Upper West Side Story: The Influence of Toby and Daniel Talbot on Specialty Exhibition & Distribution

Photo by Daniel Loria

The New Yorker Theater opened to the public on March 9, 1960. The 900-seat cultural outpost, situated on the corner of Broadway and 89th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, opened at a time when the neighborhood was significantly less gentrified than it is today. “In the early 1960s, the Upper West was a dangerous place, heroin was the drug of choice,” wrote Daniel Talbot in his memoirs, which have been edited and published posthumously by his wife and business partner, Toby Talbot. In Love with Movies: From New Yorker Films to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, with a foreword by Werner Herzog, was released earlier this year by Columbia University Press.

According to Daniel, the Talbots’ first theater was named The New Yorker because it allowed them to save money by reusing the “York” part of the previous theater’s marquee (The Yorktown), since neon was so expensive. The Upper West Side was a Hispanic neighborhood back then, and the Talbots’ accountant, Henry Rosenberg, had plans to convert The Yorktown to a Spanish-language movie house before Daniel, “flat broke at the time, needing work, with a wife and kids to support,” convinced him to turn it into a repertory house instead. Daniel became The New Yorker’s manager and programmer, earning $125 a week while charging an admission price of $1.25 per head. It was his first job in a career that would shape and influence the development of the American art house and repertory scene for decades to come.

Speaking from the Upper West Side apartment she shared with her husband for more than 50 years, Toby Talbot remembers those early days in exhibition as a natural evolution of their relationship. “In our courting period before we were married, our idea of a great date was to go to the Beverly Theatre or the Paris Theater, one of the old cinemas on the Upper East Side, with a hero sandwich and watch movies. That was a perfect day for us. We were very compatible in that sense. We were married almost 70 years, and I’m still getting to know him through his personal journals.”

Daniel Talbot passed away in December 2017 at the age of 91, a week after the landlord of his last theater, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, declined to extend its lease. It took Toby years to muster the strength to look through Daniel’s archives—booking ledgers, distribution catalogues, diary entries—the precious ephemera from a life devoted to the movies. The resulting book, In Love with Movies: From New Yorker Films to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, acts as both a compendium of his experiences in exhibition and a firsthand account of how repertory and art house distribution developed into fully-fledged businesses.

The Talbots had no prior experience in running a movie theater before The New Yorker. That didn’t deter them from experimenting with programming and booking titles they believed in, even those that were hardly a guarantee at the box office. “The Upper West Side was a scrappy neighborhood back then,” recalls Toby. “We started out as a repertory house, showing films of the ’30s and the ’40s, silent films, films that we ourselves adored, and films we wanted to see for the first time because we’d never had a chance to see them before. That was the same spirit that led us to become distributors.”

The New Yorker’s first screening was a double feature of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and the French short film The Red Balloon (1956). Daniel describes the experience as a huge success: “From that first day, the place had an electric atmosphere, virtually all the customers were young, with a genuine hunger for film—and not satisfied with run-of-the-mill junk. All the shows ended with applause.” Despite building his own audience base, it didn’t take Daniel long to realize the necessity—and challenge—of off-peak programming to ensure patrons kept coming back throughout the week. That challenge is what led to the creation of the New Yorker Film Society. “Monday nights being traditionally slow, why not stage a special event and call it a society?” he writes. “It would be fun ferreting out interesting films, otherwise ignored.”

The New Yorker Film Society’s first meeting raised quite a few eyebrows. The Talbots decided to introduce its new series by offering the city’s first full-length public screening of The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress. “We knew the ramifications of showing Triumph of the Will,” says Toby Talbot. “We realized the grandeur of its filmmaking and we knew that as a documentary, etymologically, the film is a document [of its time] while still being propaganda, meant to proselytize. She is very successful in doing that in that film. As a piece of powerful cinema, it’s very important. As a piece of propaganda of the period, extremely important. We showed it at night, and we had to have another screening because young people were lining up to see it.”

According to Daniel’s memoirs, the film hadn’t had a public screening outside of an edited version shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943 and 1946. “We had ticket-buyer lines three blocks long. Over three thousand people showed up. We turned away hundreds and eventually held shows until three in the morning. And who were they? Mostly Jewish kids in their twenties who’d heard about Hitler but had never seen any films about him. We thought there was going to be some rioting or people accusing us of being neo-Nazis, but there was none of that. People were plain curious, fascinated. No other show drew quite like this one, though attendance was generally substantial.”

