Ziegfeld Folly

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Remembering New York’s last great movie palace.

And so the final crown jewel of Manhattan movie houses is gone, consigned to history and lore, like the grandeur that was Greece, the glory that was Rome. In January of this year, the Ziegfeld Theatre, the plush, spacious 1,131-seat palace with the signature marquee, unplugged its projectors and popcorn machines after years (decades?) of financial losses, a white elephant whose time had passed.

The last of the large single-screen temples capable of doing panoramic justice to a 70 mm Hollywood epic (from Lawrence of Arabia to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Interstellar), the Ziegfeld was always a grand anomaly, slightly out of joint with its time. Named in honor of the Ziegfeld Theatre (the Broadway playhouse built by impresario Flo Ziegfeld, whose showgirl-adorned “Ziegfeld Follies” were the spectacular prelude to the glittering Las Vegas promenades of today), this Ziegfeld opened down the block from the original in 1969, baptized in nostalgia for a bygone era from its birth.

Unlike the movie palaces that once made New York the capital of screen entertainment, the Ziegfeld wasn’t architecturally baroque; it had a streamlined sweep. To enter the lobby floor, ride up the escalator, stroll through another grand lobby and into the theater itself, oohing and aahing much of the way, was to find yourself inside a ruby treasure, a rhapsody in red— red carpets, walls, and seats, garnished with gold curtains and chandeliers galore. The Ziegfeld’s old-world wow factor made it the perfect venue for gala premieres of Hollywood blockbusters, enabling film critics such as myself and other motley civilians to bask in the glamorous aura and aroma of celebrities with that special spa glow. I remember riding up the escalator with Jacqueline Bisset and ballet dancer Alexander Godunov, who were then a starry couple in Studio 54’s dazzling firmament, and thinking, This is what life in New York City is supposed to be. Now Studio 54 belongs to disco legend and the retro dream palace that was the Ziegfeld will be converted into an “event venue,” a bit of corporate-speak so sadly typical of our billionaire times. Yes, New York has its huge IMAX screens, but the moviegoing ambiance has become indistinguishable from that of a suburban mall. To paraphrase Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, the pictures are big—it’s our dreams that have gotten smaller.