Peter Spodick spins around on the glowing green rug of the York Square Cinema lobby, surveying the decades-old cartoons that adorn the walls, the concession stand advertising “Real Butter.” “Where?” he asks. “Where?”
Spodick, who runs the cinema along with his father, isn’t looking for missing reels of film. He isn’t looking for free coffee — it sits prominently in its canteen, glinting under the lobby lights. And he isn’t looking for his father — “On Tuesdays, Dad’s out having coffee with his cronies.”
Peter Spodick is looking for the reason movie companies are preventing him from showing the films he wants to show.
Despite the theater’s prominence in downtown New Haven, York Square has been losing money “out of pocket” because of these restrictions. Spodick makes about the same wages as his cashiers, and his father has worked for free for the last several years. Since 2000, when Spodick filed suit against movie companies for restricting film from him, York Square has been embroiled in legal problems. Spodick withdrew the case in 2004, but he is fighting to reinstate it.
Spodick is a lawyer, and he speaks like one: succinctly and dramatically, with hands folded, legs crossed, and head tilted slightly to the right. He is neatly dressed, from his carefully coifed salt-and-pepper hair down to his tasseled leather loafers. He often asks if I’m familiar with various old films, and backs away in horror when I confess I am not. We have better luck with literature. “You’re familiar with the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner?'” he asks. “That’s what this legal stuff turns you into. I’m like the mariner. Wandering from place to place, telling my story.” Unlike the Coleridge poem, Spodick says, his legal affairs have acquired “a unique banality.”
Yet the physical presence of York Square exudes none of this banality. Posters from current movies — “I Heart Huckabees,” “Shaun of the Dead” — line the walls of the corridor leading to the concession stand. The concession stand itself is covered with reminders of the genuine butter the cinema pours on its popcorn. And just past the stand is the lobby’s real marvel: a 35-year-old poster by Al Hirschfeld featuring film stars and politicos from across the decades. Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman serenade each other, clarinet floating high above trumpet. The Marx Brothers are about to pummel Charlie Chaplin with what appears to be a turkey baster; unaware, Chaplin contentedly sniffs a blue daisy. And Frank Sinatra reaches daringly close to the bulging bosom of an ecstatic Marilyn Monroe.
History fills the walls and air of York Square. It’s a long one, and Spodick is eager to tell it.
The cinema’s story started with two guys.
“The younger guys — one of whom is now 85 — came to New Haven in 1945, at the end of World War II,” he says. “These guys were watching silent movies in 1929, dusting and sweeping theaters when they were 10 so they could see films for free. Their dream was a lifetime in the movie business.”
As befits the story of a movie theater, this dream came true in a scenic setting: Hawaii. Leonard Sampson — the cousin of Peter’s father — was stationed there at the end of the war and noticed the local theater was doing poorly. Sampson approached the theater owner with a proposition: If he found the theater a film that boosted business, the owner would give him half the proceeds.
Sampson contacted Peter’s father, Robert Spodick, who already worked for a theater in New York. He requested a film the cousins knew would tantalize islanders: “Ecstasy,” starring Hedy Lamarr.
“Hedy Lamarr,” Spodick says, pronouncing the name slowly. “Now, she was a star.”
He speaks with a faraway smile. “Moviegoers broke down the doors.”
One reason for this rousing welcome may have been the film’s famous 10-minute nude swim scene, which shocked audiences worldwide and got the film banned in the United States (Hawaii wasn’t a state until 1959). Lamarr’s statuesque form and wavy blond hair left a lasting memory in the minds of wartime moviegoers. In the case of York Square, it is still very much present: A poster from 1945 decorates the office of Robert, who, at 85, still works a full week at York Square.
Whatever its lascivious undertones, the cousins’ plan worked: the theater owner gave them half his profits, enough to found a small theater in New Haven. The Lincoln Theater, predecessor to York Square, lasted until 1966. But like that of “Ecstasy,” the memory of The Lincoln lingers.
Martha MacDonald, a bookseller at Book Haven on York Street, has lived in New Haven for 28 years. Despite her lined, warm face, she gives the impression of youth. Thanks to the dark glasses she wears, puzzlingly, indoors, she also seems a bit like a film star.
