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Toby Talbot. The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies.

Toby Talbot.

The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies.

Columbia University Press, 2009. 352 pp. $24.95.

Ah, the New Yorker Theater. Anyone who remembers the 1960s in the city recalls the place to go for the best of both the old and new, where one could see W.C. Fields in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break" one night and see "Breathless" the next. Toby Talbot, who with her husband owned the New Yorker from 1960 to 1973, and continued to operate a series of other Upper West Side "art" houses into the twenty-first century, has written a reminiscence of what she aptly calls her "dreamworld of Movieland" (11).

Her story indeed reads as something out of a dream. An outer-borough Jewish childhood. A chance meeting with the man who would become her husband during a stroll alongside the Bronx River. A bohemian marriage in Queens, then Spain, then, beginning in the late 1950s, Manhattan's Upper West Side, where the Talbots indulged in their passion for movies in their off hours. In 1960 they decided to take to heart the adage "do what you love and get someone to pay you for it" and opened the New Yorker at Broadway and 88th Street.

It was a propitious time. In the early 1960s, the Upper West Side was in transition from being a downscale working-class neighborhood of walkup apartments and rooming houses to becoming one of educated professional-class cosmopolites with a passion for the new and a streak of cultural nonconformity. The tastes of the new West Siders ran to liberal/left politics, The New York Times, "ethnic" cuisine, and "important" books. Almost uniquely, they understood film as a form of literature, embodying in its highest form what Matthew Arnold called "the best which has been thought and said in the world." The Talbots thus had a sympathetic audience at the ready. Beginning on March 17, 1960 with showings of "Henry V" and "The Red Balloon," the New Yorker attracted the most sophisticated viewers in the city if not the United States. The Talbots had the leeway to experiment with their programming, and their theater featured the work of a new generation of foreign directors, notably the French New Wave. Expanding into distribution, the Talbots introduced some of the most provocative films of the twentieth century, including "Shoah" and "Point of Order."

There was a serendipitous quality to the New Yorker, a meeting of time, place, and people that could have occurred nowhere else. A young Peter Bogdanovich lived across the street from the theater and worked there part-time. Jack Kerouac wrote program notes. Alfred Hitchcock stopped by to help promote showings of his films. The New Yorker was a salon for the Talbots' Upper West Side neighbors and friends, a who's-who of post-World War II American intellectual and artistic life: Susan Sontag, Dwight Macdonald, Morris Dickstein, Jules Feiffer, Richard Avedon, Pauline Kael, and Diane Arbus, among others. The Talbots were thus more than a couple running a movie theatre and film distribution business; they helped form a community of critical intelligence and knowledge that had a profound effect on American politics and culture, opening them to a host of new possibilities and directions. While the political impulse would lose energy and momentum, its cultural counterpart would have more staying power. Can film change the world? The Talbots thought so, and the New Yorker was the embodiment of their vision and ideals. They showed films that altered the way Americans think, see, and live today.

Talbot's writing style is impressionistic and sometimes rambling. She offers a stream of consciousness of film plot analyses, remembrances of influential directors, details of film festivals, and random anecdotes of her years in the business. At times her narrative lapses into name-dropping and stargazing. She even includes Ismail Merchant's favorite marinade recipe (see pp. 115-16). But these are minor sins. Talbot is a memoirist. She knew Pauline Kael but does not pretend to be her. This book stands on its own as a record of an extraordinary life spent offering films that mattered to audiences with the discernment to get the message.

It was too good to last, of course. The 1970s spawned the materialistic, status-obsessed yuppie, who began to populate the now-upscale Upper West Side. Large exhibition and distribution chains squeezed independents. The Talbots sold the New Yorker to the Walter Reade Organization in 1973. Although they continue to operate the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, they are fighting a rearguard action against the encroaching corporate behemoth, which swallows everything in its path. Today the Talbots are quaint anomalies in a mass-marketed, bottom-line business that is all business.

In a contemporary Upper West Side brimming with cardiologists, tax attorneys, corporate vice-presidents and hedge fund managers, it is hardly surprising that film is viewed as "product" and only the deep-pocketed survive. The site of the New Yorker Theater is now a luxury apartment building. Four blocks down Broadway stands a multiplex. Godard would weep.

Jerald Podair

Lawrence University
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Author:Podair, Jerald
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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