If you’re a movie palace fan, you may be, with the on-coming pandemic, at least a little conflicted. With Italy closed down (and me fretting about the fact that I flew five days ago), going out to the movies is the last thing on my (everybody’s?) list...
Everyone has a great love, some have two. So it has been for me, with movie palaces.
In 1976, while we were trying to save the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, my original great theater love back home in Cincinnati, the RKO Albee, was already flashlight-dark and silent, its Wurlitzer organ removed, cobwebs forming on the cobwebs that shrouded its enormous crystal chandelier. All through my childhood, the Albee had been the palace of palaces. Built by Thomas Lamb (the Scottish-born American theater architect whose works define the movie-palace landscape), Cincinnati’s Albee was lavish, with thirty-five hundred seats, a 40 x 70 Czech Maffersdorf carpet, lamps from John Jacob Astor’s Fifth Avenue Mansion in New York, and...and.
Before it was built, in 1926, The Cincinnati Times Star heralded the Albee’s arrival, like the birth of some important prince:
“...it is enough to say that it will be an Albee theater. That is, it will have all the magnificent and artistic beauty of the Albee theaters in Brooklyn and Cleveland, which are distinctive as the finest theatrical structures in the world. The realty was taken over on a basis of nearly $2,000,000, so the total investment will be $3,500,000, and Cincinnati will have the finest moving picture house in the world.
Though the theater will be used, for some time as least, for the showing of Greater Moving Pictures, it will have a full stage with complete equipment, all necessary dressing rooms and the same marvelous backstage arrangement, which exists at present only in the two Albee theaters already built.”
The Albee opened on Christmas Eve in 1927, its first movie the silent Get Your Man! starring Clara Bow. For fifty years, the theater itself — and not necessarily whatever movie was showing there — was what Cincinnatians put on silk stockings and Beau Brummel ties to see. I was lucky to be amongst the last generation to watch two layers of curtain — one brocade, the other a sheer scrim — part over every event, to know tuxedoed ushers, and to visit a ladies room with full-length mahogany mirrors.
Phil Lind, who used to work as an usher, recalls, “It was a fun job.... Sometimes we would stand around and talk, and other times we would explore the theater. We went from the roof to the basement....” (which apparently included underground passageways to Wiggins — the bar next door — and the Gibson Hotel, where Vaudeville actors used to stay).
But every beginning has its end. Here’s a description of what some local citizens had to say, while still others were fighting to save the palace from the wrecker’s ball, in 1977:
“...the Save the Albee Committee was formed, but it had little effect. City manager [of the time] E. Robert Turner, flatly stated that the Albee could not be preserved ‘...at the expense of tasteful and decent development’ around Fountain Square. The city planning director echoed a similar sentiment, noting that under no circumstance was the Albee worth saving. ‘We have movie theaters downtown, and entertainment facilities nearby for music, opera, drama and dance. What do we need another one for?’
It’s always about real estate.
In 1977, despite best efforts, “...the entire block...was demolished for Fountain Square South [a project] that consisted of a Westin [hotel] and a Firstar Bank....”
In other words, to quote Joni MItchell, “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Treasures from the Albee remain. Its organ, wisely purchased by the Ohio chapter of The American Theater Organ Society sheltered for many years at a small local hall (The Emery Theater), now itself facing possible demolition. The organ spent about a decade in storage, emerging in 2009 to a safe, and apparently permanent home in the ballroom of Cincinnati’s Music Hall.
As Joseph Hollman, Ohio Valley chapter president of the ATOS, pointed out, “Too many pipe organs were sold as parts and the organ broken up for sale, eliminating that organ’s originality. Others were torn down with the theaters they were housed in...”
Anyone who read my blog post on the whereabouts of what is left of the St. George Theatre’s fine old Wurlitzer will not be able to miss the irony.
In my life, it is a remarkable coincidence that we lost our lease on the St. George Theatre in 1977, the year the Albee was torn down. The St. George would remain shuttered for decades, narrowly dodging the Albee’s fate.
Beyond the Albee’s rescued Wurlitzer, other parts — including the theater’s ticket booth — survive in Cincinnati Music Hall’s ballroom — a pilgrimage I need to make the next time I go home. The theater’s pair of magnificent bronze doors graces the Ohio Theater in Columbus, a few hours’ drive north. But the Albee’s grand entryway, a classical arch of some distinction, didn’t fare as well. In 1977 it was fitted out to adorn the front of the (very tacky) Sabin Convention Center. In 2006 a renovation transformed that unremarkable building into the Duke Energy Center. Writing in 2011, The Cincinnati Enquirer (Jim Rohrer) remarked that the theater’s arch seemed "plastered on a modern building of no apparent style...." He wondered if this was “... any way to treat a grand old lady?"
Few passersby notice the arch, or know what wonders once lay beyond it. So it goes with the old palaces, the ones that remain, through accident or the prudence of local activists — or — as with the St. George — great financial risk of a single individual.
The less-fortunate theaters are remembered by grown-up (and grown old) children who remember seeing From Here to Eternity or Olivier’s Henry the Fifth (as my sister recalls), or even Three Coins in a Fountain (that would be me) under an elaborate and sheltering dome.
- This blog post is, for the most part, a revised re-issue; I seem compelled to present it each time I fly to Cincinnati, which I did last week. The Albee is of course, gone, as are all the original downtown palaces, and so many other theaters that defined my childhood, like the Ambassador on Oakley Square (these days a parking lot). The Mt. Lookout, where my sister sold tickets and popcorn, survives now as a night club), while the high Deco Twentieth Century, with its vertical pink neon, has morphed into a reception hall. Just outside the city limits, in Mariemont, a town entirely styled in English Tudor, the Mariemont Theatre offers five screens (up from the one I watched Yellow Submarine on, in 1968); the current ownership may have altered its integrity, but hey, it’s still showing movies.
- In so many cities and towns across the U.S. in the sixties, seventies and eighties, including (perhaps especially) New York City, real estate greed and short-sightedness greatly reduced the number of surviving palaces. Think about the Roxy, on fiftieth street, so magnificent it warranted a line from Cole Porter: “You're romance/You're the steppes of Russia,/You're the pants,/ on a Roxy usher,” But those pants and its lavish 6,214 seats didn’t save the Roxy in 1960. To quote its Cinema Treasures entry, “Despite numerous protests, it was razed in the summer of 1960... In its place sits a nondescript and unremarkable office building. The neighboring Taft Hotel survives to this day (now the Michelangelo Hotel) and is the only evidence that this epic structure was ever here. A TGI Friday’s restaurant and a KFC...now occupy the theatre’s original entrance.”