“The Lincoln was wonderful,” she says in a voice that alternates between gravely and singsong. “That’s where I saw ‘Dr. Strangelove’ for the first time. It showed European films and off-center films. We’d stand around afterward and hoot and holler, talking as though we’d just been at the theater — you know a lot of us had lived in New York.”
History professor Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 recalls his days of “flicking out” at the Lincoln with similar fondness. “When I was an undergraduate in the early 1950s, there was no television and little entertainment except flicking out” at theaters like the Lincoln, he says. That cinema “avoided the glitzy Hollywood productions, brought in foreign films and good revivals. The audience was almost all Yale students and the tradition was to make loud, often hilarious, but more often tasteless, comments on the films in progress.”
York Square was built to replace the Lincoln. To do so, contractors knitted together four older buildings. There was a “certain brilliance” involved in the construction, Spodick says, and the notion of confluence defines the York Square’s mission to this day. “We fit neatly into the block,” Spodick says. “We’re geared toward New Havenites, to fit a very specific role on campus.” The theater fits into the memories of alumni as well as in the block it inhabits. “We’re one of the areas where the old Blues come back and remember,” Spodick says. “There’s Cutler’s, there’s Toad’s, J. Press, and York Square.”
The alumni share memories of the York Square’s unusual selection of foreign, independent and revival films, as well as its low-key, campus-oriented atmosphere. Smith recalls York Square as far back as the early 1970s. “It showed the extraordinary anti-Vietnam war documentary ‘Hearts and Minds’ in 1972 when that film had trouble getting bookings elsewhere,” he says. “I would estimate that at least half the movies my wife and I have seen in the last 30 plus years have been at York Square. It is a priceless asset.”
More recent New Haven residents second Smith’s praise. John Lynch, who has sold flowers at the corner of Elm and York Streets for eight years, describes the York Square’s selection as interesting and off-beat. “At places like the York Square, you get a different sense, a feeling of the not-ordinary, a feeling that they’re not playing to the lowest common denominator, that they respect your intelligence, your taste. You don’t get swept up in a crowd of junior high mallers, and then sit down and watch people shoot each other on-screen,” he says, his stubbled face ruddy from cold.
Spodick describes the York Square as akin to New York’s Angelika Theater, an independent cinema in the heart of the West Village that is famous for its artsy films and feel. He pauses.
“Though to be frank,” he adds, “we’re a much better place. We’re more comfortable. This $80,000 rug would cost a million to replace,” he says, indicating the greenish, glowing expanse underfoot. “The Angelika has wooden floors.”
But the rug isn’t the only reason his cinema is unique, Spodick says. He aims to keep his ticket prices as low as he can — “half the price of the Angelika.” The affordability extends to snacks — “just $1.75 for a pack of Dots!” — as does his interest in quality. “See that?” he says, pointing to the bright, humming popcorn-maker by the counter. “Real butter. And that?” He waves to a canteen gleaming under lobby lights. “That’s Koffee Too? coffee. Yours for free when you see a movie at the York Square.”
He pauses again. “We try so hard. It doesn’t sell tickets, but we do it, week after week.”
York Square has reason to worry about sales, Spodick says, but not just because it plays unusual films at low prices for chronically cheap student audiences. Its problems are rooted in a dramatic back-and-forth between movie companies and movie theaters that has resulted in movie companies’ refusal to play first-run art films at York Square, he says.
The drama began with Steven Spielberg’s film “Amistad,” and like that movie, it is a story of rebellion. For reasons that are still unclear, Spielberg did not allow it to play at the York Square. Spodick sued. In retaliation, several movie companies — including Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists — began boycotting the theater, denying it first-run access to art films, Spodick says. These theaters, he adds, answer to Showcase Cinemas, an international chain of movie theaters with two locations within 15 miles of New Haven.
