The Paris Theater, as glamorous and as eccentric as any film it’s ever played, has the benefit of having the Plaza Hotel and Central Park to ensure it never goes out of style.
But the history of this romantic and occasionally radical movie house, the longest running single-screen movie theater in New York, is as cinematic as its photo-friendly neighbors.
No less than Marlene Dietrich cut the ribbon on opening day of the Paris in September 13, 1948.
Opened by the French film distributor Pathè Cinema, the old-style 586 seat theatre with balcony — billed as “the first new moving picture theater to be built in New York since before the war” — was intended to debut significant achievements in foreign film, an ambition it still mostly retains today, along with re-issues of classic movies.
Its first film was Symphonie Pastorale by the almost-forgotten French director Jean Delannoy. And the cinema might have continued to enjoy quiet renown among foreign film aficionados if it wasn’t for Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.
In December 1951, the Paris decided to show three films under an umbrella title Ways of Love.
One of these was a forty-minute piece entitled The Miracle, directed by Rossellini and starring Anna Magnani as a pregnant woman who’s convinced she’s carrying the Christ child after meeting a shepherd (played by Fellini) whom she believes is St. Joseph.
Its subject matter enraged the Catholic Church, and the theatre was assaulted with hundreds of protesters for weeks, orchestrated by Cardinal Spellman from his pulpit at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Eventually the Paris was ordered to stop showing the film, a decision Paris manager Lillian Gerard, along with the film’s distributor, appealed in court.
The case eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who ruled the banning a violation of free speech.
No other film at the Paris would draw as much international attention, but the theater would affect cinema history in other ways, helping build the reputations of foreign directors on American soil.
Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet ran for almost an entire year from 1968-69. Director Claude Lelouch’s A Man And A Woman and the Marcello Mastroianni comedy Divorce Italian Style would play for over a year.
Merchant and Ivory preferred to debut all their films here; A Room With A View played almost nine months, Howard’s End seven.
Below: The Paris, no stranger to sex and scandalous screenings
It’s had equally grand success with revival screenings as well, most notably Luis Buñuel’s 1968 drama Belle De Jour starring Catherine Deneuve which re-debuted in theaters in 1995 with the highest single-screen gross for a foreign film ever.
(I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the very first time here in 1997. Anytime the Paris shows a great film like that, I highly recommend you cancel all your plans and go.)
Pathe pulled out of the Paris Theatre in 1990 with intentions of opening another screen in New York. (It never did, but Pathe is still in business, and you can find their film on most art-house screens in New York.)
Loews operated the theater as the Fine Arts Theatre before the landlord bought them out and renamed it back to the Paris.
Cut to modern day and the threat movie theaters face from at-home streaming services.
Hundreds of theaters across the country have closed in the past ten years, and many have had upgrade interiors and food and drink offerings in order to survive.
The Paris, however, was actually saved by a streaming service — Netflix. The popular streaming service purchased the theater in 2019 and began launching some of its films there — most with awards-season potential.
From the Paris’ website: “Since opening an engagement of Marriage Story on November 6, 2019, Netflix operates the theater, giving new life to a landmark of New York moviegoing. The Paris is New York’s movie palace, and Netflix will honor the theater’s history while offering the finest in contemporary cinema, introducing the theater to a new generation of film lovers.”
You can find a lot of fun personal recollections by former ushers and managers at Cinema Treasures.