Some lucky communities contain theaters that are largely untouched, their original seats still set and stages intact. (That “luck,” by the way, is almost always a product of hard work on the part of some dedicated group of enthusiasts). Most resurrected theaters nowadays are live houses, with film as an occasional sideline. The theater to which this blog is dedicated, the St. George, is a Spanish baroque 2672-seat palace in Staten Island which I ran with my husband and a group of idealists, beginning in the spring of 1976; it survives these days as a live working house. We are not its current saviors — that’s another story.
The St. George’s eldest sister, the Ritz, only twenty-minutes away in Port Richmond, was a sixties rock venue of some note and a fine old movie palace. These days it’s a ceramic tile warehouse, its former lobby a showroom for bathroom fixtures, granite and tile. A sign above the plinth reads, “SPACE AVAILABLE, 20,000-80,000 sq. ft. build to suit.”
Nosing around the neighborhood yesterday, I walked along the side of the building, which takes up half a city block. The old side exit happened to be open, so I stepped in. If you hadn’t seen this cavernous space in its glory as I did, you’d never know it had ever been anything but a warehouse.
“Habla Ingles?” (do you speak English?) I asked the man on the fork-lift. He seemed friendly.
“Un poco,” (a little), he replied.
“This used to be a theater...” I began, gazing up at the structural work that used to support the dome.
He looked blank. “Teatro...?” I continued, and he smiled. From the iphone in my hand, he could see that I wanted to take some pictures.
“It was very beautiful...” I told him. “Hermoso.”
He smiled again and looked away.
I took the pictures. It was time to leave. I’d begun to shiver, remembering a certain red velvet curtain, a sad memory. We made a single visit to the Ritz in the winter of 1977, to seek out our landlord, who owned both the Ritz and the St George Theatre, which he’d rented to us. He was in the process of tearing the Ritz apart, under the misguided notion that it might succeed as a roller rink. Twenty minutes away at the St. George, which still had its seats and curtain intact, we were trying to keep the doors open, but the landlord had turned off the heat again, in that coldest of NYC winters.
Watching the demolition of the Ritz that day felt like standing on the steps to the guillotine: I couldn’t help but imagine that the St. George would be next. The Ritz’s seats had just been torn out, and the theater’s slanted floor (the rake) was being leveled off by a man steering a cement roller. The air was thick with concrete dust — you couldn’t take a breath without tasting it. A workman on stage flicked his cigarette, which arched over what had once been the orchestra pit. Then he wiped his cement-laden hands on the heavy crimson velvet stage curtain, a two-story wonder exquisite as the one on our still-intact stage.
Via a combination of miracles and coincidence — and the dedication of a handful of people — the St. George Theatre survives. Why is this so important? In our fractured post-millennium world, where people retreat farther and farther into their own imagined spaces, the screens they watch little bigger than playing cards, we need our great halls, the grander — and more cavernous — the better. We are humans after all, and like our ancestors, who sat together around the communal fire, we need to be in the dark together.
*apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of that famous story with a similar title!