By Victoria Hallerman
Starts Wednesday: A Day in the Life of a Movie Palace recalls 1976, the year I spent with my husband and a group of similarly-misguided friends, trying to save the St. George Theater, a classic 2672-seat movie palace in New York City’s most neglected borough, Staten Island.
The middle years of the seventies were a low point in the movie business — especially for single-screen palaces, but we didn’t know that, and if we had, wouldn’t have cared, bent as we were on turning the place into a venue for live Rock ‘n Roll. The movies would make us enough money to keep the whole thing afloat, or so we thought. First-time entrepreneurs in love with a cavernous “Spanish Baroque” hall, we ignored near-riots, a greedy and delusional landlord, racial conflict, crooked fire inspectors and a checkbook perpetually in the red. But if this is the story of a failed business, it is also my story: twenty-eight, recently arrived from Cincinnati, a failed painter and photographer, with an annoying and painful habit of writing poems and short-stories that went nowhere. Why not, I wondered, just chuck it all and learn a useful trade, like managing aging movie palaces? The theater was a gorgeous Trompe L’oil dream, scary and dangerous and fun. I met a lot of remarkable people and began to stand confidently center stage — both literally and figuratively — for the first time in my life. Failures sometimes make the best adventures."
—Victoria Hallerman, author
The St. George Theatre Today
Today the St. George Theatre is a successful working house, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Mrs. Rosemary Cappozalo (dec.) and her daughters, Luanne Sorrentino and Doreen Cugno, who saved it from almost-certain demolition, the fate of so many grand old movie palaces.
On December 4, 1929, little more than a month after the Wall Street crash that started the Great Depression, the St. George Theater opened its doors. It was, of course, a Wednesday; new features always started on that day.
Blossom Seeley, the “Original Red Hot Mama,” and Benny Fields, a blues man of some note, were the first performers to stand center stage. Arnold Johnson and his Majestic Orchestra held forth in the pit just below. “You have heard him over the radio, now see him in person,” the playbill boasted; Johnson was the bandleader on “The Majestic Theater of the Air,” a program broadcast on Sunday evenings, whose sponsor was Majestic Radios. On the other side of the playbill, the movie side, So This is College, “The Greatest Talking–Singing–Dancing Picture of Them All!” starred Elliot Nugent, Robert Montgomery, Cliff Edwards (aka Ukelele Ike) and Sally Starr. Of these stars, only Robert Montgomery would go on to any lasting fame.
The theater was the main attraction. “Film and Vaudeville Cathedral Ranks as Very Best in the City,” boasted The Staten Island Advance on Tuesday, December 3, 1929, an exaggeration based on local pride, though the new theater could easily hold its own with the Roxy and the other great Manhattan houses. Eighth in a chain owned by entrepreneur Solomon Brill and his Isle Theatrical corporation, the new theater could seat three thousand, with unobstructed views and enviable acoustics.
Vaudeville—as an entertainment warm-up for talking pictures—was to continue for at least a few years. On December 26, 1933, The Staten Island Advance ran an article headlined, “Actors Robbed at St. George.” “...the robberies must have been committed between 9 and 10 P.M., while...vaudeville was in progress. The thief is believed to have calmly walked in the stage door and entered in turn each of the dressing rooms being used by the artists.” Performers’ wallets, handbags and jewelry were apparently never recovered.
These may have been the St. George’s last Vaudeville performers. The following year, 1934, saw the end of live shows with each movie. But throughout the second world war, guests such as Al Jolson, Kate Smith, Jack Dempsey and Ogden Nash made rare appearances there.
A $25,000.00 Wurlitzer organ installed in 1929 entertained patrons until 1935, when, in a move to trim expenses, management abruptly let go its organist, Andy Anderson. Silent from that point onward, the organ remained in the theater until 1972.
In 1938 the theater was sold to what would become Fabian Enterprises, managed by S. H. Fabian, a long-time theater man with connections to the Warner brothers. It was to remain in Fabian hands until 1972.
The forties and fifties were high-rolling years for movie theater operators, but as early as 1952, The Year Book of Motion Pictures published an essay by Larry Goodman of The Film Daily with the ominous title, “Television: the Competitor.”
“At the end of 1950, the general figures showed that some 7,213,700 families or 17.9 per cent of the total population, owned television receiver sets in their homes. On November 1 of last year ...the figures had just about doubled...” We postwar babies were growing up at the movies, as our sisters and brothers had before us; there were still newsreels, and plenty of cartoons, and palaces to show them in, but people had a choice of screens to watch, and some of the screens were pretty small. The St. George held its own in the 1950‘s, if not entirely through movie profits. Often enough, it was leased to colleges and high schools for graduation ceremonies. On December 9, 1958, the first production of The Richmond Opera Company, 'La Traviata,' featured a Metropolitan Opera star of some note, Licia Albanese. The local company continued for four seasons, but quit after losing too much money--not surprising, as a sign found in a storage room at the theater boasts, 'Four Operas for $3.00'.”
By 1964, articles about the St. George in the local paper seemed to have a nostalgic tone. In “Staten Island’s Heritage: 2 Largest Theaters Boast Aura of Escapism,” William Franz notes that although the Paramount and St. George have been “...modernized in many respects, ...somehow the expectancy of ... gaily-garbed characters out of ‘The Arabian Nights’ hovers in the air.” With an enthusiasm that overwhelms workaday prose, he seems pleased that, “A part of the escape-oriented world of the late 20’s and 30’s breathes yet within their walls.” Eight years later, in 1972, Jack Reycraft, another local columnist, was curious as to the movie house’s fate, “It will be interesting to a great many of us nostalgiaphiles to see what becomes of the St. George Theater now that it has been sold by the Fabian Theaters chain. The new owners indicate they intend to refurbish the theater and reopen it as a movie house.”
The new owner was our landlord-to-be, who then rented the theater out to Fabian’s former manager for an unsuccessful four-year-run. During this period, all but one of a dozen alabaster torchere lamps and various other items were apparently sold off, including the great Wurlitzer organ--which went to an ice cream parlor in Kansas City. Like an aging beauty stripped of her jewels, the theater took on a shabby look.
Enter, briefly, in 1976, our crew of spirited entrepreneurs.