By Carol Tannenhauser
Toby Talbot knows as little about the future of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas as the rest of us. The theater’s landlord, Howard Milstein, informed her and her late husband Dan Talbot that their lease would not be renewed when it expires at the end of January, ending a 37-year-run for the beloved movie house. But since then Milstein has been unreachable, she said.
“He simply said, ‘We’ve had a great 37-year run,’ and then didn’t return any calls,” Talbot, 89, told WSR in a phone interview last week. “I haven’t heard from him since Dan died. I’m not surprised. We weren’t friends; we were just business associates. He was a financial partner in the theater. He didn’t have anything to do with booking.
“In my view, he has either decided that he can get a greater rent on the theater — though he never proposed that we pay a greater rent — or he has some project in mind and I’m not in his confidence, so I don’t know what that is or who it includes or incorporates. I sincerely hope that some commercial chain doesn’t enter and play run-of-the-mill movies, because we devoted our lives to playing special movies there.”
A spokesperson for Milstein Properties maintained that the only “project” at hand is renovations — and that Talbot’s fears are unfounded.
“There is vital structural work needed to repair and waterproof the plaza surrounding the building that cannot be completed while the space is in use and will begin now that the cinema’s lease has expired. At the completion of this work, we expect to re-open the space as a cinema that will maintain its cultural legacy far into the future.”
The representative expressed Milstein’s “profound sadness” at Dan Talbot’s death, but didn’t say anything about Talbot’s other contentions, or answer a question about whether Toby Talbot and rest of the Lincoln Plaza team will be part of the new theater.
“Of course I would like to continue running it,” Toby Talbot said. “And one of the things that grieves me — grieves is hardly even a strong enough word — is that the people who’ve been working with us — and I say not ‘for’ us, but ‘with’ us, some for 35 years — are so devoted, I just hate to think of them suddenly being out of jobs. The people on our staff come from all over the globe. It’s a United Nations down there. It’s a harmonious place, run with a very hands-on perspective. I’ve been the one who has chosen everything at the confection stand. Almost every pastry comes from a different place.”
“I’m hesitant to go there now,” she revealed, “because I’m flooded with people who come to the theater upset, protesting, frustrated. What else can I say? I have no recourse, as far as I know. He is the landlord and he has the legal right to do with his property what he wishes to do. He’s a very, very wealthy man. I don’t know what’s on his mind.”
According to IndieWire, it could be Lincoln Center.
“IndieWire learned from multiple sources that, a year ago, Milstein spoke with at least one party as a future credible operator: the nonprofit Film Society of Lincoln Center. That might suggest his company maintained real interest in continuing the theater, with similar programming.”
“It may very well be Lincoln Center,” Talbot said. “Lincoln Center is a nonprofit organization with a very wealthy board. A nonprofit could pay a greater amount of rent and just factor it in. I don’t know what conversations he has had with them, or how far it has gone.”
A spokesperson for The Film Society said, “Regarding reports that we have met with Mr. Milstein about Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, our response is ‘no comment.’”
Lesli Klainberg, Executive Director of the Film Society, added that “What [the Talbots] have accomplished here on the Upper West Side has been an inspiration to us and to movie exhibitors across the city and the U.S. Their belief in the importance of cinema as an art form has been clearly put into practice at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas for decades. And it’s a principle we will continue to prize here at the Film Society.”
Talbot is now pinning her hopes to run the theater on politicians and petitions.
“The only thing that could possibly be done,” she said, “is if significant political pressure is exerted by our elected officials, saying this isn’t a matter of just economics, but of a cinema culture that has been established for three-and-a-half decades in that spot, with people who are very bereft to be deprived of it.” A petition to save the theater was started last month.
Is there any chance Talbot would open in a new location?
“I don’t know,” she responded. “Someone would have to spearhead that. There is a cinema we used to own, the Metro, and that seems to still be vacant. But half of the tenants at Mr. Milstein’s building virtually live at our theater. I don’t know how eager they’d be to go up to 100th Street. And major art film distributors have always come to us with their films. I don’t know if they would want to be up on 100th Street.
“I’m sorry I can’t be more definitive,” she concluded, “but this is how it is. I’m grieving over my husband. We knew each other for 70 years and were married for 68. I’m happy to give you any information, but I’m not in the mood for much else.”
Photos by Carol Tannenhauser. Toby Talbot photo via The New School.