The St. George in 1976 was like a desperate aging beauty pawning her pearls and broaches — or being forced to pawn them. But one of the blessings of being in New York’s--until recently “forgotten borough,” Staten Island, is that time moves more slowly in what was then a backwater, than it does in most of the rest of the world. Manhattan's famed palaces were virtually gone by 1976 — the real estate was just too valuable. Only a few, such as the Loews 175th Street, in Washington Heights, one of the original “Wonder Theaters,” remained — thanks to Reverend Ike — functioning solely as a church for three decades. In Brooklyn, by 1976 the Paramount had turned into a basketball court the home court for Blackbirds basketball (Long Island University), and Loews Kings was about to become an unofficial shelter for the homeless. Friends of my own original home theater, the Albee, in Cincinnati, Ohio, were fighting a battle that year for that grand, almost three-thousand-seat house that they would lose, when a wrecker’s ball finally pierced the dome of my childhood--all for the building of a Westin Hotel. In Manchester England the remarkable Hulme Hippodrome, exquisite as a Persian palace, would serve as a bingo hall, before closing in 1988. Finally, in Detroit, the 4,038-seat Michigan Theatre, after two or three incarnations as a club and rock venue, became — ironic, given the nature of Detroit’s major industry — what else? — a parking garage.
Remarkably, the St. George survives to this day, having lost only lamps, furniture, stained glass and that gorgeous red-and-gold formal house curtain — a victim of a suspicious fire in the late 1970’s. How did it get so lucky? The ground it stood on was neither terribly valuable, nor entirely worthless. The office building it shares space with remained occupied, and the street it stands on, Hyatt, despite the economic woes of the neighborhood, was never boarded up. Like a grand dame forced to work for minimum wage, The St. George Theatre did stints as a flea market, a dinner theater and, some say, a roller rink. Regrettably, to support one or more of these make-overs, the orchestra floor was leveled--an alteration which it will take some time and bucks to correct. That it will be corrected in time, I have no doubt, because the lady is working for better than minimum wage these days!
Theaters in other cities and towns have survived, through luck, perseverance of a person or group [such as MIFA highlighted in last week’s blog post about the Victory Theatre in Holyoke, Mass.], or benevolent building owners. To see the Detroit Theater’s dome as the roof of a parking garage is to witness a kind of death of the spirit. Better the wrecker’s ball than this! As for lamps and sofas, they can be replaced.
This and all previous and subsequent blog posts on this site are based on my experience running a movie palace, The St. George Theatre, in St. George, Staten Island, in 1976, the subject of a forthcoming book, Starts Wednesday. Have you been enjoying what you've been reading on this blog? We value your feedback and questions!