Proceeding backwards, if you’re thirty or below, it’s possible or even likely that you saw your first serious movie on Cable before you saw any such thing in a shared public environment. The generation that might eventually answer this question “...saw my first movie on Mommy’s ipad,” isn’t old enough to take this survey, and may not be given to reading blog posts about movie palaces, when they grow up. Life goes on, and nothing lasts forever.
I remember well Cincinnati’s movie palaces, (Cincy is where I grew up), and the local single-screen theaters in my immediate neighborhood. In 1976, newly-arrived in New York, I took a hand at running a palace in Staten Island, the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat house on the lip of New York Harbor. The first movie we ran at the St. George was Blazing Saddles, but the first movie I ever saw, twenty-six years before that, was Tea for Two starring Doris Day and Gordon MacRae a dream couple in fifties hetero America. This dreaminess is what attracted my sister, then fifteen, to the movie in question. No, the movie hadn’t been my choice (at two, who has a choice?) but my sister had to babysit me, and so off we went with her friend Madge, to watch the first of MacRae and Day’s “...genial, old-fashioned musical films...” The West Point Story, On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon would follow, causing the New York Times to reflect that “...these two [Day and MacRae] complement each other like peanut butter and jelly.” That was sex in fifties middle-class America. Not only was the movie not a PBJ to me, I didn’t like it at all — I screamed through it, as a matter of fact, causing my sister to tie me to my seat.
Sad as this tale of my passage through the “terrible twos” may be, it was the beginning of my long movie-watching career spent happily in the dark, tickling the bottom of a bag of popcorn for the half-opened “grannies” of corn I still love best. Most of the movies I saw growing up really were my choice. Who could forget Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? — the tentacles of the giant squid — or Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, with its then-high-tech special effects; a black-and-white saucer cutting off the dome of the Capitol building, demanded I hide my eyes behind my cupped hands. Saw those at the Mt. Lookout where my other sister, a Bobby-soxer with multiple boyfriends, had a job popping corn and staffing the box office, a glass and chrome single room on the street outside. (She was nearly killed in that box office by a stray bullet fired one New Year’s Eve that went through the glass, but that’s another story).
Dating at The Hyde Park Art, a local Art Moderne stadium theater, in the summer of ’64, I alternated between two terrors: 1.) fighting off my date’s clammy hand and 2.) watching Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove, ride the bomb out of its bay cowboy style, sparking the nuclear war we all feared. There were plenty more movies before I made it to New York to run a movie palace: Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road at the modest neighborhood Ambassador Theatre, later torn down to make way for a parking lot, and Barbarella: the last movie I saw at the much-beloved grand (and then still pristine) Albee downtown. After Jane Fonda strutted her stuff that night, three drapes (two valences and a formal house curtain) lowered, as the lights came up, and a solitary uniformed usher swept the nearly-empty gilded palace, from the top of the main aisle, down to the orchestra pit. The Albee was demolished eight years later, the year after we opened with Blazing Saddles, at the St. George in Staten Island. It was the seventies, and nobody but nobody was going to single-screen palaces anymore; but we didn’t know that.
Along with my husband Dean, also something of a renegade and nostalgist, I’m a sucker for a challenge, and I always want to save what’s nearly past but still somehow beautiful. It wasn’t a waste, because the St George, which we tried to save as a movie palace, morphed finally and beautifully into a live local theater, cherished by its community.
Note: If this blog post feels more reflective than others you may have read in Starts Wednesday,it’s because I am on the cusp of another birthday, thankful for having survived this far, curious as to what’s next. What is life if not the sum of all your mistakes and victories, your noble and ill-advised adventures?
1. Given the racial tensions we experienced at the very urban/suburban St. George, it was prophetic that we opened in April, 1976 with Blazing Saddles, a movie that’s even more controversial today than it was in the seventies. Mel Brooks recently confessed that, while it could never be made today, at least not by a white American, even then there was one controversial thing left on what used to be called the cutting room floor.
2. After a long career of movie-going, I still come out, when I can, to movies on screen, choosing the theater and its screen at least as carefully as I choose the movie. Case in point, Lawrence of Arabia last summer, in the 70 mm format it was intended to be seen in, at the incomparable United Palace of the Cultural Arts, one of the original Loew’s Wonder Theaters, on 175th Street in Manhattan. Movie palace viewings are rare, so I make do, most of the time, at Loew’s ‘plex of giant-screen theaters on 68th and Broadway; I still adore the Cinema Village, where I’m planning to see some of the 8th Annual Winter Film Awards/Festival soon...and the Paris is a cherished anachronism just off Central Park, when I want to pretend it’s the old days. Movies in Philly, where I visit my sister, are best had at the Ambler, a nicely-restored old house. No, she doesn’t tie me to my seat anymore...