‘Dreaming Walls’ Goes Inside Eccentric, Historic Chelsea Hotel – Deadline

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Any day now the renovated Chelsea Hotel will fully reopen, capping a drawn out process that has seen the grand edifice on the west side of Manhattan shrouded in netting and defaced by scaffolding for over a decade.

Repeated construction delays, legal wrangling between residents and the building owners, as well as a dispute with the city agency devoted to historic properties all contributed to the endless postponements. But the magic of a place that has been home to the artistic and idiosyncratic for over a century seemingly cannot be obscured by clouds of construction dust.

The new documentary Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel invites viewers inside the red brick palace to spend time with long-term residents who contribute to, and perhaps are, the essence of the Chelsea’s charm.

Maya Duverdier (L) and Amélie van Elmbt, directors of 'Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel'

Directors Maya Duverdier (L) and Amélie van Elmbt
Magnolia Pictures

“It’s a film of encounters and the people we met, we love them,” explains Maya Duverdier, who co-directed the film with Amélie van Elmbt. “We wanted to talk about these lives that have been in the shadow, in a way, of the bigger names.”

The bigger names range from Mark Twain in the 19th century to Oscar Wilde in the early 20th. Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, composer Virgil Thomson, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, Stanley Kubrick and fellow filmmaker Miloš Foreman, and the artist Christo, have all been associated with the Hotel Chelsea in one way or another. Andy Warhol shot films there. The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious may or may not have stabbed his girlfriend to death there in 1978. But the filmmakers believe the lesser known residents may be just as responsible for creating the Chelsea aura.

A resident of the Chelsea Hotel as seen in 'Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel'

Artist Bettina Grossman in ‘Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel’
Magnolia Pictures/Clindoeil Films

“That’s the fertile soil to let the other [famous] ones emerge,” Duverdier insists. “It doesn’t emerge just like that. You need a context. You need an atmosphere. These people are also part of this atmosphere.”

Among the first Chelsea residents they got to know was Bettina Grossman, an artist who tenanted room 503, a space so stuffed with artwork that Grossman often slept in her hallway on a lawn chair.

“She was eccentric with a capital E,” noted Robert Lambert, a painter and fellow tenant, in an interview with the New York Times that marked Grossman’s passing last year at age 94. “Her room was like an Egyptian tomb. It looked like a wreck, but you blow off the dust and there’s nothing but beautiful sculptural treasures.”

Grossman lived in the Chelsea for 50 years. Another resident interviewed in Dreaming Walls notes, “I’ve had six or eight lives here.”

Choreographer Merle Lister dances with a construction worker in 'Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel'

Choreographer Merle Lister dances with a construction worker
Magnolia Pictures/Clindoeil Films

Chelsea denizen Skye Ferrante sculpts remarkable portraits out of wire. He’s a youngster compared to dancer-choreographer Merle Lister, another character in the film. In 1983, for the 100th anniversary of the building, Lister created the “Dance of the Spirits,” in which a woman in a white gown writhed along the Chelsea’s ornate staircase, draping herself dangerously over the railing. Aged now, Lister stills moves balletically at times, lifting herself out of a wheelchair.

“They are getting older, so of course it becomes hard sometimes to really create,” Duverdier says of the graying artists. “But it has been their life all the time and they choose it since the beginning. And a lot of them, for example, they don’t have children. They just have this art.”

The Chelsea’s reputation as a haven for artists was well established by 1964 when Stanley Bard, a part owner, began managing the place. He became known as a “Robin Hood of innkeepers,” who nurtured the Bohemian culture, “running the hotel with a studied obliviousness” (as the New York Times put it) for over 40 years.

“[Bard] really created this place. He chose the people who were able to live there, who would get on well together, who would become good artists,” the French-born Duverdier says. “The Chelsea is his own masterpiece. I think if you don’t have this person who is the center, who is the colonne vertébrale (vertebral column), it’s hard to create something like that.”

Part of the sign for the Chelsea Hotel, with view of street below

Magnolia Pictures/Clindoeil Films

The hotel’s current owners have built a private elevator for long-time residents, but instead of that being a convenience, some residents feel it’s meant to keep them out of sight of paying guests. The ownership wants to leverage the exotic history of the place without having it encroach too much on visitors shelling out for luxury accommodations.

“There’s a paradox even for the owners,” Duverdier says. “I think they need these last Bohemians. In a way it can become a kind of zoo where you go and see, ‘Oh, what does it look like?’”

Martin Scorsese executive produced Dreaming Walls, which is being distributed theatrically by Magnolia Pictures. The film is also available for viewing on a variety of platforms including Apple TV, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Spectrum, Dish, DirecTV and others.

A question hovers around the Chelsea Hotel–whether ghosts haunt the corridors and lurk in the alcoves. That’s part of the mystique.

“Like Patti Smith said at the beginning of the film, she went there because she wanted to follow the trace of the giants. And so she also arrived with all these ghosts [in mind],” Duverdier observes, adding that spectral images make for a visual motif in the film. “We wanted to play with archive projected on the walls to give the sensation of the ghost going out of the walls, because the walls are now decrepit and they are open like an open body.”

As for the actual presence of ghosts…

“When we talked with the construction workers,” the director says, “they liked to scare us, saying, ‘Oh, we found a footprint in the dust with just three toes.’ You’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ Yeah, there are always stories like that.”

Something evanescent, yet more tangible than phantoms, engages the directors.

“For me, the film is something that I want for the next generation,” Duverdier says. “I want them to remember what [the Chelsea] used to be because it’s really easy to keep a myth alive. But behind the myth, there were real people that really created it and that without them there is nothing.”



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