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Farewell to the Ziegfeld, one of the last movie palaces

We attended the final film screening at Manhattan's largest single-screen cinema, which abruptly shut down last week.

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Last Thursday, New York City's majestic Ziegfeld Theater took its final bow with a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was, in many ways, a tragic end for Manhattan's last single-screen theater. After 47 years in business, we learned with little warning on January 20th that it would be shut down by the end of the month. The building will undergo a two-year renovation and be turned into the Ziegfeld Ballroom, a gala event space. The Ziegfeld's final screening was booked without much fanfare, but that didn't stop hundreds of New Yorkers from braving the cold for one last show. Engadget's Kris Naudus and Devindra Hardawar were there to reflect on the loss of yet another old-school theater.

Gallery: So long, Ziegfeld Theatre | 31 Photos

Kris

The first time I ever visited the Ziegfeld, I didn't recognize it as an anomaly or a relic. But why would I? I'm a Brooklyn kid: It was the first theater I had ever visited in Manhattan. It was big. It was grand. But I guess I thought that was just the way everything in the city was. I was so naïve.

But, in a bigger context, I'm talking about 1997 here: The multiplex explosion was still a rather recent thing. In fact, at the time the only one I'd ever been to was the UA Sheepshead Bay, which opened ten years prior. Movie theaters in New York were still pretty easy to find, period -- even with so many shutting down (or turning into porn theaters) during the hard times of the '70s and '80s. But my friends had picked the Ziegfeld as the place to see the Star Wars special editions, so I joined them.

Devindra

I didn't realize it at the time, but watching Coraline at the Ziegfeld in early 2009 pretty much convinced me that I had to live in New York City. Between its ornate decor (chandeliers! red velvet curtains!), enormous screen and tremendous sense of community, it was unlike any cinema I'd visited before. The Ziegfeld wasn't just a movie theater; it was a full-fledged movie palace, the sort of thing I could only dream about growing up in Hartford. Sure, you had to wait out in the cold for your screening, and the seats weren't exactly comfortable, but it was a singular experience.

Kris

Ha, I saw Coraline there too!

It's funny how we think about the Ziegfeld as a "classic movie theater," mostly because of its association with the original Ziegfeld Theatre -- a Broadway venue that's probably best known for its eponymous Follies. The current Ziegfeld replaced that theater. Looking back, that was an odd decision. A lot of old theaters shut down starting in the late '60s, and here they are, opening a classic-style movie palace in the heart of Manhattan! However, the Ziegfeld ultimately didn't need that borrowed history because over the past few decades it's accumulated its own set of stories and, as you mentioned, community.

Some of the people we saw at the final screening last week are people I first met waiting outside to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace back in 1999. Some of these people have fallen in love and had kids and taken those kids to see movies there. (I once dated a guy I met at the Ziegfeld -- it didn't work out. He was there on Thursday too.) And, oh yeah, the infamous Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Star Wars sketch was filmed outside.

Devindra

While I was waiting in line, I met a guy who saw Jaws at the Ziegfeld as a kid. Its closure breaks my heart, but I can't imagine the sense of loss that he -- or you, Kris -- are feeling.

In many ways, cinemas like the Ziegfeld are exactly what we need today: a premium experience that's worth leaving your couch and whatever the heck is streaming on Netflix. But I guess the convenience of multiplexes is a bigger draw to New Yorkers, rather than trekking out to 54th street.

I can't help but think of the ways Comcast Cablevision (which owns the Ziegfeld) and Bow Tie Cinemas (which operated it) could have saved the cinema. It was able to survive so far by hosting gala premiere events for films and TV shows, but perhaps there were other specialized screenings they could have pursued. Or maybe there could have been a concerted effort to run it as a non-profit, like the Film Forum and Brooklyn Academy of Music. (People in the know say it would have been too expensive to operate, even if that change were made.) What the Ziegfeld really needed was more butts in its seats, and perhaps it could have managed that with a more diverse screening schedule, more screening times and some facility updates (the flat seats in the orchestra level really make you miss stadium seating).

Kris

I love the Ziegfeld, but in some ways I was complicit in its death. How often did I really go there over the years? I saw six out of seven Star Wars films there and many other things since my first visit to the theater almost 19 years ago, but the last time I was there was in October to see The Martian. Before that? I can't remember offhand; it was the first time I'd visited in 2015, that's for sure.

Like many, I found it easier to hit up other theaters because they had better schedules, a more convenient location and, yeah, a better variety of movies. Do you know what was playing there right before Star Wars: Episode I premiered? Pushing Tin. I hardly saw anyone walking into the theater before May 19th in 1999.

We lament the passing of old-guard institutions, but sometimes our nostalgia blinds us to their faults. Multiplexes were a revelation when they started to spread across the country. On the consumer end it meant more choices, which in turn benefits the industry by allowing a more diverse slate of films to be released. I'd call the AMC Empire on 42nd Street a great example of this: It screens plenty of big studio releases, but also plenty of indie fare. Right now the Empire is playing Star Wars and The Revenant, but I could also catch Lazer Team and Ip Man 3 there if I wanted to.

So though it breaks my heart to see the Ziegfeld close, it's been in the cards a long, long time. But what galls me is that while the building will remain, it will no longer be used as a theater of any sort. Instead we're getting another events hall, which I'm sure will host plenty of parties and corporate events and other things where the public isn't necessarily welcome. At least the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, an old "Loew's Wonder Theater" from 1929 which reopened early last year, is used as a performance venue. Same with the Astor Plaza in Times Square, which currently operates as the PlayStation Theater.

I can't help but feel the conversion of the Ziegfeld into a private events space is part of an increasing trend in New York toward transitory space usage: unoccupied pieds-à-terre and Airbnb units. No one wants to put down roots anymore, because more money can be made in a rental economy. But for a city to thrive it needs the continuity that long-term residents and businesses bring. And it needs public spaces for culture to thrive. That's what ultimately destroys me about losing our last great movie palace.

Devindra

I'm also guilty of not visiting the Ziegfeld nearly enough -- even though I end up seeing dozens of theatrical releases every year for my film podcast, the /Filmcast. But as I sat in a tight seat with a tall dude obscuring my view of The Force Awakens, I was quickly reminded of why I end up going elsewhere most of the time.

Still, it was moving to see the Ziegfeld's community come together for one last show. The theater ended up giving everyone free popcorn, soda and water (because what else are they going to do with all that stuff?). The audience cheered throughout the film; it was, after all, the second or third viewing for most of us. Not a soul left their seats when the credits rolled on The Force Awakens. And when the lights came up, everyone rushed to take photos, as if they were trying to capture the essence of the Ziegfeld on Instagram.

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