At about the same time Norma Levy was falling for the man who would become her husband, she also was falling in love with cinema. In Denver, where she grew up, independent films were not widely accessible. There was only one theater showing those types of films and you needed a car to get there. But for her husband, Anthony, growing up in New York, cinema was everywhere. As a boy, he'd often see foreign films and he developed an admiration for filmmakers and actors Levy had never heard of.
When the pair met in New York, after she finished law school at Yale and moved to the city, she was exposed to film in a serious way for the first time in her life.
“He took me to these wonderful cinema films, old films and art films,” Levy said in a recent interview. “And he brought me to great theaters like the Regency and the New Yorker, and others that don't exist anymore.”
With cinema, her world expanded.
A Heartbreak, and a Solution Now, about 40 years later, Levy is trying to pay forward all of what independent film has given her by keeping the culture alive on the Upper West Side, following the sudden closing of the beloved Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in January 2018. With her leadership, and the help of a roster of more than 100 volunteers, New Plaza Cinema — a part-time nonprofit theater at the New York Institute for Technology — is following in Lincoln Plaza's footsteps.
For Levy, and so many others, Lincoln Plaza had been an important pillar of art in their lives.
“It was a place you could go to in order to see these wonderful films that you couldn't find anywhere else,” Levy said of the West Side fixture, which opened in 1981.
She loved the warmth and comfort she experience there — as well as the quirky concession stand that served coffee cake and lox sandwiches. But what made it such a special place for Levy was the sense of community she felt when she waked through the door.
“You would hear everybody talking about the film in the ladies room when it was over,” Levy said. “It was very collegial, and not overwhelming or intimidating.”
That feeling of community gave way to heartbreak in December 2017 when the news broke about its closing, as well as the news of the death of its owner Dan Talbot.
“Oh my god, it was horror,” Levy said. “I mean this was an important part of our lives being forever taken away from us.”
To her, the closure didn't make sense. She thought about what a loss it would leave in the community, and she kept on thinking about it.
“You know, you think about this era and you think about the people who loved to go there, and you see that there's something that could be done,” she said. “I'm not sure why I thought that ... the idea just started creeping into my mind and I couldn't drop it. This was something that could be doable. This is something a community getting together could do for itself.”
Keeping the Tradition AliveAt the Lincoln Plaza Cinema's closing ceremony, Levy passed out flyers to the 600 people who showed uo to say goodbye to the beloved movie house. The flyer listed Levy's email and a call to action.
“A few weeks later I had forty people in our apartment, and that's how it started.”
Without a permanent home, New Plaza Cinema doesn't follow a traditional box office schedule. They can show films as often as the institute has an open weekend. (The institute is at 1871 Broadway, across the street from and just a block south of the old Lincoln Plaza location.) The cinema's next run of shows is slated for April 5 through 7 with a line-up of award-winning films. “Roma” and “Green Book."
Levy hopes to have a longer run this summer and to feature more filmmakers talking about their craft for audiences. But the long-term goal is to create a multi-screen theater on the Upper West Side so that the cinema experience that has become such a significant part of her life can live on in the neighborhood.
“[Customers] are so happy when they come out of our films. They tell us whether it was a good film or if they didn't like it at all,” she said. “It's a very personal environment, and a very powerful way of learning about the world.”