Showcase’s “exclusive run” agreements make use of the principle of “clearance.” A theater requesting clearance must show another theater to be a “substantial competitor,” a cinema that will bankrupt the other unless movie companies limit the films showing there. According to Spodick, defendants’ lawyers claimed York Square was so similar to Showcase Cinemas that it threatened the larger theaters’ existences. And that is when he spins around, gesturing at the eclectic artwork of his lobby, asking, “Where? Where is the threat?”
Spodick holds that his theater does not threaten the Showcase Cinemas because overlap between the theaters is minimal. York Square and Showcase have never shown the same film at the same time, he says. Nor do they compete over the same audience. The suburban viewers who drive to Showcase are quite different from the New Havenites who walk to York Square. “Wanna go to Showcase?” Spodick asked. “Have a car?” I shake my head. “Then you’re not going.” He points in the approximate direction of North Haven. “$40 taxi fare, plus tip.” Spodick says about 10 percent of his audience drives and no one else can make it to the suburbs, particularly given the lack of direct bus service. His theater, as the only movie house in downtown New Haven, is the only place students and city dwellers can go to see a film on the big screen.
In 2001, Mayor John DeStefano affirmed that the York Square catered to an exclusively urban audience, and called Showcase’s exclusive rights to films “discrimination, period.” As reported in The Yale Daily News, DeStefano said Showcase was “promoting limited access to entertainment for city residents. It is unconscionable that residents of New Haven who can’t get to suburban theaters are unable to see a film when it first comes out.”
In addition to being unfair to city residents, the boycott defies fiscal logic for the movie companies, Spodick says. When York Square Cinemas was granted the right to show “The Blair Witch Project,” for example, the theater grossed the most money in Connecticut on a per-seat basis. After 10 days of showing the film, the Cinema mailed a check for $20,000 to the movie company. But the company refused to allow its next film to play at York Square, Spodick says.
The lawyer representing the movie companies declined to comment.
The dearth of desirable films at the York Square has not escaped the attention of local moviegoers. Leah Walker ’03 agreed that the cinema’s selections left something to be desired. She is a case example of the New Havenite Spodick describes as unable to see films: Her lack of a car precludes her from driving to the suburbs. During her years at Yale, “I never went to movies because I didn’t have a car and I didn’t like the movies at the York Square,” Walker said.
Unfulfilled movie lovers like Walker might be pleased to know that while York Square’s legal situation is slow to evolve, its status as the sole cinema in New Haven has just changed. Earlier this month, Criterion Cinemas, a five-screen multiplex, opened on Temple Street. Bow Tie Partners, the company opening the theater, aims to show the same kinds of independent, foreign and artistic films the York Square shows, but appears unconcerned about gaining access to first-run films. In fact, one partner, Charlie Moss, seemed unaware of the recent problems the York Square has faced. When asked how he thought his theater would be affected by what Spodick described as the movie companies’ blanket boycott of downtown New Haven, Moss said, “Boycott? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He knows of a lawsuit, he says, but said he believes it ended a year ago. He has “no awareness” of the ongoing struggle of the York Square, and is not concerned that his theater will be affected.
The confusion over whether York Square’s case is ongoing is understandable. On May 10, Spodick withdrew the case because of acute emotional distress. Twelve days earlier, his father had been released from the hospital for a bronchial infection and a spot on his lung; additionally, his father’s longtime business associate, Lenny Sampson, was seriously ill, and died 10 days after Spodick withdrew the case. According to Spodick’s affidavit from Aug. 11, he perceived his father on the witness stand as “weak, tired, distraught and in truly poor health” and withdrew the case in the interest of protecting him. Spodick explained, “Due to the above stated emotional family crisis existing on May 10, 2004, I improperly allowed what I perceived to be my family obligations to interfere with my duties as counsel.” Spodick has since been fighting to reinstate the case. The defense argued on Oct. 18 that this desire to reinstate was “supported by neither the facts nor the law.” It cited, among other points, that Robert Spodick’s illness was not severe enough to prevent him from going to work, and by implication should not interfere with his ability to serve as witness.
Spodick is not surprised at Moss’s confidence that the Criterion would gain access to the films that movie companies deny him; he says the movie companies’ lawyers told him they will allow Moss’s theater to show first-run art films, even as they continue to boycott York Square.