Those first years at The New Yorker reflect the intellectual curiosity and passion for cinema that defined the Talbots’ approach to exhibition and distribution. Daniel acquired the lease to The New Yorker in 1962, and the cinema soon became a family operation, with Toby’s parents—Bella and Joe Tolpen—working behind the concessions stand and inside the auditorium respectively. The eclectic programming kept driving audiences, making The New Yorker a tastemaker for the budding art house cinema scene in the United States. “In the fifties and sixties, a cluster of distributors and exhibitors in New York City handled all foreign films in America,” writes Daniel. “No Hollywood studio would touch them with a ten-foot pole.”

In New York, cinemas like the Plaza Theatre, the Paris Theater, Fine Arts, and the Little Carnegie all played a role in giving city audiences an alternative to the steady stream of studio films hitting theaters elsewhere in the nation. Important art house exhibitors of the time would often open their own distribution offices to bring films stateside themselves. People like Cy Brattle, founder of Boston’s Brattle Theatre, and impresarios like Don Rugoff, who owned several New York City art houses alongside his own specialty distribution outfit, Cinema 5, exemplify the art house exhibitors of the era who used their expertise to build successful careers in independent distribution.

It wasn’t long before the Talbots joined the distribution game themselves, acquiring films on the European festival circuit and introducing exciting new filmmakers to American audiences through New Yorker Films. “Distributing foreign and independent films makes little sense,” writes Daniel Talbot. “The work is mainly tedious, if not downright boring, and at times nasty. It demands enormous patience, for it’s a hit-driven business and not unusual to wait as long as five years before your ship comes in.”

The Talbots steadily grew an impressive slate of films, many of them acquired through deals made directly with the filmmakers at major film festivals. As a result, New Yorker Films became a reference distributor for art house cinemas across the country. “We had a little office above The New Yorker theater that was devoted to our budding distribution company,” remembers Toby Talbot. “Dan found himself so immersed in distribution and looking for films, that he felt that he was done with The New Yorker—now he had to focus on this new thing. I was very, very opposed to it. It may be that stereotypical female notion of not leaving the nest, but The New Yorker Theater was a very exciting place. We had midnight showings; we wrote notes for the films that were shown at night. I couldn’t imagine having created such a place and—boom!—he was ready to move on. I scolded, I screamed, I shouted—but eventually I was forced to sign the document selling the theater. Years later, Dan regretted having done that in retrospect, but, in fact, he may not have had enough energy to fully devote himself to distribution otherwise.”

The Talbots sold The New Yorker Theater to the Walter Reade Organization in 1973, and Daniel fully refocused his efforts on distribution. Despite being opposed to the cinema’s sale, Toby admits the demands of New Yorker Films required a different approach as the distribution business evolved in the 1970s. “I think he was more foresighted than I was at the time,” says Toby. “He knew what his capacity was in order to give distribution the attention it required. There’s always a conundrum when we arrive to this conversation: Does something like a successful distribution company emerge because of somebody like Dan, who had very good taste and conviction? Or is it an outcome of circumstance, that there was such great filmmaking talent around at that time?”

As New Yorker Films continued to grow, Daniel Talbot found himself unable to stay away from running his own movie theater. The Talbots’ departure from exhibition only lasted three years, and the opening of Cinema Studio—on Broadway between 66th and 67th streets—marked their return to the Upper West Side’s movie theater scene in 1976. “Dan had that exhibition bug and, lo and behold, he missed having a movie house,” says Toby. “One day, walking from our apartment on 90th Street down to our office on 50th Street, he passed this empty movie house next door to a funeral parlor, a little coffee shop, and a fish restaurant.”

Daniel Talbot bought the theater, installed new seats, and, years later, with the help of France’s Gaumont, split the space into two auditoriums seating 300 and 185 patrons respectively. After a bumpy start, Cinema Studio booked its first hits with a pair of Werner Herzog titles—Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, acquired and released by New Yorker Films in 1977) and Stroszek (1977)—going on to become a vital platform for the launch of foreign films in the U.S. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) played at Cinema Studio for 53 consecutive weeks. In other instances, having Cinema Studio allowed the Talbots to keep a film in release until it could find an audience. Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André (1981) posted moderate grosses at Cinema Studio for 10 weeks before taking off on its own 53-week run, a streak that turned the title into the highest-grossing film in the history of New Yorker Films. “We weren’t interested in becoming rich on any of our films,” says Toby. “If we felt a film was worthwhile, we wanted it to be given a chance to find its audience.”

