Wise griots of the country blues inform us, “You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.” Covid-19 is currently making us miss a lot of things we used to take for granted – among them such small pleasures as going out to see a movie, surrounded by a live audience, sharing our emotional response to what’s playing out on that great big screen. Streaming a newly released film at home has its conveniences, but falls short when it comes to providing a sense of collective discovery, of being one part of a grander cultural moment.
For fans of art cinema, the timeline on the “About” page of the Upstate Films website provides an intriguing memory-jog for such collective moments over the past four decades. Notable movies that screened at Upstate in a particular year are juxtaposed against major world, national and pop-culture events that shaped the prevailing zeitgeist. We are reminded of what was living in our heads at the time that we first saw a certain movie, preparing the soil for what sort of reaction might bloom there. It becomes plainer than ever that art, however pure in its conception, blossoms within a social context and influences its audience accordingly.
One also notices, in reading this timeline, that terrifying times for the survival of cinema did not begin with Covid. “Is the end nigh?” the webpage asks rhetorically after the opening of a ten-screen megaplex in Kingston in 1982, and again after 14 more screens open locally in 1985. The theater is picketed in 1988 and threatened with elimination of funding by the Dutchess County Legislature in 1995 for showing the controversial film Priest.
But there are many high points as well: old seats are replaced in 1980, a 35mm projector acquired in 1983, a second screen in Rhinebeck launched in 1999, Woodstock’s Tinker Street Cinema rescued in 2010, digital projection and sound added in 2013. Live events happen there that become legendary: talks by Pauline Kael, Jonathan Demme, Wayne Wang, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, John Sayles, Todd Haynes, John Patrick Shanley, Errol Morris, Jim Jarmusch, Debra Granik, Ralph Nader, Scott Ritter, Natalie Merchant, Neil Gaiman. Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory beta-test My Dinner with Andre as a play before it becomes a Louis Malle film. For longtime patrons, the list of films screened evokes so many memories of rare gems first uncovered under Upstate’s roof.
They just loved movies
The two theaters have been closed since the pandemic came crashing down last spring, with no plans to reopen for the foreseeable future, leaving a big hole in many a mid-Hudson film buff’s heart. That makes it an auspicious time for a changing of the guard. Steve and DeDe Leiber – who founded Upstate Films as a not-for-profit in 1972 with a third partner, Susan Goldman, and have been running the operation in a very hands-on way ever since – have decided to retire and pass the torch to a new director whose identity they say they are not yet ready to announce.
It wasn’t merely the protracted closure that sparked the changeover to new leadership, according to DeDe. “We’d been talking about it for four or five years, and discussing it intensively with the board in the last three years,” she reports. “We began a national search. We were very happy with the people who applied, and the people who were chosen.”
Philadelphia natives, the Leibers first met in high school and reconnected in college, moving to New York City together in the mid-1960s. DeDe took some film courses at NYU before NYU Film School was a thing, but neither pursued a degree in the subject. They just loved movies, especially offbeat ones. “New York City was a film school, because you could go to the movies round the clock,” says Steve. “It was the heyday of international films,” adds DeDe.
With the onset of the 1970s, American independent cinema began to burgeon, and the Leibers were inspired to start looking for a site upstate to open their own art house. “We said, ‘We like movies; let’s put on a show. Because we have no money, we’ll have to do it all ourselves,’” Steve recounts.
A great location
“We wanted to have a real old-fashioned movie theater and not just folding chairs set up in a barn,” says DeDe. “We were young and idealistic, and wanted to have fun. We didn’t know if it would work. We had a lot of nerve that we didn’t know we had.”
Driving from town to town in 1971, with less than $5000 in seed money borrowed from their parents, the couple, who “looked pretty much like hippies … got a lot of doors slammed in our faces,” she continues.
Eventually they managed to find a vacant theater in Rhinebeck whose former operators wanted to sublet. They were Nate Post (the father of legendary WBAI radio personality Steve Post) and his wife Madeleine, who weren’t put off by the arrival of idealistic young hippies on the doorstep.
The board of directors of the Starr Library, which owned the building, had to approve the sublease; but for some reason one member, realtor Doris Tieder “took a liking to us,” despite her also being an official of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, according to Steve. Approval was granted, and Madeleine Post helped the Leibers make connections with Rhinebeck’s landed gentry.
“We invited all the local muckety-mucks to opening night, and they came,” says DeDe. They showed the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and a Buster Keaton short, plus some live entertainment. Many of those audience members became donors, and some remain supporters to this day. “It was great serendipity. We didn’t know that we had chosen a great location.”
Rhinebeck being easily accessible by Metro North rail or by car via the Taconic Parkway helped Upstate Films become a cultural magnet and an anchor for community revitalization. The Leibers began to realize that their patrons were traveling from far and wide in 1974, when they screened the political documentary I. F. Stone’s Weekly. “The place was packed. People were coming out of the woods to see this movie,” Steve recalls.
“We were both shocked and delighted by that,” DeDe agrees.
They took it as a sign that Upstate could be more than a repertory cinema showing foreign films and Hollywood classics – that it could take more chances, show more provocative work, without worrying so much about alienating their rurally based audience. Documentaries about hot-button issues have been staple offerings ever since.
Importation of foreign films began to wane in the 1980s, they note, when easy availability of videotape recording technology to consumers made home movie-viewing more popular. “Once VHS happened, that was the first time the sky was falling,” Steve recounts. “People didn’t want to read subtitles on their home screens. But that led to a boom in US indie films.”
The rise of the home theater is a trend that has been coming on for a long time, the Leibers note, but it didn’t stop Americans from wanting to go out and make an evening of seeing a movie with friends – not until Covid-19, at least. “People do like to congregate together, arm to arm, watching something in the dark,” Steve says.
It remains to be seen whether consumers getting used to streaming all their movie fare online will result in that becoming their preferred method, or if the idea of a night out at the movies will take on new luster precisely on account of being withheld for so long.
While New York State began to phase in live movie theater attendance in October, audiences have so far proven reluctant to risk congregating even in large multiplexes, and neighborhood cinemas like Upstate have lacked the resources to reopen. DeDe points out that the smaller of the two Rhinebeck theater spaces could only sell nine tickets if allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity. And she questions whether investing in fancy air-filtration systems would enable them to host a vulnerable audience of mostly older viewers safely.
How and when to reopen will be the first challenge on the plate of Upstate’s new director, likely driven by the success of the vaccination campaign. The Leibers will stay on as directors emeriti – at least until Upstate’s 50th anniversary in May 2022. Meanwhile, they’re looking forward to being able to “do some of the things that other people have been doing on Saturday nights for the past 40-some years,” as DeDe puts it. She wants to visit her grandchildren in Brooklyn, pursue hobbies, maybe “participate in the civic life of the community” once she has had some time to unwind. “I think I’d like to be an astronaut,” Steve jokes, before talking about “building a bigger garden, growing more of my own food.”
Once the pandemic is over, they’ll keep on visiting Upstate Films, enjoying movies from the audience without having to worry about cleaning the dregs of real butter out of the popcorn machine at the end of the night. “I’ve been missing the social interaction with our regulars. That’s some of the great joy that I’ve taken from it all these years: having people respond to the programming,” DeDe says. “Hugs and handshakes and going to the movies – I’d like to see them all come back.”