Sunday night the magic of the movies once again seeped off the United Palace's silver screen and filled the hearts and minds of the 1,200 guests who came to see "West Side Story," the classic retelling of "Romeo and Juliet," but this time with Spanish subtitles - literally and figuratively.
The movie is over 50 years old, and played at the theatre during its initial run in 1961. But it is hard to imagine it ever having a more devoted audience, one that was more primed to snap their fingers at the start and wipe away the tears at the end.
In the United Palace of Cultural Arts' ongoing effort to transcend the film-going experience, the evening featured Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the role of Anita in the film. She filled in the back story of the making of the film, and enchanted the audience with her intelligence, sass, humor, uncompromising standards, and, yes, footwear.
The fact that she lived on 180th Street during her childhood, when she was still named Rosita Dolores Alverio, only pulled the audience closer to her. Yet the February 23 screening was her first time in the United Palace, which was named the Loew's 175th Street Theatre back when she lived uptown.
At the center of the night's activities was emcee Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose interview on Playbill.com published over the weekend described how the film helped him better understand his Puerto Rican heritage. He danced with Ms. Moreno, played off her supernova star power, and, during intermission, even orchestrated a prom night date between teens playing the characters of Usnavi and Carla from a high school production of "In the Heights," the Tony Award-winning musical he created.
The audience, diverse, came from all over. The city's northern zip codes were certainly well represented (the ads for the local restaurants during the trailers received hearty cheers). But the combination of Ms. Moreno and a screening of one of America's greatest 50 films attracted fans from further away. One woman had to leave soon after intermission in order to drive home to her home in the Philadelphia suburbs.
The entire night flowed from one highlight to the next. It started with a flash mob by professional dancers who just came off a tour of "West Side Story," organized by Chezzam Event Group and Broadway Performing Arts Center. Portraying the Jets and Sharks, they staged a confrontation in the foyer then regrouped onstage to recreate the film's dance scene in the gym, before being chased off by a stand-in for Officer Krupke. (Ms. Moreno commented on how fast they paced the famous scene.)
Soon after, Miranda took the stage and introduced the special guest, who made the trip to New York from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area thanks to the efforts of The Broadway League and Viva Broadway.
Ms. Moreno had the crowd hanging on her every word. She spun stories about how the leather bracelets worn by the Sharks were purchased at a porn shop, that it was so hot while filming the rooftop dance to the song "America" that the dancers' shoes often stuck in the tar, and in response to a quip from Miranda she showed off her sparkly footwear, and the set of legs they are attached to.
When she and Miranda finally took their seats, he got the crowd to jump out of their seats to punctuate the anthematic notes of the overture. They erupted again when Ms. Moreno made her first appearance in the film.
The magic continued even after the film ended, as Washington Heights native Victoria Ortiz, accompanied by guitarist and YouTube artist Stason Bobo, sang tunes from the film on the Palace's grand staircase as movie goers left the building.
It was a tremendous night for the Palace and for uptown, and only the second offering in the first six classic NYC films in the "Sunday Movies at the Palace with Lin-Manuel Miranda" series. Considering today's sad passing of Harold Ramis, we'll see what Miranda and the Palace come up with for the next title in the series, "Ghostbusters" on March 23.