Editor’s note: Liza Cooper is president of the NEW Friends of Metro Theater, advocates for the 90-year-old landmark movie theater, between 99th and 100th streets on Broadway, which has been closed for 18 years. Although, admittedly, not for the first time, the Metro has been on the brink of reopening as a dine-in, multi-screen movie theater — and no one was more excited than Albert Bialek, 89, the Metro’s owner. For the past two years, Cooper and Bialek have had bi-weekly phone conversations about the future of the theater, including one a few weeks ago, when he told her he was having health problems. Stunned and saddened by his death, Cooper shares what she learned about the reopening — and the man.
By Liza Cooper
“Liza, we are 99% there with the reopening. The Department of Buildings approved all of our construction proposals…but that is all I can tell you,” Albert said with his usual buoyant, but mysterious tone.
He always left me on the edge of my seat.
“Call me in two weeks,” he said before hanging up — always using the same closing words. He was enthusiastic and robust, warm and gracious.
It was the most exciting and hopeful of all of our phone calls, and we had been speaking by phone every two weeks for nearly two years.
As the president of NEW Friends of Metro Theater, I knew it was my responsibility to nurture a relationship with Metro‘s longtime owner Albert Bialek to support our group’s mission to restore, rebuild, and reopen. I never imagined it would be my last conversation with him. Nine days later on October 29th, he passed away.
A Little History
Beginning in 2020 a group of interested community members came together distraught at how the Metro had increasingly fallen into disrepair. Our accumulated distress over the theater’s now 18-year shuttering found its solace and inspiration in one another.
We were a scrappy and unusual group — a mix of folks with political careers, a musician, actors, a film director, pr experts, artists, and leaders who started out as strangers and with time became dear friends. Together we built a movement to change the status quo, raise awareness, and give love to this iconic theater in our midst. We collected memories of the Metro — “went into labor there”, “my first date”, “my career in acting was born in those seats” — and dreams for what it could be refurbished to become: a performing arts center, an art movie house, a stage for children to cut their teeth on performance, a concert hall.
Through it all we knew that relationships matter and cultivated them with the owner, Albert Bialek, and the new tenant, Tim League, founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
“Hi Al! What’s the latest? What’s taking so long?” I would call and pepper him with questions. At first he had an “It’s you again?” tone, but, with time, it shifted and he’d respond with delight and even offer intel during my regular calls.
“I can’t tell you the details but you are going to be very happy. This place is going to be great – a dine-in movie theater….” He’d as always end the conversation with, “Call me in two weeks.”
Interspersed between these calls, I’d touch base with Tim League. A group of us had breakfast with him at the Metro Diner when he flew into town — an evident visionary, lover of old theaters, and a doer and entrepreneur. He has remained through all delays resolute, determined, and devoted to turning the lights on again at the beloved Metro.
Albert has been something of an enigma in our Upper West Side neighborhood, a man who has seemed to hold the Metro Theater quite close to his heart, while standing in the way of its reopening. And yet, when I spoke to him, he was always as charming, gracious, and optimistic as could be: assuring me that the Metro would reopen soon. “You just wait, Liza! Believe me!”
When I learned of Albert Bialek’s passing, I had a terrible pang of sadness. One moment he would feel like an adversary, but then in the next moment he’d feel like a whimsical, larger-than-life friend. I had become fond of the man and looked forward to calling him…to learn the next update, the next morsel.
I’ll miss him.
Tim League is going forth with the plans for Metro theater and will work with Bialek’s estate moving forward. NEW Friends of Metro Theater will support him every step of the way and won’t slow down until Metro Theater reopens. And when it does, we will make one mighty toast to one another, the community on the UWS, and in memory of the inscrutable and always affable Al.
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