In Cincinnati--where I grew up in the 1950‘s, palaces weren’t just places to see movies. They were, among so many things, babysitting services (your parents dropped you off at the Ambassador on Saturday morning and picked you up in the afternoon). In high school they became a kind of sanctuary to adolescence, like the RKO International 70 (aka the Palace) downtown, with a balcony where, among other things, we could experiment on each others’ curious bodies.
Saturday or Sunday afternoons, the RKO Albee, Cincinnati’s premier downtown house, was, often enough, the place your family went to see a spectacle (Ben Hur, Cinerama), but also to be seen. We weren’t so much going to a single feature, as filling a hunger for something social. We dressed up, just a little, Daddy in a suit and tie, my teenaged sisters in skirts and flats, Mother with her patent-leather pocket book. On Wednesdays in the afternoon, the new feature started; you could be the first to see it if you went then, a crowd that consisted of women and pre-school children, old ladies in hats and gloves, retirees.
Often when we went to a movie, we just walked in, sometimes minutes after the feature had started, staying through the next cycle of coming attractions, cartoons and Movietone News then leaving when the film finally reached the point where we’d begun. This seemed perfectly normal. It wasn’t the way it is now — searching for movie times, picking a film. Seeing a movie from beginning to end mattered less than just seeing it.
Alien robots abducted a woman. A man clung, drenched, to a light post, singing. These were events in a world innocent of what we now call “information.” What could be better than a giant whirling steel lid from outer space that sliced through the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington — on a screen as tall as a highway billboard? The giant squid from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea filled that same screen with terrible ink. Movie palaces had to be big and fantastical, to contain these heroic flights of imagination.
Sixteen years after the turn of the twenty-first century, we still have movie theaters, but screen size is vastly diminished; the viewing space is stripped, raised and lowered curtains are a rarity, and commercials have edged out Elmer Fudd and Bugs. Why so much 3D? Surround Sound? I-Max? It’s as if the purveyors of fantasy are running out of ways to lure us into the dark.
Only a few blocks down the hill from the St. George Theatre, foundations for a giant observation wheel — similar to but bigger than “The London Eye” — were poured, just last weekend. It’s the talk of the neighborhood. I look forward to the New York Wheel’s sweeping views of New York Harbor, but I hope that just a few adventurous families, after riding over land and sea Jules Verne style, will walk up Hyatt Street behind Borough Hall and enter the cavernous St. George Theatre — amazingly still standing and opulent as ever. Even if it’s just to have a look around, to walk in there after riding the new wheel, might be a thrilling opposite, like going under ground after flying. Whatever’s showing inside a movie palace, the palace is the show.
FLASHBACK FORTY YEARS:
Wednesday, June 9, 1976
Let’s Do It Again, starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby filled the screen at The St. George Theatre.
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