Weekend Column: One Last Knish Goodbye to The Landmark Theater, An Upper West Sider’s Half-Empty Hideaway

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.

ART, COLUMNS | 40 comments | permalink
    1. Bob Lamm says:

      I’m very sad to read this. While the location of the Landmark was inconvenient for me, the theaters were lovely, the staff was nice, and the selection of films shown there was wonderful. I hope that in time they’re able to open further uptown, as suggested in this piece.

    2. Upper Bester Than You! says:

      I was a frequent patron of this great movie theater and I will miss going to see movies here. It was worth the walk from the Columbus Circle subway station to see great indie films here. Even on cold winter nights it was a welcoming oasis of cinema! I liked seeing the diverse crowds here: Students, Artists, Seniors,Yuppies,Actors, Musicians,Tech People and Normal Folks too! The ushers and concessions people were super warm and friendly to solo film viewing folks like myself. The sound system and picture quality inside of each theater was state-of-the-art. The reclining seats were so comfortable that you could almost take a snooze if you weren’t following the storyline of the film. Perhaps, when this area becomes more established and developed with more attractions and restaurants, another theater chain will show quality films here once again. Who knows?

    3. UWSHebrew says:

      My absolute favorite theater in Manhattan. Horrible location as noted, but that’s what made it great for me, as whenever I went, it was always quiet people in the room, never crazy little kids or anyone else who likes to be “outspoken”. The movie selection was tops too, so eclectic, and they would run old releases for a while. Last movie I saw there was “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, which was terrific, and I had the whole room to myself. I am going to miss this place badly.

    4. Merrill says:

      What a shame the Landmark closed!

      A fond memory of mine is when I went to the opening night of Almodovar’s “Pain & Glory” last fall. It was completely packed with fellow moviegoers who were just as excited as me to see it.

      Thank god, Film at Lincoln Center still exists!

    5. Neil says:

      Yeah. I lived on 57th and 9th and it still seemed too far away. Never made it there

    6. Trembly says:

      Never went here but passed by it many times on my bike. Always wondered what it was like seeing movies there, sounds like I missed out on a local hidden gem.

      Either way this location was truly horrible, hopefully they’re able to move to a place with more foot traffic, post pandemic.

    7. DOUGLAS DURST says:

      I am glad everyone enjoyed the theater. While I cannot promise the knishes will be back, I can promise that the theater will return.

      • I never went to that Landmark Theater, and barely knew it was there… but I’d often walk south through Riverside Park by our glorious Hudson (or North) River from the 80s, just before sunset, just to gaze in continuing happy wonder at the gorgeous building in which it’s housed (The VIA Building, eh?).

        So Douglas (if I may) now that I’m learning, for the first time, what an equally glorious theater it allegedly contains, I’ll make a deal with you: if you re-open it, I’ll patronize it.

        Now, how many times I’ll patronize it will depend upon the quality of that experience coming somewhere close to the raptures expressed on this page. Deal?

      • mh says:

        Are you related to Robert Durst?

    8. EdNY says:

      Sitting in those small auditoriums with just three rows of seats, which were rarely filled, was a moviegoing luxury unlike any other. The remoteness of the theater made it special (although it was easily accessed via the M31 & M57).

    9. TERENCE says:

      Coming from W102 and WEA invariably meant a taxi there, and then a walk back to the subway lines.
      But in being able to go there and see, say, ROMA, to name one, with the option of an adult beverage before we walked and discovered Shiva Art Gallery on 11th, or indulged in Anchor Bar buffalo wings on W57th, it was going to the Landmark that made those bonuses possible.

      This is a good time to consider supporting New Plaza Cinema while we can:

      https://newplazacinema.com/

    10. Steevie says:

      I was there many times. Those 4 avenue blocks west of Broadway are awfully long. The theater was so far west that the crosstown bus even left you off 100 yards short. I hope that the Museum of Modern Art, which will open in a week or two will be allowed to open their theater. I am willing to sit in the front row or the back row, anywhere. I want to see a movie.

    11. ShakespeareGal says:

      I loved the star studded Q&A’s as well.
      Natalie Portman, Ethan Hawke to name a few.
      Wonderful to have after Lincoln Plaza Cinema closed.
      I hope someone else will takeover Landmark 57 as it would be a shame if not.
      I easily got there on the 57 bus on West End Avenue/11th to 57th Street and walked down 1 avenue.
      Discovered Hudson Market on the corner.
      This is more sad Coronavirus closures news.

