It may be the hippest art-house movie theater in the city — the Village Vanguard of its ilk. Down a steep escalator in the basement of a high-rise opposite Lincoln Center, the lobby of Lincoln Plaza Cinema has stylish French movie posters gracing its lilac walls, much like the photos of jazz greats that warm the basement walls of the mecca of all jazz clubs. Both are temples to their art forms.
But for the Jewish community, Lincoln Plaza is more than just a hip outpost — it’s part of the Jewish cultural fabric of the city, screening countless Jewish- and Holocaust-themed films, Israeli features and, of course, Woody Allen movies. So news of its closing on Friday — it will shutter its doors in January after 36 years — seemed to some culture watchers to be a continuation of an ominous trend on the Upper West Side.
“Its essence was bookishly and cinematically Jewish.”
The closing, Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and director of NYU’s Forum on Law, Culture and Society, told The Jewish Week in an email, is “yet another casualty of a digital death and the dumbing down of our culture. There was a time when all along Broadway, from Lincoln Center to Columbia University, featured art house theaters and bookstores.
“And while they catered to everyone, its essence was bookishly and cinematically Jewish. Today, the boulevard showcases banks, Starbucks and chain drug stores. That romantic world of New York Jewish culture is as dead as the shtetl that it was once compared to, and nothing as interesting or distinctively Jewish is there to replace it — not even bagel shops.”
Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” said in an email, “For the past 30 years, the Lincoln Plaza has been indispensable. For me, it’s the jewel in the crown of art-house movie theaters in New York City, especially for Jewish-themed films like the superb Hungarian Holocaust drama “1945” (which has been playing there for weeks). If [Lincoln Plaza’s co-founder] Dan Talbot presented ‘Shoah’ in its nine-hour entirety at his previous Manhattan theater, Cinema Studio, Lincoln Plaza continued to be the launching pad for movies anchored in Jewish identity, including Israeli cinema (i.e. ‘The Women’s Balcony’ and ‘The Wedding Plan’).”
The founders of Lincoln Plaza and the film distribution company New Yorker Films, Daniel and Toby Talbot opened the New Yorker Theater art house in 1973, then Cinema Studios, near Lincoln Center, in 1977. (They were the precursors to Lincoln Plaza, which the pair opened in 1981.) The Thalia art house on Broadway and 95th Street closed in 1987 but was reborn in 2006 with the reopening of Symphony Space.
“That romantic world of New York Jewish culture is as dead as the shtetl that it was once compared to…”
Standing in line in Lincoln Plaza’s lobby was like getting an education in New York Jewish life: baby boomer writers discussing Roth and Bellow, Greatest Generation retirees wondering if the Woodman still had it and Modern Orthodox millennials on a cool date night. They all had their opinions and they all crossed paths at Lincoln Plaza, soaking up the foreign-language and quirky domestic films that you could see almost nowhere else.
According to a statement emailed to The New York Times, Millstein Properties, which owns the building at 30 Lincoln Plaza, said that after renovations “we expect to reopen the space as a cinema,” but a company spokesman told the paper that whether the Talbots would operate the new cinema was uncertain.
The Talbots, Insdorf said, “are among my ‘heroes’ of film exhibition, always demonstrating impeccable as well as eclectic taste. Lincoln Plaza has been not simply the premier venue for documentaries like ‘Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg’ and ‘Watchers of the Sky,’ but the theater where an indie gem like the Yiddish-language ‘Menashe’ could prove its commercial potential before moving to other theaters.”
Filmmakers were absorbing the news of Lincoln Plaza’s demise this week.
The cinema, Danae Elon, whose documentary “P.S. Jerusalem” screened there last winter, told The Jewish Week, “was an anchor for all that I dreamed of when I aspired to be a filmmaker. Having the honor of screening my documentary there was a stamp of approval deeply rooted is a love for cinema, a place where Jewish audiences as well as others would see films regardless of a Jewish film festival’s political or social agenda.”
Continued Elon: “I experience the closing of this long-standing institution as a personal loss, not only for my own work but for those whom Dan and Toby gave a voice, unconstrained by the commercial outlook of a film; it’s a place where one could see cinema in a place that believed in cinema. This is a great loss to the independent film community.”
Lincoln Plaza is the kind of place where you might play hooky on a Thursday afternoon on the last day of Atom Egoyan’s “Remember,” a gut-wrenching aftermath-of-the-Holocaust film starring Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau, and run into Bill Moyers. Fans of art-house films will always remember Lincoln Square Cinema, the basement space that can send you home uplifted.