2672 seats: it was a full house. The stage in question belonged to Staten Island’s premier movie palace, the St. George Theatre, and the year was 1969. Andy Kass, a friend and neighbor whose memories are the substance of this blog post, was graduating from I.S. 27/Prall Junior High, which required its gown-clad students to ascend the steps to the stage of a theater they’d at that point only experienced from the perspective of movie-going. Movie palaces were good for a lot of things: children’s theater and dance recitals, visits from the traveling cast of the Metropolitan Opera, performances of a local magician, as well as graduations.
But returning to Andy’s story, he received his diploma, went out to lunch with his dad, an insurance broker whose office was nearby, and returned to the St. George in the afternoon for the 1:30 matinee, Ice Station Zebra. The St. George Theatre — the metaphorical true north this blog’s needle is always seeking — had a few more years to function as a first-run house (though Ice Station Zebra may not have been among them). Eight years later, in 1976, along with a group of like-minded entrepreneurs, I’d have a hand in running that theater, both as a movie house and concert venue. In the intervening years, Andy, while growing up, enjoyed it as the hub of activity it was designed to be.
As a seven-year-old, he knew it was special. “You walked in and had the sense you were in a different kind of place, paintings, open chambers, a real cantilevered balcony, the dome itself. This is where to see a movie.” From a lot of moviegoing, he recalls only a few film titles, surprising to me until I realized how scant my own memories of specific movies are, from the RKO Albee, the Cincinnati palace of my childhood. Looking up at the dome, taking in the statues in alcoves, seems to have occupied more permanent memory space than the actual films!
One memory did come back to Andy, a horror festival which included The Invasion of the Blood Farmers. “I remember sitting in the back, right next to the door, so I could duck out, if I had to. It was gross...”
In high school, Andy says, the movie palace was an ideal date night out. “Why go to Manhattan? St. George was as close to the city as you could get and still be in Staten Island. It wasn’t the neighborhood you were from, but it was right on the edge...”
On the edge indeed. By the mid-seventies, the theater, like so many other single-screen palaces, had slipped from its perch as a premier first-run movie house, to a “Buck Fifty” place, with second-run fare and beyond, not quite a grind house, but definitely a cut below its former status. Although I wouldn’t get to know Andy well until almost forty years later, we met briefly back then: as a friend of Diane, who worked the box office, he had a hand in helping out, for concerts and things.
“Because of all that space,” he recalls, “the St. George was a hang-out. It had those generous chambers downstairs...” Andy is referring to the basement men’s lounge, the women’s powder room, and the terrazzo tile floor that united them. There was even a faux baronial “fireplace” downstairs to give the place atmosphere. It was interesting to hear about the theater’s basement from a recreational perspective: many of our crowd control problems had to do with teens who had drifted — some in varying alternate states of consciousness — down those very same tiled stairs.
By December of our theater year, an on-going heat war with the landlord made it harder and harder for us to draw audiences. On November 24 we managed a small concert: Buzzy Linhart and The Brooklyn Bridge (aka Johnny Maestro), followed by The Groove Tube. Clearly, we were going for the audience who liked to hang out at powder-room level, but not very many of them showed. Those who did, Andy recalls, drifted around a lot through the inevitable haze of pot-smoke, “freezing” and mostly on the move. Who could sit in those unheated seats?
But it’s as a sumptuous palace that Andy most remembers the St. George. He grew up in a distant neighborhood, Dongan Hills, not far from the nearest town, New Dorp, which had its own memorable small Art Deco movie house, the Lane Theatre, these days a church. “Wednesday at 1 PM I’d ride over to the Lane, chain the bike and walk in.” But despite the commute, “...the St. George was my second choice.” He recalls riding the 103 bus to see movies at the St. George. One afternoon he realized he didn’t have money for the return fare, so made it home on foot to the middle of the island, a reverse pilgrimage.
Movie palaces were worth it, Andy seems to be telling us. “If you’re going to a movie in a mall, you’re going to a mall and seeing a movie... but if you’re going to a movie palace, you’re entering the movie’s world before anything comes on the screen.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Thank you, Andy, for taking the time to share your reflections with me for this post. Andy, BTW, is a really talented writer. Check him out!
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...Also, BTW, movie palace memories are always welcome at Starts Wednesday. What was the palace of your dreams?
This week, forty years ago, the staff and management of the St. George Theatre were taking a long winter’s nap, recovering from the bone-chilling cold of an unheated palace.