It has been a long time since I first met Dan Talbot — almost thirty-one years. In the late spring of 1986, Dan interviewed and then hired me as his assistant at New Yorker Films. It was just my second job in film, after working for a few months at First Run Features. I remember being wowed by the spacious sun-lit offices and by Dan, who was elegant, patrician and avuncular. Even at that first meeting I understood that he was a sophisticated man of culture. In fact, I got the impression that he was more impressed by my graduate work at Yale than my experience in film. Whatever did the trick, I was very happy to join the company.
I only lasted about a year in that role of assistant (as Dan later observed, I seemed to have a problem with authority… and still do), but I stayed on at New Yorker for another three years as a nontheatrical film booker. During those years, I learned so much of what I know about film distribution.
And so when it came out in 2009, I was excited to read The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, the memoir that Dan’s wife Toby wrote about their life together. And this month I eagerly turned to Dan’s article in the Spring 2017 Cineaste magazine: “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor.” And I also read Cynthia Rowell’s article: “The New Yorker Stories: Dan Talbot’s Life in Film” on the magazine’s website
In the Cineaste article, Dan writes brilliantly about his memories of the world of international and repertory cinema and about his relationships with of some of the great auteurs he has encountered. His descriptions of life at the New Yorker Theater, which he ran until 1973 (when I was still a NJ high school student) make me wish I had been in the audience for the incredible series and premieres. Truly, our cultural landscape would have been much emptier without his heroic — even herculean — efforts to introduce American audiences to such great filmmakers as Zhang Yimou, Ousmane Sembene, Alain Tanner, Louis Malle and so many others.
New Yorker Films honored those and other filmmakers, not only in the company’s gorgeous printed catalogs but also in a long line of photographs that stretched many yards down the right-hand wall of the company’s office when I worked there. These 8x10 photos were covered by long sheets of lucite that could be opened so that the order of the images could be rearranged. If Claude Lanzmann were coming by, his photo would quickly be moved to the number one spot.
The appreciation by Cynthia Rowell (a good friend, who worked with us at Milestone Films for years before joining New Yorker and now Cineaste) updates and contextualizes Dan’s great contributions to cinema in the US. She writes about how New Yorker helped fuel the flowering of film societies and independent cinemas because programmers could rely on the “New Yorker seal of approval.” And she rightly highlights the importance of Dan’s work in promoting films with strong political messages from around the world.
And although I really enjoyed these narratives, I came away asking one question:
“But, where is Jose Lopez?”
Because when I think about the New Yorker Films I worked at — and later worked with for decades — my very first thoughts are about Jose.
When I started at New Yorker, I worked as assistant to Dan and Jose — and as liaison between the distribution company and the three theaters that Dan owned or was partner in: the Cinema Studio, Metro, and Lincoln Plaza. The New Yorker Films office was on the top floor of a building at 16 West 61st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam and featured high ceilings, skylights and an open floor plan. In a previous incarnation, the space had been an automobile assembly facility. After being buzzed in the door, you faced a long reception desk and to your left was a cubicle featuring a desk, some filing cabinets and partition walls — which is where Jose worked. I sat at the assistant’s desk — just beyond the wall on the far side of Jose’s area. Facing me was Dan’s office, a separate room that featured a large glass window and a door.
When he was in the office, Dan had me working on contracts, correspondence, and sending telexes (Google this if you haven’t used one. And here is a photo of one.
This was before the Internet when international communication was a challenge. I was working at New Yorker when the company acquired its first fax machine, years later). But Dan came and went on his own schedule and even as his assistant, I often did not know when or if he would be in. In fact, that picture window into Dan’s office could be deceiving. It was not floor to ceiling, so several times I (and others) walked in to what looked like an empty office with the lights out, and almost stumbled on the six-foot-plus Dan Talbot, stretched out for a nap on the carpeted floor.
Jose was always, always there and always moving. When he stopped by my desk, I would assist him by writing marquee copy; contacting the theater mangers to make sure they had trailers, one-sheets, and 35mm prints; reporting box office; or proofreading ad copy. Then he would set off at a trot to check on problems in accounting or the office screening room or the shipping department or with the catalog layout. Very often, when we all left at the end of the day (there were eight or nine of us on staff at that time) he would still be at his desk or rushing off to the theaters to solve other problems. Jose lived on the Upper West Side and came in evenings, weekends, and holidays. He was the hardest working person I have ever known.
He was also funny and kind. Jose grew up in Cuba and although his English was excellent, he occasionally made mistakes that were both brilliant and hilarious. If you had to get over something, it was “water over the bridge.” My favorite was one that took me a while to figure out. When we started dating, my future husband Dennis was working at rival film company, Kino International. Jose heard about our romance and suggested that I might “pull a Camille.” It was only my familiarity with the films of Greta Garbo that allowed me to decipher that one. Jose was not suggesting I die of consumption, but was hoping I would take on the role of Mata Hari and learn a bit about Kino’s acquisition plans.
I am tempted to say that Jose was like the energizer bunny or that he was the heart of the company, but both those metaphors fail to account for how incredibly smart, competent and just encyclopedically knowledgeable he was about every aspect of film exhibition and distribution. Everyone relied on him all the time — for everything. Do you have a problem with the booking software? Ask Jose. Is there broken popcorn machine at the Cinema Studio? Jose will know how to fix that. Does a filmmaker need an advance on royalties? Jose will get a check cut. Is an exhibitor taking forever to pay? Ask Jose. Lab problems? Aspect ratio questions? Publicity concerns? Video production glitches? Everyone turned to him for everything.
Even years after Dennis and I had founded Milestone, we still would sometimes call Jose for advice. And he always welcomed our questions and really tried to help. That warmth and connection also made him a great boss and a great mentor.
When I was at New Yorker, I sometimes thought that in their partnership, Dan was the quintessential “dad” — both king of the castle and procurer of the household bacon (which for New Yorker meant attending festivals, meeting with filmmakers and sales agents, and acquiring new films). And Jose was “mom,” sensitive to the situations of all the kids/staff, constantly multi-tasking, incredibly hard-working, and somewhat unseen and under-appreciated by the outside world.
Well, decades later I am a mom — and co-owner of a mom-and-pop distribution company — so my perspective has evolved. I can see that both men loved the films themselves and that their dedication to cinema fueled their collaboration and gave their partnership tenacity. Dan’s role — representing the company and establishing it as a vital cultural voice and resource — was essential and suited his personality and many talents. I recognize too that Jose thrived on solving the million-and-one problems and challenges of keeping a business going.
I remember that despite his warmth and boundless energy, Jose is shy. I found exactly one photo of him online and it was taken another New Yorker alum, Reid Rosefelt (The photo above is a better image, also courtesy of Reid). I don’t really know if Jose will like that I am writing about him now
But as a working film distributor for so many years, I also know that what Jose did at New Yorker Films was absolutely essential to its excellence and success. And I know that I, and dozens of other working film professionals, owe him so much. I know that I can never fully thank him all his kindness and wisdom — but I offer this blog in partial payment.