Last night at 10pm in New York City, the Ziegfeld Theater returned to its glorious heyday one final time. With a jam-packed house of movie lovers and a blockbuster extravaganza set to grace the big screen (that would be “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), the final showing before the theater shut its doors for good was like reliving the golden age of movie palaces all over again. Of course, this wasn’t the case for the Ziegfeld for quite some time, but while the irony of its packed final screening certainly permeated the air, it was impossible to deny how it solidified the importance of its famed legacy.
READ MORE: New York City’s Iconic Ziegfeld Theater Closing Down After 47 Years
For nearly five decades, the Ziegfeld, which opened in 1969 on W. 54th street, hosted some of cinema’s most legendary premieres, from classics like “Cabaret” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to re-releases of “Lawrence of Arabia” and blockbusters like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” While it will soon be turned into a high-end event ballroom for corporate events and social galas, cinephiles will forever have their memories of the sacred space, which until last night was the only large-scale single-screen theater left in New York City.
To mark the Ziegfeld’s closing, Indiewire reached out to some of the top filmmakers, distributors and executives in the industry to share their fondest memories of the theater. Below, all of them pay their respects.
Martin Scorsese, Director
Well, this really is the end of an era of moviegoing. It’s a question of scale. When I was young, there were so many theatres in the city that were on the scale of the Ziegfeld. One by one, they disappeared. The multiplexes – it’s just not the same thing, even if stadium seating is more comfortable. I know that things come to an end, but for someone who grew up in an earlier era, this particular ending is quite a sad one. It means a lot to me that we did the “Vinyl” premiere there at the Ziegfeld.
Spike Lee, Writer/Director
The Closing Of The Ziegfeld Theatre Is A Major Blow To The Culture Of New York City. I Don’t Understand Why It Wasn’t Declared A City Landmark Years Ago. Going To Watch Movies In My Youth At The Ziegfeld Was Where I Began To Think Maybe One Day I Could Be A Filmmaker Too. This Was The Best Place Not Just In NYC But The World To See A Film, The Best Projection, Best Sound, Best Everything. I Have Had The Honor To Have Many Premieres At The Ziegfeld Including DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM And Most Recently CHI-RAQ. With All The Billionaire Art Patrons That Reside In NYC Why Wasn’t A Plan Put In A Place To Save This Major Cultural Institution. Would This Have Ever Happened To Lincoln Center Or Carnegie Hall? Is Film A Bald Headed, Buck Toothed Step Child In The Hierarchy Of The Arts? The Sad Thing There Is Nothing To Replace The Ziegfeld Theatre. New York Real Estate Strikes Again, Now It Will Be A Ballroom. Jesus H. Christ, Sad Times For Cinema In The Big Apple. Spike Lee-Filmmaker. Da Republic Of Brooklyn, NY. January 29, 2016.
Jane Rosenthal, producer and founder/executive chair of Tribeca Enterprises/Tribeca Film Festival.
The first time I was in the Ziegfeld was 1973 to see Mike Nichols’ “Day of the Dolphin.” Being from Providence, Rhode Island I had never been in a theatre like it in my life — the grand stairs, the ornate ceiling, velvet ropes and curtain. The cases of costumes of the Ziegfeld girls. Sitting in the dark watching the film was like no other movie experience — the quality of the projection, the extraordinary sound. I dreamed that one day I would be able to produce a movie to play the Ziegfeld. I have been fortunate to have many films premiere at the Ziegfeld that I have produced and with the Tribeca Film Festival even more premieres and memories. We are losing a part of our New York cinematic history and tradition with the Ziegfeld closing. And I feel like I am losing a home.
Ava DuVernay, director of “Selma” and founder of ARRAY
I planned many premieres at the Zeigfeld as a publicist. It meant something to the filmmakers to project their work in a place where so many gems of cinema had unspooled before. And when I had the thrill of debuting my own film “Selma” there as a director, I felt the same. It was as if our picture was somehow now a part of a grand legacy. It will be missed but not forgotten.
Neal Block, Head of Distribution, Magnolia Pictures
Once, several years ago, when Craig Zeltner was booking the Zig, he invited me to watch a Mets game broadcast live on the Zig’s giant screen. It was the first time I’d be watching a sporting event at a movie theater, and I didn’t know what to expect. I arrived late, during the second inning, and the lobby was a ghost town. One usher at the escalator, no patrons. I rode upstairs expecting to watch the Mets lose the game alone in a cavernous room, but I walked into the auditorium to find 1100 fans on their feet, blue and orange bright against all the dark velvet, popcorn on the floor. I found an empty single seat in the back and watched the Mets lose in the nicest place I’d ever seen the Mets lose (this was pre-Citi Field). The Ziegfeld’s closing is more proof (as if we needed more) that operating single-screen cinemas is an unforgiving business. I will miss the luxury of sitting in that room, and how the experience was elevated by the surroundings, regardless of what you were watching.
