Astor Plaza Obituary
At approximately 12:20 AM on Monday August 2, 2004, the curtain closed for the final time on the Loews Astor Plaza. At the time of its death, it was the biggest and best movie theatre in New York City. It left no survivors; when the Astor Plaza died, the era of the Times Square movie palace died along with it.
The Astor Plaza opened in 1974, delayed a few years while the landlord sought a new operator after Walter Reade, which had opened the 1100 seat Ziegfeld in 1969, backed out. It was the last big single screen theatre to open in New York City, with a huge screen and a huge 1500 seat auditorium, a beautifully raked wide front section and a stadium-style balcony behind a central aisle, the last of its 44 rows of seats to either side of a windowed projection booth. It occupied the basement of a big office building which also contained the Minskoff Theatre, a big Broadway musical house.
I first experienced the Astor Plaza in 1980. It was six, I was sixteen, and my sister and younger brother bused in from upstate, headed up to Cinema One to see Simon, and then back to Times Square to see Altered States, playing in 70mm at the Astor Plaza. It's disputable if Altered States is any good, but there's no disputing that it provides a cinematic experience, especially on a big screen with a fantastic sound system. There can be life-changing events in person's life, and for me, this was one of them. College and home were both far from the Astor Plaza, but I made it back a time or two over the next few years to see movies like 2010 and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
In February 1986 I started working in NYC, and in August 1986 I moved to Queens, and now the Astor Plaza was mine. There was no better place to be on opening night for Top Gun. And over the late 1980s an early 1990s, where better than the Astor Plaza for Platoon. Scrooged. Indecent Proposal. The Timothy Dalton James Bond movies. Bestseller. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Forrest Gump. Beverly Hills Cop 2. Whatever the movie, it was better at the Astor Plaza. I made a bee-line for a few rows ahead of the cross-aisle in the center section of the theatre, where the raking was at its steepest. There was something special there; you were so many rows ahead of the projector that the image was already as large as in your average joe movie theatre, and you could look up and watch the streaming light dart from your right to your left as it headed toward the big screen. It's hard to describe, but it was something wonderful, something unique, it was the Astor Plaza.
You can't talk about the history of the Astor Plaza by talking about the Astor Plaza alone. When I moved to NYC in 1986, it wasn't just the Astor Plaza that made Times Square moviegoing something special. The grand Loews State theatre, better in twinning that most theatres ever get to begin with, still had a few good years left. One of two screens at the RKO National was capacious. The RKO Warner had a big screen, though not often a big movie. The Criterion didn't take well to twinning, but it still had 1000 seats in two theatres and still had history. The Movieland wasn't in the same league, but it had a balcony and housed ET for over a year. The Rivoli was still around. All of these grand theatres, and after the State closed the Astor Plaza was the grandest of them all.
New zoning in New York City made it very attractive to build big buildings in Times Square by buying air rights from landmarked Broadway theatres and transferring them to the site of landmarked movie theatres, which were not. The Rivoli, the State, the Warner and the Movieland were demolished. The Astor Plaza, the Criterion and the National got lonely.
And while digital sound is a good thing, when Dolby Digital, DTS and SDDS arrived, people no longer had to travel to special 70mm houses to get the best that theatrical exhibition had to offer.
Times Square was no longer the focal point of movigoing in NYC, and business at the remaining theatres tapered off. It was harder to meet the nut, for the good weekends that were rarely as good to make up for the fallow fifth weeks in the run.
Nor was the Astor Plaza well-marketed. Even New Yorkers who don't go to the movies seem to know that the Ziegfeld is a special theatre, while even many regular moviegoers were surprised when I told them that NYC's best movie theatre was on 44th St., just west of Broadway. Platoon opened in 1986 as an Astor Plaza exclusive, and did that ever happen again?
There were rumors in the mid-90s that the Astor Plaza would be carved up. I read in Variety at the time that it was going to become a triplex. The NY Times obituary for the Astor Plaza said it was in fact a sixplex. Instead, in 1996 the Astor Plaza was refurbished. New seats, new curtain, new drapes, new everything. The first movie I saw after the facelift was Ghost in the Darkness, and the grande dame sounded better than she ever had before. The winter when Scream opened, Loews even took out an ad to ballyhoo its new State Quad and refurbished Astor Plaza that actually mentioned it had NYC's biggest screen.