Toby Talbot singles out Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, as the title that Daniel dedicated the most energy to as a distributor. A film with difficult subject matter and an unconventionally long running time, Shoah was never a commercial undertaking for New Yorker Films. “I devoted one full year to the distribution of Shoah,” writes Daniel. “I did all the launching, selling, and publicity by myself … the cost of distributing the film was staggering. Each print cost $15,000. We had six prints. When embarking on this project, little did I think about its commercial possibilities. I was prepared to personally guarantee all losses—I did not want to mix money and Holocaust work. For me, it was a moral undertaking.”

Shoah’s U.S. release was met with a scathing review by the New Yorker magazine’s influential film critic, Pauline Kael. Daniel pushed back, sending her a response expressing his disagreement with her review. Few distributors ever dared to test Kael’s mercurial temperament, but the Talbots had known the critic for decades by that point, having become acquainted with her in 1957 while she was programming and managing the Cinema Guild and Studio in Berkeley, California, the first twin cinema in the U.S. to program foreign films year-round. “Pauline’s reaction came after the film was acquired and shown,” says Toby. “We didn’t care what Pauline said at that point; we were only upset when she gave it so little political and emotional attention. She was treating it like some frivolous musical. And you know we loved Pauline; she and her daughter spent many evenings with us at our apartment. But I think she was wrong about Shoah. She was not engaging with it in the proper context.”

Despite the challenges of its release and reception, the film was ultimately able to connect deeply with audiences. Its theatrical run eventually led to a national television broadcast on PBS, which Daniel Talbot claims was viewed by over 10 million people. “Presenting Shoah, as both exhibitor and distributor, was the most satisfying event of my work in film,” he writes.

Success at the box office led the Talbots to open an additional multiscreen venue, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, also on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in April 1981. Toby Talbot was initially skeptical about the site’s viability, an underground space on Broadway and 62nd Street. Originally a three-screen theater, Lincoln Plaza went on to become a six-screen venue in 1992 with the support of Gaumont. “People are going into a basement to go to the movies?” Toby remembers asking when they signed the lease. “Dan said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll bring them in.’ We didn’t have the funds to build such an ambitious project. Everything we did was from our own pocket. Gaumont was already in the picture, through Cinema Studio, so we brought them in for Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.”

Toby was tasked with sourcing the concessions at the Lincoln Plaza, something she took on with good spirits. “I do not have a sweet tooth,” she says. “I would rather eat a clove of garlic or a sour pickle. But I can bake, and I know what good pastries are. I tasted every single pastry that vendors would send to me. I don’t know how many vendors we went through. The gingerbread was baked by a Jamaican woman. The ricotta cheesecake was baked by an Italian baker. The carrot cake was baked by Two Little Red Hens. Silver Moon Bakery would bake the muffins.”

The Talbots opened an additional Upper West Side location, The Metro, on the site of a former adult theater at Broadway and 99th Street, in August 1982. The Metro opened as a 525-seat revival house, eventually becoming a three-screen complex in 1985. The success of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas convinced Daniel to close The Metro in 1987 and focus all the Talbots’ exhibition efforts on its thriving film community 30 blocks down the road.

“At a certain point, we had to condense our efforts. It was physically impossible to do all that management,” says Toby. “What was exceptional at the Lincoln Plaza, which wasn’t quite the same at the Cinema Studio or the Metro or to some extent at the New Yorker, was the staff who worked at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Everyone came from somewhere else.” The Lincoln Plaza’s staff was representative of the city’s diversity, “an international staff,” according to Daniel, “from Europe, the United States, Turkey, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Ethiopia.”

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas thrived throughout its nearly 40 years in operation, establishing itself as a destination for art house films in the United States. Generations of moviegoers and filmmakers have walked through its doors, a testament to the Talbots’ contribution to the neighborhood and nation at large through their work as exhibitors and distributors.

The theater closed permanently on January 28, 2018, a month after Daniel Talbot’s passing. The site has remained vacant, its marquee still standing but barren since the theater shuttered. Toby continues to keep in touch with the Lincoln Plaza’s former staff over the phone. “There were many people whose lives intertwined with the theater, and it made them feel good about themselves,” she says.

The Talbots’ lives in the cinema business left an indelible mark on the American art house. Their work set the standard for the way the specialty market continues to operate today. Daniel’s recollections in In Love with Movies: From New Yorker Films to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas provide a touching first-person account of their love for one another—and how their shared passion for cinema made American audiences fall in love with foreign and independent films.

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