Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bingham Ray

This morning I became unstuck in time again.

Work today doesn't start until 3:15pm, so I was enjoying a leisurely click through fest of the news , my recent eye problems making it difficult at times to read, when I clicked my way right into the news that Bingham Ray had died.

Bingham was just a few years younger than I am. He was out in Utah where he had just attended a conference and was about to attend the Sundance Film Festival. I called my old friend and something of a mentor in the film business, George Mansour right away. Bingham had had a little stroke and Richie Abramowitz drove him to the hospital. Everything was fine. Until the next day.

These are names from my past, years ago in film distribution in New York City. Bingham managed the Bleecker Street Cinema (after John Pierson, I think...). He became a booker for Walter Reade for awhile, and if I remember correctly, it was Bingham who was responsible for saving a little art deco cinema called the Metro, which was way uptown on Manhattan's West Side (99th Street). It had originally been the Midtown, and was one of those little jewels of the movie theatre biz.

At the time, revival and repertory were all the rage. People had discovered the joys of seeing old movies on big screens again after years of late night showings on television. I've often mentioned that my opinion of John Ford as a director changed completely after seeing his movies on a big screen as opposed to tv.  The movies of that era were thought out in terms of 20+ foot high screens. It would take too long to explain what I mean, so here's a quick, not very good example, a scene from the 1939 "Stagecoach", in the wrong frame ratio to boot.

Kind of impressive looking, eh? Ford liked to film in Monument Valley. Well, click on the image and blow it up until it fills your screen. It's not the same image anymore, is it? Ignore the soft focus, I didn't have time to find a good hi res still. Even the point at which your eyes naturally focus shifts.  Big screen. The Metro had a decent sized screen. It was a joy to see old movies there. They felt at home. It wasn't as big as a screen as at the Regency, the leading revival & repertory house, but I liked the theater a bit better. Bingham and I used to trade potential double bill titles. He was kind enough to run several of them. One (at least, in memory it was my suggestion - after all these years, I wouldn't swear it wasn't his) was my favorite, a pairing of two film noirs, The Big Sleep and In a Lonely Place - now forever known as "Gloria in excelsis" for Gloria Grahame who appeared in each. (I also once ran a theatre bookstore that used to sell her her scripts and sound effects for year yearly summer tour in The Glass Menagerie. We had just gotten one year's materials in when she died.)

Ms. Grahame and Bogart "In a Lonely Place" a story of a washed up Hollywood screenwriter and his neighbor.

His management of the theater was so successful, in an out of the way neighborhood, that it was twinned and turned in to a first run house. It seems to me that he booked the Film Forum for a little while before he moved on into film distribution, but my memory of those years is getting a little fuzzy and takes a while to sort some things out. The Metro was bought and sold, and closed shortly after the nearby Olympia kept a date with a wrecker's ball. It was slated to become a supermarket, but that deal fell through after the exterior was awarded landmark preservation status. Then it was going to be a trendy clothing shop. Then an apartment house. Last I heard, it was still there, sitting idle, most of the interior gone.I believe it is now slated to become a performing arts school. I hope it has survived.

Details from the interior like the following, however, are long gone:

Bingham made quite a name for himself in the world of independent movies, and was co-founder of October Films (still around after being bought and sold several times, now under the name Focus Features). Bingham is one of the people who built the market for, and took the chances on financing, serious art films in this country. For a couple of years, he even headed United Artists, when it was a specialty division of MGM. Some of the movies he championed include Bowling for Columbine. Life is Sweet. Secrets and Lies. Breaking the Waves. The Last Seduction. There are many, many more.

And I'd go on and on if I could, remembering when there were so many theatres where one could go and see art films and old movies and third and fourth runs, the St. Marks (what a pit! One never wanted to put one's feet on the floor in that place), Theatre 80 St. Marks where Howard Otway used to show 16mm movies in rear projection, The Cinema Village, the Paris, the Walter Reade, the 57th Street something or other where the Chaplin movies played, I'd go on, but I must leave for work.

Take care, Bingham Ray.
As my friend Austanspace would say, Ya did good.

1 comment:

Austan said...

Very sad news. :[