Monday, January 25, 2016

The Ziegfeld


By now you've probably heard the news that the Ziegfeld movie theater will be closing after 46 years.

It is "not a movie palace from the golden-age of movie palaces," as James Barron recently pointed out. But it was modeled on them, upholstered in red velvet with crystal chandeliers and plaster filigree.

It is not the original Ziegfeld, opened in 1927 and demolished in 1966 against public protest. The original was meant for live theater, the Ziegfeld Follies, not movies. When it opened, Will Rogers said, "I hope you never have to put in a movie screen." But it did eventually become a movie house, before it was sold, razed (along with two apartment buildings), and replaced by a skyscraper.

When the current Ziegfeld opened, the owners celebrated its "space-age technology." Ziegfeld's daughter, Patricia, remarked, "Progress seems to do nasty things to tradition, doesn't it?" But, she continued, "tradition has been preserved in this new theater... I'm sure Daddy would have approved of it since everything is so Ziegfeldian."

On Saturday nights, for a short time, formal attire was required by moviegoers.

The Ziegfeld is also not--as many are saying--the last single-screen movie theater in Manhattan. For that, we still have The Paris, which dates back to 1948.

What the Ziegfeld is, more than anything, more than any other, is enormous. The auditorium is vast, with rows of red seats stretching back and up into the horizon. It was a thrill whenever a blockbuster played at the Ziegfeld because that's where you'd want to see it. Big movies need big screens in big auditoriums. And when you went to a movie there, it felt like a special occasion--like an event.

The Ziegfeld has history. Forty-six years is not a century, but it's still a significant vintage. And attached to that forty-six years is the name. Ziegfeld! So New York.

And with vitrines placed throughout the lobby, it also houses the Ziegfeld Museum, a collection of artifacts from the original Follies.

What will happen to the Ziegfeld Museum? To the costumes that once belonged to divas like Lillian Lorraine? And to the programs and photographs from other performers long gone? And the bust of Fanny Brice? What will happen to the bust of Fanny Brice?

Not to mention the weird "STORY OF THIS WOOD" plaque screwed to the wall, informing moviegoers: "Carbon 14-isotope dating shows this wood has been buried in a peat bog near Cambridge, England, since 2120 B.C."

What will happen to all that when the Ziegfeld becomes an upscale corporate event space?

The first movie to play in this theater, back in 1969, was Marooned, a space-age thriller. The last movie will be Star Wars, another story in outer space. What does it all mean?

We hear Thursday may be the last day.

During this weekend's blizzard, New Yorkers lined up to get inside. To say goodbye. They took pictures of the old place. They stroked the velvet walls. They stood in the long, wide aisles of the auditorium and bemoaned the coming destruction. One man looked up at the sky-high ceiling and said, to no one in particular, "Where else can you have an experience like this?"


Unknown said...

I was just there to watch Star Wars. Didn't know at the time it was losing. Glad I went.

Christopher Bussmann said...

A huge loss for NYC cinema!

James said...

The current Ziegfeld was one where I also saw Apollo 13, in keeping with the space theme.
I always thought it was kind of a large mall theater with late-60's Victorian-styled trappings added to it. Even that is 'period' now. Nevertheless - nicer than the usual experience, certainly.

Be sure to add Radio City Music Hall to your list of single-screen theaters. Add Loew's 175th Street too, as it is still setup to show films on occasion.

I look at the vast collection of seats in the house of Ziegfeld and know that so many have traded those seats for a screen hanging on the wall at home -- even for screens that fit in the hand. I wish we could trade back a little.

I still miss the Paramount on Columbus Circle, the original Metro on 99th, the Biograph (New Carnegie) on West 57th, and all those theaters on the East Side which once were the obvious choice as places to go to kill a good afternoon in Manhattan. What are we doing?

James said...

Ah - and let's not forget the Walter Reade. A nice cinemateque

Donnie Moder said...

Nice article.

Ms. Mercenary said...

I was going to write you about this. Sad.

On a different matter, did you see this on Buzzfeed? Found it interesting (and also sad):

Mr. Space said...

I remember seeing The Great Muppet Caper there as a kid. Then, of course, many of the big films from the last 20 years like Titanic, Private Ryan, the Star Wars re-releases. Anyone who says they saw Raiders there in 1981 is lying. It didn't show there during its initial run.