While the Astor Plaza had to compete with the State for product (Mission Impossible opened the State on all four screens, and went to the Astor Plaza as a late-run move-over) it continued to get its share of major releases during the late 1990s, at least until the arrival of the Loews E-Walk, a lavish 13-screen stadium seating multiplex two short blocks and a long one away. The Astor Plaza became an urban house, mostly getting movies that weren't deemed good enough for the E-Walk. In 2000 and 2001, it was hard to find a film worth seeing. LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring was a typical example of an event movie that played only the E-Walk but not the Astor Plaza. The 70mm 2001-in-2001 reissue, which should have launched big and bold and grand at the biggest theatre in the world's media capitol, snuck in as a kind of afterthought in the final weeks of 2001; I'd actually despaired of seeing the 70mm 2001 in NYC at all and went down to DC to see it at the Uptown. In the first half of 2002, my only Astor Plaza movie was Collateral Damage.
Miraculously, the final two years at the Astor Plaza were its best years ever. The E-Walk and AMC Empire 25 made 42nd St. the focal point of Manhattan moviegoing. And Loews had a problem. The Empire had more, bigger and better big screens than the E-Walk; the five biggest E-Walk screens still offered fewer seats than the Astor Plaza. In Summer 2002, the Astor Plaza became E-Walk #14, and every few weeks a major new Hollywood release would arrive at the Astor Plaza to help meet peak demand.
As good as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn't last forever. I was usually going to the Astor Plaza on a Passport or Weekday Escape ticket, and was never there for the big opening night crowds. By the time I'd get to the Astor Plaza, those 1400 seats were often empty. I'd tell myself "oh, they'll leave the Astor Plaza; it's not like the State where they can tear it down and build a skyscraper." Other times I'd tell myself "you can learn to love the four big screens at the Kips Bay, really!". The world had changed around the Astor Plaza, and I knew it. I tried to savor each new movie. On July 15, 2004, while on a plane to Seattle, I turned to page B1 of the NY Times, and I cried.
Happily, the theatre at least had a good last weekend instead of running out the string with empty seats after a long run for Spider Man 2. Buena Vista wanted all the fannies it could get for opening weekend of The Village, and for the first time since Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, I went to a packed opening day showing at the Astor Plaza on July 30, 2004. Almost every seat filled, just like Top Gun except for the array of brightly lit cell phone screens the crowd was using to play games or text message. Contrary to the buzz of 1300 people exiting on Friday night, I liked The Village. It wasn't a chore to go back two nights later for the final screening, which showed why the Astor Plaza was about to go for good. Just 200 people in a mammoth 1400 seat auditorium. A couple dozen stayed for the end credits, and maybe five or ten were there, like me, for the funeral.
The curtain closed for the last time at 12:20 AM on Monday August 2, 2004. I thought the guy futzing with the screen even before the curtain closed was some trivia buff looking for a good vantage point, but in fact the work crews had already arrived to start ripping down the screen, ripping down the speakers, dismembering the Astor Plaza.
It was William Hurt at the beginning of my Astor Plaza experience, and it was William Hurt at the end. John Corigliano's score for Altered States and James Newton Howard's for The Village both among their very best, and both Oscar nominees.
The Ziegfeld lives on, and I hope its popularity for gala openings will keep it around, but who knows? In 2003 Clearview sometimes shuttered the Ziegfeld rather than have six people on a weeknight. There are other nice screens in NYC, but I never had to call ahead at the Astor Plaza to confirm my screen assignment.
Its almost five months now as I finalize this obit. I still think of the Astor Plaza, and I always will. The joy of descending its escalator, of taking my place in the center a few rows ahead of the cross aisle, of watching the curtain open and the dance of lights over my head as a flickering flame moved from right to left ten feet up, to that big silver screen ahead.
Times Square is full of ghosts. There's the ABC studio where the National used to be. And if you walk into the Toys "R" Us there's a place in the second floor where I think you can look up and still see an original projection booth window for the Criterion. A block North you've got the State. There's the Embassy, and the Roxy deli across the way, that sign was the Movieland marquis. Who knows what they're doing with the Embassy 2/3/4. The Crown Plaza -- that was the Warner twin. Caroline's, the Rivoli. And now there's another one. 44th St., West of Broadway.
The Loews Astor Plaza. 1974-2004.
©2004, JABberwocky Literary Agency