    12. Carol says:

      Landmark Theatre made me so happy to live where I lived. It was truly a hidden gem. One time I ordered popcorn and was worried about missing the opening of a movie so they told me to get seated and delivered the popcorn to my seat. I watched so many premiers here and felt like I was in the comfort of my own living room. Very very sad and will be missed.

    13. Lady Di says:

      this theater is the one of a kind business/experience that has always made the city special – and almost small-townish in a good way. a true new yorker will schlep as far as necessary to take advantage of places like this as they become fewer in number; this is why my heart breaks for so many “so ny” businesses that cannot make it anymore. The mall-ification of the city cannot be our future…

    14. young_man! says:

      Beautiful place but the times I went there before anybody heard of coronavirus I had the same experience to the other people posting here – the place was not crowded at all.
      In NYC if you can’t draw a crowd in the good times you aren’t making any money and we can’t blame the theater chain from closing the place down.
      Location,location, location.

    15. Al Modover says:

      Sorry to see another theater fail. Hope another operator can take that space and continue to serve the neighborhood in the future.

      I always checked that theater, but only ever went once, December 2019, to see Pain and Glory.

      Ironically, that film title was a metaphor for the experience– the pain of getting there, and the glory of sitting in a comfortable theater in relative solitude.

      Bad sign when the biggest virtue of the space is that nobody else goes there.

      Hopefully Landmark can move east a couple of blocks, and north 10-15 blocks.

    16. Look Up! says:

      Re: “austere high-rises,…ground floor of the VIA Building….”
      Now there’s an oxymoron! VIA57West is the very opposite of austere:
      1. the building’s basic shape is a pyramid, unlike 98% of Manhattan’s architecture (apologies to One World Trade Center, Lincoln Center, the Hudson Yards complex, etc.);
      2. But wait, there’s more! Inside that pyramid is a trapezoid, filled with the squares and rectangles of apartment windows and balconies;
      3. It won 2016’s “Best Skyscraper Design” from Emporis (THE expert on modern architecture).
      AND, it is a fine-art-photographer’s dream subject, it holds still while you capture shot-after-shot.

    17. Robert Shanley says:

      Landmark was nice – clean and modern – but it was too far out of the way – if you walked any further west you would be in the Hudson. Another problem was the jacked up prices. It was nice but not that nice.

    18. Patou says:

      You and your sister reveal your non-native New York status in the single line “Jonah” Schimmel….lol-Midwest much?

      I actually live 2 blocks East of the Landmark, and was thrilled that a cool semi-arthouse theater had landed here….it’s heartbreaking that it’s closing so soon. Another “covid” casualty.

      • yesiknowitisyonah says:

        Hi there! Thank you for your concern but we are actually fourth generation New Yorkers!

    19. John Loken says:

      So sad to hear this! We moved into the neighborhood in December and the Landmark was our go-to spot for date night. I don’t know about the knishes but Harrison made me a mean Old Fashioned before we our screening of 1917. It’s surprising that in a town with 41 Broadway houses to choose from there isn’t a decent non-corporate cinema experience uptown. One thing that made the Landmark special was its balance of (adult oriented) studio pictures and art house fare.

    20. Trish Anderton says:

      I loved that theatre. So clean and comfy, with a good selection of films. I never had the knishes but you could get Manhattan’s best jianbing – kind of a Chinese burrito – at Jianbing Company on 44th and 11th and then walk up and see a movie.

      Also, “nonsense enclave” is my new favorite phrase.

    21. Elleaime muguey says:

      Whose fault is that ??
      The landlord who refuses to make any concession during this awful time
      The renters who refuse to be patient and wait for a safe return
      We all movies goers are starving a friendly comfortably place !!we are loosing every thing
      The boat is sinking !!
      Do you remember the Titanic !!

      • Whyse Guy says:

        Re: “The boat is sinking !! Do you remember the Titanic !!”
        You mean The Landmark ALSO ran into a ‘berg’?
        Quite unlikely…but, knowing the ethnicity of so many Landmark patrons, it’s quite possible that very often “-bergs” (think Goldberg, Rosenburg, etc.) ran into The Landmark.

    22. Doug Garr says:

      This just sucks. Saw lots of good movies there.

    23. Lenore Beaky says:

      How I hated that walk! And why was it so impossible for them to produce a printed schedule of films??

