The Thalia Theater, located at 95th and Broadway, was one of Manhattan’s greatest revival houses, and I pretty much grew up there. It opened in 1931, and closed in the mid 1980s.
The still above is from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), and I’d use another still if it were available, but sadly this is the only one I could find on the web, other than a shot taken just before the theatre’s demise. From the 1930s through the early 1980s, The Thalia was the place to see foreign films, classic Hollywood films, all night marathons of noir films, the collected works of Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and others; wildly eclectic double and triple bills, projected by one of the best booth crews in the city. In what would prove to be the last days of 35mm projection, the Thalia ran their prints with dazzling brilliance, and the audience was both demanding and appreciative of their efforts.
Woe betide the Thalia projectionist who left the image just one point out of focus; within seconds, the entire house would erupt with fury, pounding on the projection room door, screaming “focus!” or “frame!” or “sound level!”, all of which would be instantly corrected. The Thalia was a one-screen theater, of course, and it was kind of a funky place, right next to a great deli on the one hand (bring your own sandwiches, if you feel like it), and a secondhand bookstore on the other side (you can see it in the image above), and it was above all a place where people who loved movies, and were knowledgable about them, congregated on a daily basis from noon to midnight, to see some of the greatest motion pictures ever made projected with immaculate perfection.
Indeed, one of my most indelible and cherished memories of the Thalia is attending a packed, marathon five-hour screening of Fritz Lang’s complete, two part Die Nibelungen Saga, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, with my wife Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, augmented by a live piano accompaniment by the gifted Steve Sterner, using long sections of Wagner as the main themes, which had the crowd on its feet ecstatically cheering as the film ended at the stroke of midnight.
I also remember fondly that in the early 1980s, the Thalia ran a year-long “Wednesday film noir” series of triple bills, with everything run in 35mm, of course, and always in the proper aspect ratio; this is where Gwendolyn and I first saw Irving Pichel’s delirious noir They Won’t Believe Me, on a hot summer afternoon, as part of a triple bill of noirs — all for about $10 admission for all three.
Above all, I remember the intelligence and erudition of the audience, who knew film history and criticism through and through; the Thalia’s programming ran from high to low art, with every possible stop inbetween, running a heady mixture of classics and pop filmmaking, but all of it was taken on its own terms by the audience, who were always enthusiastic about the Thalia’s diverse programming.
There was a resolutely communal dynamic to the Thalia’s audience, one we’re unlikely to see again. While it’s convenient to screen a film on your laptop, there’s something to be said for sitting in an auditorium with several hundred other viewers who absolutely understand what they’re seeing, know film history, and have a real devotion to film as an art form. Often, discussions would break out spontaneously during intermissions, and spill out on to the street in front of the theater, and friendships and alliances were often formed; it also was an unusual audience in that many of the spectators were also filmmakers themselves.
There were other great repertory houses as well, such as now-defunct The New Yorker, and the excellent revival house Film Forum, which holds dazzling screenings of classic films in their original 35mm format down in the Village, but there was something about the Thalia that set it apart; a place where films were screened to their best possible advantage by skilled technicians for audiences that deeply appreciated their efforts, resulting in a completely immersive experience that served as the backbone of more than one critic’s cinematic education. The Thalia is gone now, but the need for revival houses remains undiminished; with the switch to digital DCPs, though, those 35mm prints are just a memory.
But all I can say is this; if you didn’t experience this, you missed something — something valuable, vital and irreplaceable. Seeing a film on a huge screen with an enthused and informed audience; there’s really nothing else like it. It’s really the only way to really experience a film, then or now.