Where Ginger And Fred Are Still Larger Than Life

It isn't much as restored theaters go, but the woman with the big hat and big hair seems happy. I'm here for the reopening of the Thalia Theater, a revival house on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Boarded up for six years and once targeted for the wrecker's ball, it's being reborn this evening, and a crowd of cinema hounds has come to 95th Street to celebrate. My friend Kourosh thinks the scene resembles a cartoon in The New Yorker. The woman in the hat is veteran character actress and downtown partygoer Sylvia Miles, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a blowsy blonde in 1969 Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy.

She is the center of attention as she lauds the Thalia's resurrection and Roy Ennacheril, the businessman who made it possible. No one cares that the trademark marquee in neon script is missing. It's enough that the Thalia (New Yorkers pronounce it THAYL-ya), weekend shrine of a few generations of film buffs and aspiring filmmakers, is back.

SUNSET BOULEVARD? In the 1960s and 1970s, New York boasted a number of small to midsize theaters whose stock-in-trade was movie classics, obscure foreign and B-films, or retrospectives of a studio's or director's oeuvre. In 1968, The New Yorker routinely carried listings for more than 10 such theaters. One by one, most closed, victims of soaring rents, shrinking audiences, an explosion of VCRs and flicks-for-rent, and the spreading tentacles of cable TV and its myriad of movie channels. It's a sad list: the Fifth Ave. Cinema, the New Yorker, the Biograph, the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Elgin, and more. Some were torn down to make room for the building spree of the 1980s. The Regency was taken over by then-expansive Cineplex Odeon Corp. and turned into a first-run theater in 1987. The Elgin was renovated for use as a dance theater. The Biograph was a chronic money-loser when parent Cineplex Odeon rang the curtain down in 1991 after a short run.

Now, with commercial real estate prices way down and 1990's New Yorkers seeking affordable entertainment, revival theaters could be poised for a comeback. The Thalia joins a growing list of venues for classic, cult, or obscure movies. In 1991, soon after the Biograph closed, the not-for-profit Film Forum in Greenwich Village began running old films on one of its three screens. Earlier this year, cineast Frank Rowley leased the Gramercy Theater on East 23rd Street from Samuel Goldwyn Co. and turned it into a revival house. (Now showing: Elizabeth Taylor in 28 of her 54 features, through October.) With classics also being screened routinely at the Museum of Modern Art, the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, and the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York's movie buffs should be all smiles.

Happy ending? Not yet. Revival venues are never far from the edge. Try making a buck with a theater that only shows old movies. Even now, rents are far from cheap, the revival-house business is labor-intensive compared with mall multiplexes, and a whole generation of film lovers now rents videocassettes instead of going out to see films on the big screen.

"Revival houses are extremely expensive to run, especially if you do it right," says Karen Cooper, director of the Film Forum. She and her partner, Bruce Goldstein, spent more than $40,000 during one recent silent-movie festival--live accompanists aren't cheap, for one thing. Then there are schedules to produce--essential for a bill that may change daily. There are no film distributors to pay for advertising, as with new releases. And box-office revenues vary wildly, depending on the film. "Nobody ever got rich running a revival theater," says the Gramercy's Rowley. "But money's not the reason you do it."

"LIKE EGG CREAMS." The revival-house movement began here during World War II, when the flow of films from Europe dried up for U.S. art theaters. Ever since, New Yorkers have loved places such as the Thalia. "New York had revival houses before anyone else," says Goldstein, director of repertory programming for the Film Forum. "It's a New York tradition, like egg creams."

Moreover, it's a tradition that helped spawn a generation of filmmakers. Revival theaters have always been a sort of film-school annex. "They're the only way you can see and study the work of other actors and directors," says actress Miles. "If you haven't got an idea of history, how can you work in the present?" Director Martin Scorsese spent whole summers at the Thalia as a teenager in New York in the 1950s. "The Thalia would become a major touchstone in my film education," he wrote in a telegram read at the reopening. "I saw Citizen Kane on the big screen for the very first time at the Thalia. I saw documentaries...which had previously been unknown and inaccessible to me and which opened up a whole new world."

Woody Allen, whose movies are larded with allusions to classic films, was another such student of the art. He donated a director's print of Annie Hall for the opening night gala at the Thalia (the theater itself is a set in the film).

Allen's own classics are most likely to be seen on the small screens in dens and living rooms these days. "Video ruined the business," says film critic Judith Crist. In 1978, when there were a dozen revival houses in Manhattan, just 402 American households had videocassette recorders, according to the Electronic Industries Assn. Now, there are more than 44 million VCRs in use nationwide, and 320,000 more will be sold this year, the EIA estimates.

BURRITO WASTELAND. But cineasts--and who in Manhattan isn't one?--know that there's no substitute for the big silver screen. "There are some movies you should never see on a small screen, like Lawrence of Arabia or all of John Ford's pictures," says Crist. "I don't want to watch Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing and being the size of Barbie and Ken. I want them to be larger than life, as I hold them in my heart."

Me, too. But when I moved to Manhattan from California in 1991, I immediately discovered two major shortcomings: You couldn't get a decent burrito, and there weren't many revival theaters. As a kid in Los Angeles, I used to go with my dad and two brothers to the funky old Fox Theater in Venice, where we'd see vintage Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, along with the occasional Marx Brothers comedy.

But I really became a classic-movie hound after college, when I lived for several years in Palo Alto, Calif., home of the Stanford Theater. Until 1989, the Stanford had been just another has-been downtown movie house, slated to be razed. Then David W. Packard, son of the computer-giant co-founder and himself a classic-movie convert, bought the theater and spared no expense restoring it to its original Art Deco splendor. From old photographs, he painstakingly recreated the elaborate ceiling murals and had them painted by the son of the original artisan. He found old molds of the original Spanish-style tiles and used them in the fountains and stairways. I'd often take in a flick on weeknights--Queen Christina, say, or The Maltese Falcon--and he'd be there, sitting quietly in the dark shadows of the balcony.

DREAM FACTOR. Roy Ennacheril, the savior of the Thalia, lacks Packard's millions, but he is determined to try and make a go of this foray into exhibitorship. When he first immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1973, he worked in a hardware store across the street from the Thalia. He and his son spent many an afternoon there, he says. Both were upset when it was boarded up and left derelict. Ennacheril kept the idea of reopening the place in the back of his mind as he started his own real-estate-development business and watched it grow. Now, he leases the Thalia from the developer that owns it.

He poured more than $150,000 into cleaning up the Thalia and is relying on its venerable reputation--and neighborhood regulars--to keep it open. With its mix of yuppies, intellectuals, and senior citizens, "you can't get a better location for a revival theater than the Upper West Side," says Ennacheril.

But will New Yorkers truly support their revival houses this time? Will there soon be more? "Let's concentrate on keeping the ones that are already open in business," says Sylvia Miles. "You don't need a revival theater on every corner." Perhaps not. But you need a few reliable ones, I think. They're the stuff that dreams are made of.

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