The Dinner/Movie Special, as advertised in the local Staten Island Advance, encouraged the reader to... Clip this ad and receive FREE popcorn!
Dinner at Casa Barone, Movie at
The St. George, both for only $4.79!
The special was not a roaring success — we only ran it for about half a year — but at least the Casa Barone — another lighted storefront — actually existed on an otherwise darkening street. When we left in 1977, Chubby closed his doors as well. And so, in eventual succession, did the liquor store down the block — run by a former cop who withstood two gunpoint robberies and then thought better of staying in business — and most of the daytime vendors (the ancient barbershop with its white-haired barber, the print shop, even the local First National City Bank).
In “Fade to Black,” (April 6, 2003, The New York Times) Anemona Hartocollis observes,
The shuttering of a movie house leaves an ugly gash in the streetscape. Walking under the vacant marquee...one can hear passers-by pause in mid-conversation to wonder how a movie theater could fail...The shock seems to remind them how essential a....theater is to a neighborhood's texture and sense of identity.
The occasion for the above elegy was the closing in 2003 of the Olympia, at Broadway and 107th, an unprepossessing neighborhood house in Manhattan, “...a dark, smelly cavern with sticky gum spots on the floor and soda spills on the seats.”
We’d had our share of gum and soda spills at the St. George. After we failed, I had plenty of opportunity to walk under its vacant marquee, hurrying uphill at night in a neighborhood whose streets seemed to be getting darker by the minute. That’s what a theater’s closing does to a neighborhood, or a town.
But the opposite can be true. Post-millennium, old movie houses whose acoustics and interiors have somehow managed to survive the desolation of the seventies, eighties and nineties, are morphing into treasured live theaters, also, in many cases, serving as community centers. Think Loews Kings (these days The Kings) on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, whose opening gave new hope to a block of dollar stores and check-cashing services. One enterprising bar, just around the corner, sports a neon palm tree and reminded me, the Saturday we heard Gladys Knight at the Kings, of a favorite bar I used to linger at in Key West.
Think The Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, which, thanks to a bit of brinksmanship on the part of Henry Aldridge, a local organist and film scholar, and other volunteers, was saved from ultimate demolition in 1979, a dark-storefront time for Ann Arbor. A previous owner’s paint-over renovation was painstakingly removed, and today a theater-goer can enjoy “real gold leaf” and real butter on popcorn, while listening to the rare Barton pipe organ. Over several decades, Aldridge and his comrades gradually restored the Michigan to its original 1928 Versailles-style opulence.
And here’s to my friends at The Carolina (Greensboro, N.C.), a 2200-seat atmospheric whose auditorium’s ornamental columns and draperies suggest a Greek amphitheater. What happened to that theater in the nineteen sixties is a familiar American movie palace story: suburban retail businesses attracted citizens away from the heart of Greensboro; downtown inevitably declined, and the Carolina was reduced to triple-x titles. One of two things usually happens at this stage in the decline of a movie palace, and thankfully for the Carolina, better angels — not the wrecker’s ball — prevailed. After two cycles of renovation (one following a disastrous fire), the post-millennial Carolina sits at the center of a revitalized Greensboro. A casual visit to their site offers links to more than twenty restaurants —everything from four-star to coffeeshops.
The folks who are currently rescuing the Victory in Holyoke, Massachusetts may hope for a similar renaissance in that town over the next decade. [The Victory Theatre, Holyoke, Massachusetts]
Happily, the theater I served a year in, the St. George — like the Kings, the Carolina and the Michigan —was spared, and is these days a working live performance house. Shortly after it re-opened under the leadership of a local family, Rispoli’s pastry shop — home of a profound cappuccino, opened next door, and next to that a popular wine bar, Enoteca Maria. The theater’s leaking marquee — it leaked in my day too — has yet to be replaced (soon, they say), but there’s a warm light coming out from under it most nights, as you climb past at day’s end. Light is so important: it’s what the palaces are all about.