By Marie Holmes
Cinephiles, rejoice! After a long journey, a water main burst, and a global pandemic, arthouse film makes a triumphant return to the Upper West Side as New Plaza Cinema opens the doors on Friday, February 18th to its new 86th Street location at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.
The reopening is the culmination of years of dogged effort and the unflagging persistence of a group of community-minded, film-loving Upper West Siders.
When Lincoln Plaza Cinemas shuttered in January of 2018, it left a chasm in uptown access to less-commercial movies. Rough around the edges, with its leaking ceilings and cranky, opinionated patrons, Lincoln Plaza was the go-to theater for culturally-minded West Siders for almost four decades, and its loss was deeply felt.
Gary Palmucci, film curator and general manager of New Plaza, who has been involved in the effort since its inception, recalls that after Lincoln Plaza closed, the Upper West Side was left with only three such theaters: 66th and Broadway, 84th and Broadway, and the theater run by Lincoln Center—none of which quite met the demands of former Lincoln Plaza patrons.
So Palmucci and a group of like-minded moviegoers got organized. They showed films at the Marlene Myerson JCC from June through August of 2018, then at Symphony Space from August through December of that year. New Plaza found a longer-term home at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) theater on 62nd Street, facing the vacated Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, showing films there every other weekend or so from December 2018 to January of 2020.
“That tribe was able to gather across the street in this theater,” recalls Palmucci. “We really felt we were building up an audience there and we had a lot of grateful people in the neighborhood.”
Then, in January of 2020, a water main burst near Columbus Circle, flooding and seriously damaging the theater. New Plaza was able to quickly find an alternate space at the Museum of Arts and Design, just south of NYIT, and prepared to open up there with a new program, but before the first showing the pandemic encroached and the city closed up.
When movie theaters were given the green light to re-open in March of 2021, New Plaza began, again, to search for a new home. They explored numerous venues: the Landmark 57, the Ethical Culture School, the Beacon Hotel, and a church. Each had its issues, such as events already scheduled in those spaces, and, in the case of the church, the desire to approve the content of films shown.
Finally, they arrived at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, a Methodist congregation located on West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, which had been mostly empty for the past two years, thanks to the pandemic.
New Plaza turned to Roger Getzoff, an experienced technician who Palmucci describes as “one of the last remaining guys that can service any kind of a problem in a theater.” He built the screen and the projection facility, and brought in the sound equipment for the new space.
The theater is smaller than the one at NYIT, with 72 seats and room for two wheelchairs. Accessibility is important to New Plaza, as they attract a good number of older moviegoers. There is an elevator, and they have installed railings to help patrons get safely to their seats. The space also boasts high-ceilings and an “old school vibe.”
Palmucci says that they already have 13,000 subscribers to their mailing list, and while there is a lot of excitement for the opening weekend, New Plaza has already proven they are “in this for the long haul.”
“We’ve had a lot of enthusiastic responses from people,” says Palmucci.
The opening weekend features seven diverse films shown in what Palmucci calls “cinematheque style,” which he describes as “a lot of variety for different people’s interests or tastes.”
Nightmare Alley is a Disney remake of a 1947 film, and will be followed by a presentation by film historian Max Alvarez.
Flee, from Denmark, and Writing With Fire, from India, are Oscar nominees in the documentary category. There will also be a classic, the French La Piscine, which enjoyed a long run at Film Forum last summer.
Breaking Bread, a U.S.-Israeli production about Jewish and Arabic cuisine, is returning to the neighborhood after a preview at the JCC.
“We hope that people come back who enthusiastically supported us,” says Palmucci, and “to build a regular audience for this theater.”
For more information and showtimes, click here.