Ed Lachman, cinematographer
Another by Gone Era, more of our images lost on the big screen!
Kent Jones, Director of Programmer at Film Society of Lincoln Center/New York Film Festival
The first time I went to the Ziegfeld was to see Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” The sound — you just don’t forget something like that. The way that the theater is constructed, too, I never forgot, with that little ally between 54th and 55th street, the enormity of it, it was something I remember vividly the first time I ever walked in there. Back in those days, there were other theaters that were big still left in Manhattan. But they were all gone, and the Ziegfeld, for years, has survived. I don’t know how. It’s hard for me to imagine opening up a theater of that scale again, that’s for sure.
Somebody mentioned this in a piece somewhere, but I think part of the closing has to do with just demographics stuff. It’s just not an area uptown that is where the traffic is anymore. It’s not as dense as it once was. It used to be the area uptown where people opened their movies. If you saw a first-run movie that was interesting, you’d go to the direction of the east side to all those theaters. That’s not so much the case anymore.
The last time I was there it was just me and my sons in the audience really. I was there for the opening night of “Interstellar,” and even that wasn’t packed. The model of what a movie theater is has changed and people want a new experience. The Chinese Theater out in Hollywood, for instance, that has been turned into an IMAX Theater, and the Ziegfeld was never inclined to be that.
I’m glad I was alive in its heyday.
Jacob Perlin, Programming & Artistic Director at Metrograph
I can still see the title card of “Spartacus” stretching across the screen of the Ziegfeld – a memory from my teenage years that I find is regularly shared with many of my generation. “The Thin Red Line,” “Metropolis,” “Raging Bull,” “Blade Runner” are all films that will forever be linked in my mind to this theater. It wasn’t the biggest room in town, that was the Astor Plaza. But it was always the place that whatever you saw felt special by virtue of it being THERE. That is what will disappear with the closing of the Ziegfeld. It was the one theater left in Manhattan where the movie and the theater would always be united in memory. A theater that you went to just to be able to see a film there. A theater that made being a spectator special. A theater that awed you in a way I imagine the Loews Paradise did for our parents. I won’t mourn that I will never get to see a film in a theater like the Ziegfeld, which played such a part in my love of the presentation of cinema, but I will for all those who will never know the wonderful feeling of associating a viewing experience deeply felt with both the film being seen and the place where one sees it.
Alexander Olch, Metrograph Founder
My Dad snuck me into the “Lawrence of Arabia” revival at the Ziegfeld when I was 12. Crowds around the block, the massive room, the movie – all the magic I felt that afternoon awakened a passion in me. 20 years later, the year Lincoln Center was under construction – the New York Film Festival was held on 54th Street, and the first public screening of a film I directed, “The Windmill Movie,” was at the Ziegfeld. I visited a few days before, for the tech check, shyly knocked at the Projection Room door, and explained I was proud to be there, that I had first come when I was with my Dad to see “Lawrence of Arabia.” “The Revival, that was 20 years ago,” the Head Projectionist said, “I projected that.” He smiled. “Go out in the house and check the focus, kid.”
I will be there tonight, with my Dad, for the very last screening – 10pm of Star Wars. It will be in some ways exciting, but ultimately melancholy, to pay my deepest respects to a place which I consider holy.
Richard Abramowitz, President of Abramorama
These are the times we live in: the big screen where I saw “Barry Lyndon” in ’74 – because were else would you possibly have wanted to see that? – and “Apocalypse Now” – because where else would you possibly have wanted to see that? – among many, many, many others, will soon be gone. It’s been a long time coming, given the development of urban multiplexes and release strategies over the years, but it’s still a sad day for everyone, young and old, who won’t have the privilege of that spectacular experience.”
Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming, Film Forum, and founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures
The closing of the Ziegfeld is no shock – it was just a matter of time before the inevitable happened. I don’t think the theater was used to its greatest potential in the past few years. In my opinion, its smartest booking in recent years is its last: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” That’s the kind event the Ziegfeld was made for and I wouldn’t be surprised if it proves to be its highest-ever gross (especially with the announcement of the closing).
