On June 17, the Independent Film Channel is planning to open its renovation of the old Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, configured as a three-theater film complex, complete with a restaurant and bar and post-production editing suites. The renovation reportedly cost $8 million to complete.
It’s just the latest trick the Sixth Avenue beauty is turning after a long and storied career, first as a church, then as a vaudeville theater and then as a first-run movie theater.
It was for a time part of a small city of downtown movie theaters, all since shuttered, that captured the spirit of independent film’s New York progenitors. While Hollywood was churning out the kind of stuff that no urbane New Yorker could tolerate anymore, it was places like the Waverly, the Bleecker Street Theater, the Elgin and Theater 80 St. Marks that thrilled them with the French New Wave and made every New Yorker who went to the movies a foreign-film buff.
It’s just the kind of feel that IFC president Jonathan Sehring wants to create with the new place.
“There were a lot of places where we and-I hate to say it-our generation that came to New York [could go to the movies],” he said over the phone. He had just arrived stateside from the Cannes Film Festival.
Mr. Sehring remembers Village romps with Sony Pictures Classics heads Tom Bernard and Michael Barker, and indie veterans Bingham Ray and Jeff Lipsky, the former heads of October Films.
“You look around at all the [film] companies; we’d always go to all the movies together and run into each other at the movies. And most of those venues are gone.”
Mr. Sehring enlisted architect Larry Bogdanow in his effort to preserve the Waverly’s iconic past, ironically as an outpost funded by a cable-television channel that shows movies.
The trapezoidal marquee, a West Fourth Street staple, still juts out over the sidewalk, alternately impressing one as something out of a Norman Rockwell painting or the kinds of sights Travis Bickle would see glowering at him through his cab window.
A sneak peek inside the complex revealed such downtown-design bromides as exposed brick walls, which make up much of the interior of the lobbies, the restaurant and the theaters as well.
“We really like the tension of sitting in a place that is both a 200-year-old church and a modern building,” said John Vanco, the vice president and general manager of the center. He was standing in the main theater, which seats 220 viewers.
If the ancient exposed brick reveals the historical tensions of the project, the vaulted ceiling is pure vintage. And then it’s modern: plush, navy blue seats imported from France and two strips of iridescent blue fabric on either side of theater, lit from below. (“In terms of theatergoing, [the French] seemed to be more focused on the comfort of the audience than probably any other country in the world,” said Mr. Sehring earlier.)
“When you build a theater, you have no need for a high ceiling,” said Mr. Vanco, pointing to the rafters. “But when you build a church, they like to be able to reach up and scratch God’s toenails.”
In the restaurant, which abuts the main theater, the old neon letters spelling out “WAVERLY” will be fastened over the bar so they can be seen from the street. (In a minor glitch, the sign was fastened facing in the wrong direction when The Observer came to call.) The name of the restaurant: the Waverly at the IFC Center. How poetic!
“It’s not going to be a white-tablecloth restaurant,” said Mr. Sehring. “I hate to use the word ‘pub fare,’ because it makes it sound less than what it is.”
He added, reflectively: “It’s going to be great food.”
Across from the restaurant, there is a small concessions booth that Mr. Vanco said would sell “cooler, more deluxe items from local artisanal food makers.”
On the second floor, there are two smaller theaters, one which seats 120 people, the other, 70. Neither is much larger than the private screening rooms found in midtown, and they’re quite as comfortable. (One theater is even decked out with thick pleather love seats!)
Mr. Sehring explained that the complex was designed this way to be a natural extension of the IFC Entertainment brand. For over 10 years, IFC has delivered independent films through its cable channel, and more recently has expanded into film production and distribution. An exhibition space seemed like a logical way to expand, considering that IFC is owned by Cablevision. Cablevision, in turn, owns the Clearview Cinemas chain, which operated the Waverly until its close in October 2001. Follow? Mr. Sehring simplified everything:
“We feel that it is probably the single best location for an art-house cinema or an independent-film complex in New York City, if not the world,” he said seriously. “It’s a crossing point in the heart of the Village. And it’s a legendary complex.”
For all the corporate speak, Mr. Sehring has a touch of the idealist in him. He views the movie theater as a meeting place-perhaps a little contrived, but, to a degree, more accessible to a younger generation raised on suburban commercial franchises like Starbucks and the MTV studios in Times Square, not on mom-and-pop theaters that look like something out of The Last Picture Show, transplanted into the city.
“For us, it’s a film center,” he said. “It’s not a movie theater with a restaurant; it’s a film center where filmmakers are going to see movies or work on their movies or screen rough cuts. And we wanted to have someplace where they could hang out and talk about movies afterward.”