By Amelia Roth-Dishy
57th Street between 11th and 12th, with its minimal pedestrian traffic and austere high-rises, is an inhospitable block for commercial enterprise. But in 2017, indie movie theater chain Landmark Theaters stared down this barren stretch of condos and accepted the challenge. They opened a location in the ground floor of the VIA Building, with the Durst Corporation as landlords. The so-called Landmark at 57 West offered an eclectic mix of blockbusters and festival darlings and, apparently, popcorn with real butter. Our appreciation for the arty new kid in town increased after Lincoln Plaza Cinemas tragically closed in 2018.
However, after three years of half-empty screenings and five months of a pandemic, Landmark announced earlier this week that the theater will permanently go dark. It’s difficult to mourn the loss of a storefront while so much actual loss pervades. Still, for those of us south of 72nd Street, the Landmark had become somewhat of a neighborhood institution. Never mind that the name more strongly connoted a swanky hotel than an uptown Angelika, or that the building’s triangular facade spilled into a sleek, airport-lounge interior with a weirdly shiny ticket-taking podium. We loved the Landmark for everything that made it special, including its defiant lack of interest in approximating downtown cool.
For one, the Landmark sold Yonah Schimmel knishes at the concession stand. They offered other specialty foods— I vaguely remember pretzels, maybe an ice cream sandwich— but our little ancestral potato pockets stole the show and set the theater miles apart from its competitors. My sister put it best in her lamentation for the family group chat: “WHERE ELSE CAN YOU SIT IN A NEAR EMPTY THEATER AND WATCH A COMBINATION OF NORMAL AND SLIGHTLY INDIE MOVIES ALL WHILE EATING MINIATURE JONAH [sic] SCHIMMEL KNISHES [?] NOWHERE, I TELL YOU, NOWHERE!!!!!” I’ll note that she and I made knishes during quarantine and, while they tasted fine, we did not have a sufficiently plush reclining chair on hand to recreate the Landmark at 57 West experience.
The theater also understood the bizarreness of its location and went to great lengths to make patrons comfortable as they waited for a friend to walk from the 57th and 7th NQR stop or for an aunt on 86th Street to figure out Lyft. If your moviegoing party was convening at the theater, those who arrived early could nurse an adult beverage (or a ginger ale) at the full-service bar, mysteriously named “JD’s Place.” Who is JD? A cadre of lawyers with mixology backgrounds? A lesser-known Durst? My high school boyfriend? Alas, we’ll never know.
But the Landmark’s greatest attribute was its diverse slate of popular and hard-to-find films. Before COVID, the theater was showing, among other things, “The Booksellers,” a quirky documentary about NYC’s most literary collectors; “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” an art world thriller inexplicably starring Mick Jagger; and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” for the zeitgeist-inclined. I saw “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Little Women” there; I also saw “Maiden,” a documentary about an all-female sailing team, and a special showing of the 2020 Oscar-nominated animated shorts. Their eight-screen rotation was unparalleled in the city’s indie theater market and notably unpretentious, giving overlooked dramas, foreign gems, and intimate documentaries the same weight as awards contenders and summer blockbusters. Landmark knew what the people of the lower Upper West Side wanted from their local independent cinema: the Aretha Franklin documentary and “The Irishman” and the latest Star Wars installment. And they consistently delivered on all fronts.
Of course, parts of what made the theater so pleasant were symptoms of what made it unsustainable. There was plenty of room to stretch out, as the theaters were never full. The sparkling and well-appointed bathrooms were always empty. It was a short walk from our apartment and also for anyone who lives in the nonsense enclave of “Waterline Square” or a houseboat on the Hudson River. We patronized the Landmark at 57 West vigorously and with bated breath, knowing deep down that its days were numbered despite our best efforts.
Landmark is apparently eyeing new spaces further uptown. In the meantime, we still have the Elinor Bunin at Lincoln Center, plus the AMCs at 68th and 84th (and 125th, and Times Square.) Indeed, a series of banalities about the death of the cinema would be somewhat spurious here. But those theaters are not the same. And they definitely don’t sell knishes.
Photo via Landmark at 57 West.