The Last Single-Screen Theater in New York Goes Dark


The Paris Theater had its concession stand in the basement and a purple velvet curtain in front of the screen, and when it closed last week after 71 years, it was the last single-screen theater in New York City.

The final film to show there was Ron Howard’s documentary “Pavarotti,” a fitting coda for the theater: a prestige movie, flattering to a well-heeled audience, that offered a certain demographic’s idea of a cultured night out.

“That’s terrible,” said Duncan Hannah, a painter who loved the theater on 58th Street by Fifth Avenue for the French movies and the quality of New York gossip you could overhear in the plush seats.

“It looked like the fancy cinema on an old ocean liner,” Mr. Hannah said. “I crossed the Atlantic to France when I was 14, in 1967, and they had a cinema that looked like the Paris.”

The causes of death are the usual suspects: the internet (streaming video); real estate (expired lease); changing demographics; shorter attention spans. Which is to say: life.

This week the Beekman 1 & 2 theaters, also owned by the real estate mogul Sheldon Solow, closed, too; last year it was Landmark Sunshine in the East Village; the year before, Lincoln Plaza.

“The Paris Theater is closing?!” wrote the filmmaker John Waters in an email message. “Oh no! Where will old art movie fans go to see rarefied foreign films in the safety of a rich neighborhood?”

Mr. Waters could not recall the last time he went to the Paris, but added, “If I remember correctly, at some point they didn’t even have a candy counter — too common, I guess?”

The British writer V.S. Pritchett once noted, “The past of a place survives in its poor.” In New York in 2019, it seems the past survives in the hand-wringing of the people on the wrong side of the real-estate juggernaut, in the seductive transformation of memory into grief. You didn’t have to have been a recent patron of the Carnegie Deli or Pearl Paint to mourn their erasure. There is community in the mourning, and in a time of rapid change, community is a comfort.

Memory becomes folklore, a form of group identity. We are they who remember CBGB or the Brasserie.

Hal Willner, the longtime sketch music producer of “Saturday Night Live,” remembered taking a date to see the sexually explicit Japanese film “In the Realm of the Senses” at the Paris in the late 1970s, having no idea what they were getting into, then walking her out in the middle. The Paris had showtimes later than other theaters, and Mr. Willner said he was often one of the few people in the 581 seats.

“It was one of those great comforting things we thought would never go away,” he said. “But of course it will. New York has always been that way. The ghosts will always be there.” Nearby were the flagship F.A.O. Schwarz toy store and the original Playboy Club, he said. Closed and moved.

He added, “More than thinking, ‘I’m going to miss it.’ I’m thinking, ‘I wish I had gone there more.’”

Mr. Howard said the Paris sold more tickets to “Pavarotti” than any other theater, but that change was inevitable.

“I feel nostalgic for the idea of art house theaters, but viewing patterns are changing,” Mr. Howard said in an interview. “That’s been happening since the last hand-cranked nickelodeon. This is still a young art form.”

New theaters have opened. Jake Perlin, the artistic and programming director at the Metrograph theater downtown, called the Paris an “enormous inspiration” for being “part of a grown-up world,” and “a place that people would always associate as where they saw a particular film.”

You might remember having seen “Avengers: Endgame,” but not where you saw it. You remember having seen Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise” at the Paris.

Or not.

At the rapidly expanding Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, people can watch ambitious movies and eat and drink at the same time. “They can’t expand fast enough,” said the director Alex Ross Perry, whose work is described on the Metrograph website as “a series of woundingly articulate films, by turns sad, self-flagellating and scabrous.” Though Mr. Perry lamented the closing of any theater, he said the Paris’s business model was outdated and unworkable.

“If your business model is getting people to travel to Midtown to see a documentary on Pavarotti, that’s a very narrow demographic,” he said. “That’s the hill you’ve chosen to die on.”

Dennis Lim, programming director of Film at Lincoln Center, said that he, too, would miss the elegance of the Paris, especially as more theaters are carved into small, faceless boxes. But he said he did not feel it was a place he needed to go. The demands of having just one screen, and having to fill all those seats made for programming that was risk-averse.

For adventurous, edgy, surprising films — for the unsettling kick of the new — the city’s cinema junkies had other theaters.

Or their favorite streaming service.

“All these people lamenting the loss of the Paris,” Mr. Lim said, “I would be curious about the last time they set foot there.”

By John Leland

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