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Old Space Acquires New Grace

A Manhattan movie theater that was reborn once for a Bach marathon finds robust new life after a major facelift.


NEW YORK — Alec Baldwin. Dizzy Gillespie. Anjelica Huston. Leonard Bernstein. John Updike. Meryl Streep. Dustin Hoffman.

All have appeared live at Symphony Space, the once-dilapidated Manhattan movie house that has became an eclectic and nationally known arts center.

It was not born from any grand plan but hatched from necessity as two artists searched for a venue for their daylong free concert of Bach back in the 1970s.

On Monday, after a $24-million fund-raising campaign and a year of construction, Symphony Space celebrated its renewal with an official gala reopening. The newly remodeled center features two glistening theaters, a cafe and offices.

Movies, music, dance and theater had filled this funky Art Deco space on Manhattan's Upper West Side for more than two decades. But Symphony Space is best known as the home of "Selected Shorts," story readings that are aired on more than 150 public radio stations across the country.

The center's roots go back to the late 1970s, when two neighbors came up with an idea: a daylong free concert called "Wall to Wall Bach," with professionals playing and amateurs joining in.

Conductor Allan Miller and his neighbor Isaiah Sheffer, now Symphony's artistic director, walked down Broadway and peered into the Art Deco movie house that had seen a half century of decline.

It would do, they decided, and rented the space.

Volunteers changed lightbulbs and cleaned bathrooms while calls went out to the likes of violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, who lived around the corner, and to members of the American Symphony Orchestra. On Jan. 7, 1978, thousands of music lovers showed up for "Wall to Wall Bach."

Miller and Sheffer were drawn to the space, acquiring it that year for $100,000 with the seller having an option to buy back the property.

Along with the arts, Symphony Space was also the site for an occasional wrestling match, including one pitting the famed Gorilla Monsoon against the Golden Terror.

It wasn't quite Bach, but the wrestling helped pay the bills.

As the neighborhood's real estate prices rose, the sellers tried to exercise an option to buy back the theater in 1985, triggering a court dispute that lasted more than a decade.

About half of the $24 million raised for the project came from selling air rights above the two-story center, resulting in a 22-floor luxury apartment building.

Philanthropist Peter Norton gave $5 million, actor Leonard Nimoy $1.5 million and the city of New York $1.5 million, with the rest coming from other donors. The donations allow Symphony Space to offer some "freebies," including a 12-hour marathon of Richard Rodgers tunes last month.

Symphony Space is still a smorgasbord. Gilbert & Sullivan mixes with African American storytelling; Cannibal Ox, a group that echoes Harlem's street beat, performs along with Chicago's Isotope, a funk and electro-jazz unit.

The smaller theater in the complex, the newly named Leonard Nimoy Thalia, opens on Saturday, showing 10 classic films with a New York theme.

Its walls have noise-absorbing fabric panels that flip to wood to enhance the acoustics for chamber music performances.

A shabby theater seat with cracked leather and a worn-out cloth back sits in a glass case on the way to a theater balcony.

It serves, says Sheffer, "just to remind you how we found this place in 1978."

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