We chat with Turner Classic Movies’ New York City tour guides about NYC at the movies ahead of their guest hosting on TCM.
Jason Silverman had a defining vision of life in New York long before he ever moved to the city that never sleeps. How could he not? Despite growing up in an entirely different town, the towering spires and bright lights of Manhattan were featured in many of the films that defined his childhood—on Turner Classic Movies or otherwise. And of all those classics, none were more enormous than King Kong, the movie about a big ape taking a swan dive off the Empire State Building in Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 masterpiece.
“I grew up in Chicago, and the way I fell in love with New York was through the movies,” Silverman reminisces during a phone conversation. “And King Kong was always one of my favorites. I went to NYU, and my dorm room had a view of the Empire State Building. Every single time I looked at it, I’d go, ‘This is King Kong.’ And that’s always my first reaction no matter how many times I look at the building or point it out on the tour.”
Such a visceral reaction is just as likely why he and fellow cinephile Sarah Louise Lilley have made such good colleagues and guides on Turner Classic Movies’ bus tours, which visit only some of the countless film locations across the Manhattan skyline—as well as why both have been invited to guest host TCM’s love letter to New York in the movies on Jan. 30.
Indeed, the perennial network for aficionados of classic cinema, and especially Golden Age Hollywood, is celebrating the silver screen’s favorite location with a night of classic films on TCM. Beginning at 8pm, Lilley and Silverman will discuss just some of the popular locations used in movies like King Kong, Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967), Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town (1949), and Alfred Hitchcock’s globetrotting North by Northwest (1959). Because even if it is a fast-traveling spy yarn with Cary Grant, you can’t not make time for a drink at the Plaza’s famed Oak Room.
Silverman calls it a murderer’s row of filmmaking talent, and Lilley astutely points out during our phone interview that across all four films, you get different flavors of the Big Apple, as well as how Hollywood filmmakers’ vision of the city evolved through the decades.
“On the Town perfectly captures the sort of experience of coming to New York and wanting to squeeze as much stuff in one day as you possibly can, and that energy,” Lilley says. “I think those [four films] especially encapsulate the vibe of New York.”
Lilley, who like Silverman has been a guide for TCM’s tours since they began over four years ago, thinks there is a special connection between classic Hollywood cinema and the draw of New York. For also like Silverman, she has had a lifelong passion for the classics—she and her father used to watch Casablanca every night when she was a baby, as it was apparently the only thing that would stop her late night crying due to a bout of colic. And that admiration extends to the metropolis she calls home.
“New York does have this allure,” Lilley says. “I think that New York in the movies is what brings a lot of people to New York. They have just seen it over the years onscreen, and it has such a romantic allure about it; it’s a cinematic city.”
This of course includes the actual cinematic locations their tour highlights, mostly in the mid and Uptown areas of Manhattan. From Grand Central, which features prominently in North by Northwest, to the Lincoln Center fountain that Gene Wilder skipped along in delirium during The Producers, there are many iconic locales to be gleaned. Both guides have their favorite stops too. For Lilley, it’s Riverview Terrace, the scenic area adjacent to the Queensboro Bridge that always seems as if it should have the strings of George Gershwin playing nearby. It also featured in Our Man Godfrey and Bells are Ringing and My Man Godfrey. For Silverman, it is the gothic Ansonia building off 72nd Street and near the Dakota. Built at the turn of the 20th century, it’s been in movies like Three Days of the Condor and The Sunshine Boys (which is featured with a visual clip during the TCM tour). Although for Silverman, it is the rich history of the structure that is its greatest set dressing.
“It was the first hotel to offer air conditioning, and with silver drapes inside,” Silverman marvels. “They would change the sheets three times a day; there was a fountain in the lobby with live seals in it, and there was a Turkish bath in the basement that Bette Midler used to perform in during the ‘70s with Barry Manilow as the pianist. And there was an elevator large enough to bring full-size cows and chickens all the way to the roof, so that guests could have fresh milk and eggs with their meal in the morning.”
This insight into the many historic locales that Silverman and Lilley—like Hollywood before them—visit is part of the secret appeal to classic cinema.
“I love the way that, in some places, history interweaves beautifully with film history,” Lilley says. “We use these clips [on the tour] of New York from like 1957, you see what it looks like in 1957 onscreen in front of you, then you look out the window, and it’s 2018.”
Being able to bridge that divide with TCM has been a major opportunity for each guide, as well as a massive undertaking for both of them. Silverman suspects he had to intensely refamiliarize himself with at least 25 films after he discovered he could work with Turner Classic Movies on the tour. And for Lilley, the chance of working for what has become an institution to movie lovers across the continent has also meant interacting with a variety of audiences… including those who are considered a kind of royalty in certain circles.
“He was instrumental in the beginning,” Lilley recalls of the late great Robert Osborne, The Hollywood Reporter columnist who acted as primary host of TCM programming for over 20 years. “He took the tour several times in the practice sessions before it was opened to the public, making sure everything was correct and everything was kind of validated by him,” Lilley continues. “The first tour we ever did, he brought Jane Powell as his guest, so that was pretty amazing.”
It is also part of Osborne’s legacy, as with TCM itself, that allows Silverman and Lilley to guide these tours every Thursday and Saturday morning in New York. And unlike most tours, it is not just a way to see the city, but an actual event for passionate classic movie lovers… as well as a way to cultivate that passion in newer generations.
Muses Silverman, “Sometimes I get people, when we check in for the tour, who say, ‘Oh is this the senior citizen, old people tour?’ And I think that may be the majority of the audience, but in fact, one of my favorite tours is when we get kids who were like me growing up. Once we we had two kids under the age of 10 who, with their parents, knew everything. Everything. And on the trivia contest, everybody stopped participating because they just wanted to see these two kids [do]. And they were just amazing.”
Many fans of classic movies—the kind who would always love to watch King Kong or The Producers again—often worry about the future of film appreciation as older generations pass on. Yet it is in moments like these, on a TCM bus, that the future can look as golden as the past on celluloid.
“The perception of TCM may be for an older crowd,” Silverman says. “But I get so many younger, passionate people. Classic films are going to be in very good hands if we get people as passionate as this taking the tour and talking about it and writing about it, and sharing it.”
Viewers can see Silverman and Lilley share their love for New York movies while guest hosting TCM on Tuesday, Jan. 30, beginning at 8pm.