To me Dayton was always that sleepy town forty-five minutes north of Cincinnati, where I was born. Dayton: hometown of the Wright Brothers and at one time the point of origin for practically every cash register in the world, a mid-size heartland city with its own suburbs, and the hometown of my husband’s college roommate, Thom. Dayton has also been the home of at least five splendid movie houses — like the 2,672-seat St. George in Staten Island that I helped to run, and the perpetual subject of this blog. Dayton’s Victory (these days the “Victoria”), like the St. George, still stands, in the midst of the revitalization of a once-dark downtown, and only half a mile from the “Oregon” district where the recent shooting took place.
About a year ago, our friend Thom, mentioned above, contributed to this blog a wonderful reminiscence of Dayton’s Victory Theatre, remembered from his childhood. I offer it up now, refreshed, to remind myself that this is how we survive facelessness, the savagery of lone shooters with military-style automatic weapons. If movie palaces are worth anything, the ones that are still standing, they remind us of what community used to feel like; may it feel that way again.
Movies were always social occasions when we were growing up: the family outing at Cinerama on a Sunday, or a date at some or another opulent palace, or even just a matinee with friends. I knew the social importance of movies when we took over the St. George Theatre that brief year, 1976, when palaces were disappearing as quickly as fireflies at the end of a summer night. Thom was with us for part of the St. George adventure, as, among other things, our “standpipe operator.” The St. George must’ve seemed to him just a little bit like the Victory.
Growing up in Wright Brothers territory, no wonder Thom gobbled up everything he could read on aviation! Eight years old in 1957, and sick with the flu, he finished in two days The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh’s personal account of his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection that year.
My Dad came home from work and Mom told him I had read Lindbergh’s book. He didn't believe it at first...so he quizzed me and I "passed."
Thom, who has always had a photographic memory, was whip-smart. Later, at the St. George Theatre, he studied for a single night, then aced the really difficult Standpipe Operator’s Test, allowing our ragtag crew to stay in business as failing theater operators.
Impressed as his dad had been with Thom’s reading, father and son were not really close.
It wasn't that my dad was distant. It's just that his interests and my interests did not mesh in any way. He loved...to fish, go mushroom hunting and blackberrying and work on the yard. I couldn't sit still in a boat for hours on end and not be completely bored; I've never liked getting dirty...and yard work to me is fruitless...why waste time?
Thom’s dad was a print specialist in an ad agency downtown, a detail man, whose front lawn never had a blade of grass out of place. He was also an old-style Congregationalist.
...we didn't go to movies. Dad had a strong Protestant belief that movies were the Devil's work (It was strictly forbidden to go to the movies on Sunday, for instance).
In addition to disapproving of flicks, Thom’s dad actually had an aversion to airplanes, having witnessed a disastrous crash at a 1920s air show. Still, he remembered Lindbergh’s flight, as headlines in the Dayton Daily News, and when the movie version of The Spirit starring Jimmy Stewart, came to the Victory’s giant screen, father astonished son by breaking his own rules and suggesting they go downtown to see it!
The Victory had begun as the Turner Opera House, built in 1866. Two years later, a “firebug” hit town, and destroyed a number of mansions, as well as the elaborate Turner’s, which nonetheless rose from its ashes as the Grand Opera House, in 1871. So it remained until after the WWI Armistice and a flood, morphing finally into the Victory Theatre. At this stage, it was a live house, remaining so for another decade: Houdini performed there in 1925, using — it is said — the theater’s vents for his great escape. With the advent of talkies, the Victory was outfitted for film, and, beginning in the thirties, became a movie palace. Was it the 1,440-seat Victory’s serene past as a home for opera that made it seem more respectable to Thom’s dad than fancier theaters downtown ?
And what happened to those other theaters? The RKO Keith's, whose last picture before demolition would ironically be entitled Once Before I Die, was to fall to wreckers a decade after Thom and his dad had their downtown date. The RKO Colonial, perhaps the showiest of all with its two marble staircases, would undergo demolition in 1965, replaced by a Lutheran church. Loew's (The Dayton)waited until 1975 to become wreckage, serving ultimately as a parking lot. All of these theaters were showier than the Victory, but it was ultimately, the old opera house Daytonians wanted to save.
As Fred Bartenstein, a founding member of Save the Victory tells it, “... the Loew’s theater downtown across from the Victory was already being demolished. The wrecking ball was literally out on the sidewalk.”
The greater Dayton community rallied, spurred on by a local radio D.J., who put out a call to listeners to head downtown. According to Bartenstein, “People were driving by and handing money out of their car windows for donations.” A non-profit was formed, and, by 1989, 14.5 million dollars’ worth of refurbishment turned the Victory into the Victoria, which it remains to this day.
On that special day in 1957 when Thom and his dad went downtown, Jimmy Stewart commanded the Victory’s wide screen. Dinner afterwards at Servis and Buhl, with “heavy silver and white tablecloths,” did not disappoint. Thom’s favorite memory of dinner remains — true for most eight-year-olds — dessert. It was some kind of chocolate thing, and it arrived sporting a tiny parasol. Downtown with Dad for the story of Lindbergh, then dinner, and a chocolate dessert with a parasol? Who could ask for anything more?
1. When that original grassroots (“Save the Victory”) group in the 1970s was having a hard time seeing a future for the historic theater, Fred Bartenstein recalled he used to say, “If we can keep the doors open, if we can make sure that this building is never padlocked for one day, a time will come when everyone in the whole region loves it and it will be one of the jewels in our crown.” Bravo, Fred!
2. On the subject of other violations of his dad’s scruples about movie-going, Thom originally reflected:
“Well there were a few family visits to Cinerama in Cincinnati. Dad loved the concept — the screen that wrapped around the audience, even though there were the two ‘seams.’ Plus the subjects of the first Cinerama movies made them more travelogues than anything else. So they were ‘educational."
3. The original version of this post started with a reference to Senator Chuck Grassley, who at the time had just condemned three vices he figures people who don’t invest wisely are prey to and should never practice: “...spending every darn penny they have...on booze or women or movies." Now Grassley is from the heartland (Iowa). If movie-going is to him such a wasteful and low kind of activity, then why does he have an entry in IMDB? Seems, as “an actor,” he always plays himself!
4. Another former Daytonian, David Belcher, these days a Hong Kong correspondent for The New York Times, wrote, in the aftermath of the shooting, a reminiscence that has nothing to do with movie palaces, but everything to do with the “rust belt” factor Dayton and other small cities in the heartland, are suffering from. Check it out.