    24. Lisa D. says:

      I’m sad to hear that the Landmark is closing, but am cheered to read such an amusing and well-written article about it.

    25. Blonde says:

      Yes, go further uptown please. What about the Metro on 99 St closed or years or take over the Lincoln Plaza space?

    26. J WALLACE says:

      What a shame! I did feel the Landmark was an upper west side theatre and enjoyed my times well spent there. Seats comfortable, bathrooms clean and the ability to eat and drink inside the theatre at your seat. Where else could you find all those comforts! I will definitely miss this theatre.

    27. Jon Taylor says:

      The Landmark will be missed for more than the wonderful collection of films screened there and for the comfortable seating. Those of us with hearing loss will miss their captioning devices which were far superior to those in all of the other NYC movie theaters, and for the caring assistance their staff gave to make sure that devices were functioning properly and inserted into their holders.

      • jerry bergman says:

        The Landmark was also NYC’s ONLY multiplex to provide hearing loops for wireless listening for people with hearing aids. It made a huge difference our experience — not having to request closed caption devices before a more and returning the devices to staff after a showing. Hearing loop systems are the most popular type of assistive listening among those of us with hearing loss. A great loss for Upper West Siders and all New Yorkers.

    28. mikey97 says:

      It was over priced in a bad location and played movies that were available at other theaters or the next stop was Netflix.
      Landmark on Houston Street was a better venue.

    29. Steve Friedman says:

      Hard to add anymore to these wonderful encomiums. All so well-put.

      But if I was to sum it up in a word, it be “care:”

      Landmark cared about audience comfort in its very comfortable appointed space, assuring decent sight lines, checking the projection, the audio – even taking suggestions.

      Evidently cared about not letting you miss the beginning of a movie when on a long concession line so had the popcorn delivered to your seat like an Alamo

      Cared about not overwhelming its audience with barrage of commercials followed by the barrage of trailers until you feel like Malcolm McDonnell in Clockwork.

      Cared about screening a variety and diversity of its films mit out phony elitism hence understanding we would like to see a “Star Wars Part XVIII” as well as a “Pain & Glory” and a Dr Ruth – in person. And when a film is this small, like “Laundromat” they had a theater with 3 rows for us. Even the holding space didn’t feel like a pen. (And I was there during the Black-Out with no A/C and though crowded, it wasn’t oppressive and I’ve been in oppressively crowd theater lobbies.)

      But most all, the people care; the people treat you like you’re people; the people treat you with respect, like you’re adult. No canned finger-wagging animation to turn off your cell phones. They remind, in person, before they roll film.

      This all seemed to be the tone and style of the Landmark chain which is why we sought out Landmark theaters whenever we travelled.

      We’re going to miss it. It became our theater of choice, taking the wagon train there yonder even when same film might be playing in a more accessible location. I do hope a new location is found and new new management continues the mission of the old management.

      ALMOST FORGOT……they cared about providing the best salad & sliders that served for us as dinner.

    30. Alison Pepper says:

      What a pity. Even though it was a pain to get to, it was a divine art movie house to see the best of the best in a comfortable, chic environment. Somehow, it’s even sadder at this moment when we can’t even go to a movie theater!

    31. mayan dreyfus says:

      This upsets me, as i went there with companions, 2,3, 4 a couple times a month, and enjoyed snacks in the bistro.

      The films shown were often unitary and shown far less times anywhere else. It is a sad closing. And I live twenty steps from the 68th AMMC.

    32. Kimberly says:

      I’m glad that, at least once, I experienced:
      – the schlep to get there,
      – the shiny, angular decor that read, “new set of knives,”
      – being escorted to my seat by a very nice usher (though I had no idea that was a thing),
      – watching a weird movie that I loved and being introduced to an actor I now love (Jessie Buckley in Beast), and
      – managing to get impossibly delayed getting home by diverted busses.

      Thank you for many chortles, Amelia. This is a keeper!

    33. Mignon Reik says:

      I live near Columbus Circle. The Landmark gave me a wonderful destination and a wonderful walk

    34. Katherine says:

      The Landmark will also be greatly missed by people with hearing loss. It was one of the few movie theaters — in fact one of the few cultural institutions — that offered hearing assistance in the form of a hearing loop. It was the only theater where I could actually “hear” a movie, thanks to the loop. Thank you Landmark for that, and we hope you’ll include that accessible feature where-ever you move.