneck pace of renovation and gentrification. You can still recognize the buildings by their bones, even if the Vitamin Shoppe and the now-shuttered Rita’s Italian Ice that currently stand at Broadway and 92nd Street didn’t themselves make cameos in Hannah and Her Sisters. The most recent movie featured on the tour is You’ve Got Mail, most of which was shot within several blocks of the Upper West Side. The children’s book store owned by Meg Ryan’s character was then Maya Schaper Cheese and Antiques on West 69th Street but is today a humble dry cleaner. The owner only learned his business had a Hollywood pedigree when the tour bus began stopping outside. Now, Lilley reports, he sells You’ve Got Mail DVDs on site. The tour doesn’t go south of the Empire State Building, or else Katz’s Deli, the site of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally…, would surely make an appearance too.

Silverman typically takes charge of the Saturday tours and Lilley the Thursday ones, during which the streets are generally far most congested than on weekends. “When we hit traffic, it’s like a double-edged sword for me,” Lilley says. “I feel bad we’re running behind, but at the same time, now I can really talk at length about all these movies.” On any day, the most likely logistical challenge the duo faces is the city’s unpredictable road closures, but they can always adapt. “The worst possible circumstance for a classic movie tour is if the DVD player doesn’t work, and that’s only happened to me, knock on wood, once,” Silverman explains. (It made for a “unique” tour.)

Both Lilley and Silverman cited Sutton Place Park as their favorite movie landmark on the tour, a tiny, peaceful lookout onto the East River with a stunning view of the Queensboro Bridge. “We’ve taken so many New Yorkers on the tour that have never been there before. It’s so cinematic. I feel like I’ve taken numerous people’s holiday card photos there,” Lilley says. She isn’t kidding — nearly every person on my bus waited patiently for her to snap their picture.

Sutton Place is the swanky, townhouse-lined neighborhood that lies just south of the bridge. “The history of New York and the history of film is beautifully interwoven there,” Lilley says. In the early-twentieth century, the same stretch of East River waterfront was home to not only luxurious apartments with views to match, but poverty-stricken tenements and the gangs who inhabited them, as depicted onscreen in 1937’s Dead End. By 1953, Sutton Place had become the must-have address for the trio of enterprising husband-seekers — Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall — in How to Marry a Millionaire. But Sutton Place’s most memorable contribution to film history is as the setting of the most iconic image from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Allen and Diane Keaton take in the early-morning view from a bench in the very park where we’d climbed off the bus to stand.

Woody Allen’s legacy, of course, is a deeply controversial subject. In general, Lilley and Silverman explain, they try to relate Woody Allen films to their physical locations without engaging any deeper with the subject matter of those movies. “I can’t imagine doing the tour and not making the Sutton Place stop, because it’s so iconically shot in Manhattan,” Silverman says. “But the content of the movie — especially what’s come out in the news over the past couple of years about the making of the movie [Allen’s then-sixteen-year-old costar Mariel Hemingway has said that he tried to seduce her] — I don’t really, can’t really watch Manhattan anymore. But I can appreciate how they filmed and shot this particular scene.”

For those who’ve never visited New York, iconic movie locations have likely done more to inform their conceptions of the city than any guidebook or exhaustively annotated history ever could. Silverman, for one, grew up “obsessed” with King Kong. “For me, King Kong and the Empire State Building are synonymous,” he says. “I went to NYU, and in my freshman-year dorm, if I poked my head out the window, I got a view of the Empire State Building. Being in the city ten years, doing this tour hundreds of times, every time I pass by the Empire State Building, this is New York to me.”

But there is also a singular pleasure to be found in discovering, or rediscovering, film landmarks lying in plain sight. “I really love having New Yorkers on the tour, because they’re always running around, head down,” Lilley says. “To give yourself permission to stop and take a look at a block you’ve been on maybe a hundred times and really see it for the first time, I think it’s magical.”

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