Thom has recently written me about the Victory Theatre in Dayton, his favorite of the downtown houses there. It still stands, moniker changed to the Victoria, having survived a number of fires and the nearness of a1970‘s-era wrecker’s ball. Thom’s fondest memory of the Victory/Victoria is the day his dad took him downtown to see The Spirit of St. Louis and have dinner at a favorite restaurant.
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. We knew the social importance of movies when we took over the St. George Theatre, that brief year in our lives, 1976, when palaces were disappearing as quickly as fireflies at the end of a summer night. Thom was with us for part of that adventure, as our “standpipe operator.” The St. George must’ve seemed to Thom just a little bit like the Victory, back in Dayton.
A mid-size city in close proximity to Cincinnati, Dayton has always had something to do with flight (think the Wright Brothers). Thom, eight years old and sick with the flu, had devoured in two days all of 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. Thom loved everything that had anything to do with flying.
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."
I'm not surprised. Thom, who has always had a photographic memory, was bound to be able to recite that whole book verbatim. Later, at the St. George Theatre, he impressed us all, studying for a single night, then acing the really difficult Standpipe Operator’s Test, which allowed our motley crew to stay in business as failing theater operators.
Impressed as Thom’s dad really was with his reading chops, 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 (I 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 suggesting they go downtown to the Victory to see it!
Built in 1866 as the Turner Opera House, the theater burned two years after that, rising from its ashes as the Grand Opera House, which it remained until after the WWI Armistice, morphing into the Victory. It remained a live house 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 theater was outfitted for movies, and, beginning in the thirties, became a movie palace, remaining so through Thom’s childhood. Was it the Victory’s serene past as an opera house that made it seem more respectable to Thom’s dad than other showier theaters in downtown Dayton?
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 seven years later, 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/Victoria, but it was ultimately, the old opera house that 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, 17.5 million dollars worth of refurbishment turned the Victory into the Victoria, which it remains to this day.
But on that special day in 1957, Jimmy Stewart commanded the Victory’s wide screen, and dinner 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?
Thom reflects: I think taking me to the movie was a sort of reward. But, of course, we never discussed it. I was just thrilled to be going with my Dad -- to that movie in particular.
On the subject of other violations of his dad’s scruples about movie-going:
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."