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Meyer Ackerman, 96, Whose Theaters Were Loved by Cinephiles, Dies

Meyer Ackerman, whose movie theaters brought hard-to-find films to audiences in and around New York City in the decades before home video and the internet made hidden cinematic gems easier to access, died on Oct. 21 in White Plains, N.Y. He was 96.

His son Brian said the cause was a heart attack.

Beginning in the early 1950s Mr. Ackerman, generally with business partners, operated theaters in the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and various suburbs. Some were standard commercial theaters, but he was beloved among cinephiles for the houses, most of them single-screen, that showed foreign films, independent films, quirky films, films too controversial for the mainstream.

Perhaps chief among these was the 68th Street Playhouse on Third Avenue in Manhattan, which he acquired in 1969. He built its reputation as a destination for movie lovers, as he had already done for the Carnegie Hall Cinema on Seventh Avenue, which he and two partners opened in 1961.

Having the Meyer Ackerman seal of approval could take an under-the-radar film a very long way. When he presented the French film “La Cage aux Folles” at the 68th Street Playhouse in 1979, it ran for an astonishing 19 months. It ran for so long, in fact, that by the time of its final showing at 68th Street, in December 1980, the sequel, “La Cage aux Folles II,” was already out. Mr. Ackerman of course booked it.

He had another spectacular success with “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a gentle comedy from South Africa that became a word-of-mouth phenomenon after he opened it in July 1984.

“After five months, the film took on a life of its own, and we were no longer selling it,” Mr. Ackerman told The New York Times a year later, with people still lining up outside the 68th Street Playhouse to see the movie. “We get young people, old people, middle-aged people, sophisticated and unsophisticated people and all ethnic groups.”

It ran there for 20 months.

Mr. Ackerman was born on Feb. 27, 1923, in the Bronx. His father, Isidore, was a waiter, and his mother, Molly (Stern) Ackerman, was a maid; both were from Hungary.

Meyer grew up in the Bronx and, after graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, served in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

After studying at Institute of Film Techniques of the City College of New York, Mr. Ackerman held several jobs at Columbia Pictures, although, as he told The Times in 2005, they “had nothing to do with the art end, which was what I liked.”

In 1950 a longtime friend, Sid Bernstein, introduced him to Marilyn Weingarten; they married the next year. Mr. Bernstein, a promoter, later became known for a different sort of introduction: He was a key figure in introducing the Beatles to the United States.

In the mid-1950s Mr. Ackerman took over the Devon, a theater in the Bronx that had opened in the 1930s, and he and his partners, Bob Ferman and Eve Schlosser, soon added theaters in Irvington, N.J., Syracuse and elsewhere.

In 1961 they renovated an Off Broadway theater in a corner of Carnegie Hall into a 300-seat movie house concentrating on foreign and independent films.

“The supply is there,” Mr. Ackerman told The Times that year. “It only takes time, selectivity and, I suppose, faith in your choices.”

When the cinema opened in May 1961 with the Italian director Luchino Visconti’s “White Nights,” the Times critic Bosley Crowther was more impressed with the house than he was with the movie.

“We are happy to report that the red, white and gold theater is a lot brighter than this black and white film,” he wrote.

As his theater holdings grew, Mr. Ackerman found himself courted by film world figures eager to secure a spot in one of his cinemas.

“It was a time when art films played exclusively at one theater,” Brian Ackerman, founding director of programming at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., said by email, “and almost by definition, films that opened in New York were an American, if not a world, premiere.”

Especially in New York, this was a vigorous period in cinema, with moviegoers growing more adventurous and numerous theaters opening.

“The key theaters were all situated along a relatively narrow band of Midtown,” Brian Ackerman said. “So there was this wonderful dynamic of jockeying for films and position all the time, and art houses were always angling to elevate their reputation so the range of films they could select from would expand.”

Mr. Ackerman could be unrelenting when he found a film he liked. It took him four years to secure the rights to “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” which had been released in South Africa in 1980. His wife played a part in that story.

Mr. Ackerman had seen a 20-minute promotional reel for the movie at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

“I saw it, loved it and wanted to distribute it, but they had ambitions of selling it to a major,” he told The Times in 1985. Jensen-Farley Pictures, another distributor, obtained the rights and was planning on premiering it in the United States in a string of Southern theaters.

Marilyn Ackerman, her interest in movies blossoming as a result of her husband’s career, had founded the Westchester Cinema Club with Beth Kochen in 1980. Club members got to see screenings of movies before their general release, and Ms. Ackerman secured a showing of “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” collecting comment cards afterward from those in attendance.

“I sent those sensational comment cards to Jensen-Farley,” Mr. Ackerman recalled, “with a letter that said: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got in this picture. You’ve got to open in New York.’”

Jensen-Farley continued to decline. But happily, at least for Mr. Ackerman, the company went bankrupt in 1983 before it could release the film. The tenacious Mr. Ackerman eventually secured the rights from Fox’s classics division.

Marilyn Ackerman died in 2012. In addition to his son Brian, Mr. Ackerman is survived by another son, Farrell; a daughter, Harriet Ackerman; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Ackerman’s art-house cinemas gradually fell by the wayside as high rents and the rise of the multiplex changed the movie presentation business. The 68th Street Playhouse closed in 1996.

For years the Westchester Cinema Club held its screenings at the 350-seat Scarsdale Fine Arts Cinema, which opened in 1972. Mr. Ackerman and two partners, Arthur and Bob Tolchin, built that theater from the ground up, imbuing it with the look and feel of an East Side art-house venue.

But that theater, Mr. Ackerman’s last, is also now gone; it closed in 2006. The final film shown there was the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” — the nostalgia-tinged story of a small theater that, by the movie’s end, is slated for demolition.

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