Criterion Cinemas presents a polished face to Temple Street. In posh print, the theater’s awning reads “Criterion Cinemas: a Bow Tie Cinema.” Inside, beige bow ties dot the red carpet. Lights flash around the movie posters. A gleaming concession stand offers cappuccino as well as popcorn. The brightness, flashing bulbs and hundreds of bow ties give one the impression of a thousand winking eyes. The awning informs in traveling red print: “Ushering in a new era of style and elegance!”
Moss says he wants to bring “style back to the movie-going experience” for residents of New Haven. Chris Skiest, a University of New Haven student who has worked at the York Square for three years, notes differences between the York Square and the Criterion. “It’ll be a glitzier, higher-tier movie experience,” he says. “They have a wine bar, espresso; they’re more upper-class. We try to be community-oriented, more accessible; we go for the cheapest prices. We have, you know, candy and popcorn.”
Spodick says he does not worry about competition with the new theater. “The new theaters are what we’re fighting for,” he says. “Downtown is a big enough market. There’s room enough in New Haven for five screens, the York Square and five more screens!”
Yet the opening of the new theater, coupled with the longevity of his legal troubles, have prompted him to rethink his strategy. He has not slept much, he says, and I can tell: His conversation skips like an over-worn record.
“I had an early morning resolution,” he says. “This morning — once upon a midnight weary,” he interrupts himself, “while I pondered weak and tired — pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he interrupts himself again, as an employee knocks a stack of cups to the floor. “I slept very little last night,” he repeats, and then, continuing a mysterious earlier conversation, calls after another employee, “I could use a special, highly entertaining, pornographic retort, but with a lady present I’ll refrain!”
After a few more digressions, he is ready to reveal his resolution — almost. “It’s time to change the theater,” he says. “November begins our sixth year of litigation. I was lying in bed this morning, and it was a moment of,” his voice drops, “epiphany. You know the word ‘Eureka?'”
Spodick has resolved to immediately send out press releases informing the media that he intends to go nonprofit, and calling for the assistance of the New Haven community. As a nonprofit, the theater could both avoid paying taxes and apply for subsidies to support new projects. He sees the new corporate status of his theater as a way to cease losing money and to instead ensure the cinema’s preservation. “Sometimes we play Asian films, Iraqi films,” he says. “We know these pictures will die. But say someone wanted to subsidize them. We could become a medium for the presentation of risky but artistically interesting and worthy films, with the aim that our theater could be preserved and protected for future use.” The idea prompted him to consider untapped cinematic opportunities — the collected films of Stanley Kubrick, the 10 best of Quentin Tarantino, the five most-loved Humphrey Bogart films. He looks up dreamily, enjoying himself. “A cornucopia of cinematic possibilities.” But the caveat remains. “I’d love to do this, but I can’t do it alone.”
Yale has not joined the legal battle. Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander says Yale “has tried very hard to support the cinema thorough other real estate operations — by urging J. Crew and Urban Outfitters to stay open every night till 9 p.m., by adding restaurants to Broadway like Ivy Noodle and Bulldog Burrito and La Piazza — all of it is designed to encourage nighttime activity, which helps York Square Cinema.” As for why Yale has not gotten more directly involved in the York Square case, Alexander says, “It is difficult in a dispute between two parties to fully understand all the history and facts unless you were involved from beginning, which we were not.”
Through its ups and downs, business continues at the York Square. A young man wearing an earring is behind the counter. He tells a couple about “I Heart Huckabees,” a highly-acclaimed film. “It’s an existential comedy about someone trying to find himself,” he says. Doubt registers on their faces. They buy tickets for “Shaun of the Dead.”
The young man, Ted Parker, works at the theater because he loves films and loves telling people why, he says later. Spodick is teaching him how to work film during shows, and he may someday go into a related field — sound production. Parker and Spodick start spouting off ideas for the cinema that make use of Parker’s expertise — jazz concerts, poetry readings, speeches — but after a time, Spodick stops them, pointing out that these ideas can’t come to fruition until the theater grows certain of its future.
“We’ve been so preoccupied with the suit, we don’t have time to do much more than dream,” he says.