Family Ties Forged at the Movie House
The New York Times
March 13, 2005
By ROBERTA HERSHENSON
NAME an important art film from the last 40 years and chances are the Ackerman family has a story to tell about it. Fine art films are the family's profession, hobby and the glue connecting the generations.
Meyer Ackerman was a pioneer in the showing of foreign and art films in the 1950's and 1960's at a network of theaters he ran with various partners in the New York metropolitan area. He still caters to serious filmgoers at the Scarsdale Fine Arts Cinema, which he built and has co-owned since 1971.
Marilyn Ackerman, his wife of 53 years, is the founder and co-director of the Westchester Cinema Club, a film discussion group that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. And Brian Ackerman, the couple's 46-year old son, is program director of the nonprofit Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, which has attracted art film enthusiasts since its opening in 2001. The younger Mr. Ackerman is also a co-owner of East 86th Street Cinemas in Manhattan.
Brian Ackerman describes the family's immersion in film as a bug that passed to him from his parents. (The two other Ackerman children are Farrell, a linguistics professor at the University of California, and Harriet, a psychiatrist in Hastings-on-Hudson.) As Brian Ackerman grew up, first in Ardsley and then in Harrison, family fun often meant attending film openings and waiting for the reviews.
''All conversation revolved around movies,'' he said.
When the younger Mr. Ackerman, who lives in Croton-on-Hudson, recently joined his parents in their Harrison home for an interview, the talk ranged from the lack of personality in today's movie theaters to the invincibility of movies themselves. Neither television, VCR's nor DVD's have stopped audiences from gathering in the dark together to watch super-sized figures on a giant screen, fearful industry predictions to the contrary.
''The movies are indestructible,'' Meyer Ackerman said.
The elder Mr. Ackerman enrolled at the Institute of Film Techniques of the City College of New York in 1947. After completing his studies, he worked in a succession of jobs for Columbia Pictures, but the work ''had nothing to do with the art end, which was what I liked,'' he said.
When the movie theater business began getting pressured in the 1950's by the coming of television, he said, opportunities arose for small entrepreneurs like him to open their own movie houses. With a partner, he opened several theaters in New Jersey and New York, showing the foreign art films that were becoming popular after World War II.
''We became specialists in the specialty movie,'' he said.
Eventually, Mr. Ackerman and his partners owned a string of theaters in Manhattan and Westchester, showing mainstream movies in some and reserving others for art films. These theaters included the 68th Street Playhouse in Manhattan, which showed ''The Gods Must be Crazy'' (1980) in 1981 and 1982 for 86 weeks.
Other films that played at his theaters were Albert Maysles's ''Salesman'' (1969); Woody Allen's ''Take the Money and Run'' (1969); Andy Warhol's first commercial success, ''The Chelsea Girls'' (1966); and ''Koyaanisqatsi,'' by Godfrey Reggio, with a score by Philip Glass (1983).
Among the other theaters he and his partners owned was the Scarsdale Plaza in Eastchester, which they sold in 1968, and has since been converted to condominiums, and the Carnegie Hall Cinema, in the space that is now Zankel Hall. Carnegie Hall Cinema, built to the partners' specifications in 1964, became a coveted venue for filmmakers.
Meanwhile, Ms. Ackerman began joining her husband, who also became a distributor, at film festivals worldwide, where he was courted by producers and agents eager to book their films in his theaters. Attending the festivals made Ms. Ackerman more interested in movies.
''It was so exciting to go from one theater to another, to walk in and have no idea what the film was going to be about and to know nothing about it,'' she said. ''That never happens in the real world. Everybody's telling you what it's about and what you should think about it.''
Then, at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival, she said, ''I thought, wouldn't it be nice to start a club where you played movies and they'd have to take your word for it?''
She began the Westchester film club with a partner, Beth Kochen, who has since died. The group met Sunday mornings at the 350-seat Scarsdale Fine Arts, where not-yet-released movies selected by Ms. Ackerman were screened for a sold-out audience. There were refreshments before the screenings and discussions with filmmakers, producers and critics afterward.
To accommodate more people, the club, a profit-making venture, eventually moved to the 600-seat Clearview Cinema Central Plaza in Yonkers, where it now meets.
''It was very social,'' Ms. Ackerman said. ''We had a few marriages and several divorces.''
Last year's members saw ''Sideways,'' ''Being Julia,'' ''Motorcycle Diaries'' and ''A Very Long Engagement'' before their release. Dr. Joseph Kochen, Beth's husband, is Ms. Ackerman's current partner.
The club presents two yearly seasons of seven films each for $105 a season. There is a waiting list to get in, and Ms. Ackerman said she receives impassioned letters pleading for a place.
I.D. Luckower of Harrison, who has attended with her husband, Herbert, for 20 years, said the draw is seeing a virtually virgin film.
''You're really at liberty to decide if you like it, not whether the critics liked it,'' she said. ''And we like the idea of seeing something before anyone else does.''