I have many Ziegfeld memories going back almost to the beginning, when, in 1970, I sat through three vintage MGM Ziegfeld movies (“The Great Ziegfeld,” “Ziegfeld Girl,” “Ziegfeld Follies”), which the theater advertised with a huge ad in The New York Times. That was one long triple feature — over seven hours — and quite a slog, but the place was packed and it was then a novelty to see William Powell, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Jimmy Stewart, and Fred Astaire projected on an enormous screen. It still is.
I’m amazed at how many revivals the theater hosted: “Gone with the Wind,” “The Jolson Story” (unbelievably: I was one of maybe 10 people among the 1,131 seats at a matinee), “Sweet Smell of Success” (at a weeklong tribute to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas), “2001,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Funny Girl,” and of course “Lawrence of Arabia.” I even produced a revival event there myself: in the early 90s, Film Forum presented Buster Keaton’s 1928 silent comedy “The Cameraman” there, with a live orchestral accompaniment by Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks.
The Ziegfeld even courted controversy. I remember huge demonstrations outside the theater by religious fanatics when it ran Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (the theater was pretty full – helped no doubt by the protests) and by disabled veterans when, in 1989, it ran Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” the true story of wheelchair-bound paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise). The Ziegfeld, you see, was not wheelchair-accessible: the entrance was via escalator.
It was not really an old theater, as many people still think. It only opened in 1969, long after the golden age of the movie palace. It was named after the theatrical showman Florenz Ziegfeld because just three years earlier the city lost the original Ziegfeld Theatre, a legitimate playhouse which stood only a few feet away on 54th Street. That Ziegfeld was torn down after only 39 years in operation. But with the demolition of every other single screen movie theater in the city (besides the Paris, the city’s few remaining movies palaces, including Radio City Music Hall and the recently-restored Loews Kings in Brooklyn, have all been repurposed for non-movie events.), the second Ziegfeld became New York’s de facto movie palace. Its closing as a place to see movies on a big screen (with curtains yet) is a obviously a great loss to the life of our city. And it makes us one of the few big cities in America unable to support something like this. Still, it’s been a 47-year run. Eight more than the first Ziegfeld. In New York, that’s ancient.
My earliest memories are going as a child and young teenager. I remember seeing specific movies there, which is extraordinary if you think about it. If you look back in your memory and you try to think of where you saw a particular movie that was meaningful to you, it’s almost impossible to say, ‘oh, I saw that at the Loew’s 84th street or I saw that at the cineplex in Chelsea,’ you just don’t remember the movie theater. The experience of seeing a movie at the Ziegfeld was so distinct and that is an indicator of how important the venue has been to the New York movie going experience.
I started the company Moviefone and if a movie was playing at the Ziegfeld and was also playing at any other theater in Manhattan, the Ziegfeld would always get a disproportionately high number of moviegoers choosing it because the experience of seeing it there was so much better.
One memory I have is going to see the restored version of David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and it was such a remarkable experience because that was a film my parents had seen when they were young. Usually when your parents tell you there is a movie you should see in today’s world, you know you are never going to see it the way they saw it. The idea that I could see a restored print on the giant screen was incredibly powerful and has stayed with me until today.
Just as a place to see premieres, I think the disappearance of the theater, in favor of whatever idiotic thing is going to go in there, is heart-breaking. I think to some extent it signals a fundamental shift of the experience of seeing movies. You could see the closing of the Ziegfeld as kind of a corollary to the rapid growth of Netflix and other services that let you watch movies at home or your iPhone. It’s not a coincidence that those two things are happening at the same time.
Gabriele Caroti, Director, BAMcinématek
I’m deeply saddened by the closing of the Ziegfeld Theatre; I’ve been going there for almost two decades and the second I set foot in New York I seeked it out. An early experience there was Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”—a night I’ll never forget. I remember thinking, “There’s no other way to see a movie. Why would anyone go anywhere else?” Over the years I’ve watched many, many movies there, from the last Indiana Jones, and those beloved Star Wars prequels, and in 2008, the New York Film Festival—Lucrecia Martel in ’Scope, no less! And each time a new Bond opened, my friend Ryan organized a 30-person Ziegfeld outing… we were all there this past November, watching Daniel Craig meet Blofeld for the first time. (That is, after pissing people off by holding rows of seats…)
The Ziegfeld is (I really don’t want to say “was”) a monument to a vanished New York, a New York I saw in the movies, a New York I wanted to be part of. It was also a dream of mine to show films there, and, actually, I had something percolating that required the sumptuousness of the Ziegfeld—not a possibility now, alas. I hope that the new renters will reconsider closing it completely, keep the projection, and somehow have it still be operational for films on a part time basis, preserving its heritage.