I was thinking of this sign yesterday, when the New York Philharmonic played on the St. George Theatre’s hallowed stage-boards, not an opera this time, but the brass section of the NYPhil, dispatched on a grant to play for free in the city’s fifth and still least-regarded borough. They usually do these concerts in a park, but our Staten Island mosquitos are heavyweight champs of the world, so someone wisely opted for an indoor concert.
I harbored various fantasies as a theater operator, back in ’76, of what it would be like to hear one of the big-guy orchestras from the other side of New York Harbor, in our sacred space, with its perfect acoustics.
I was not disappointed on Sunday, and there were other rewards.We’d been lucky enough to get our hands on six of the free tickets, so brought a slew of friends along, one of whom just celebrated her eighty-first birthday. Despite the fact that she’s lived in Staten Island most of her life, I strongly suspect she hadn’t been under the graceful dome of the St. George in at least forty years, and being in the theater awakened plenty of memories. It’s that way with the old palaces; they’re memory sponges.
The first thing she wanted to tell me about was the organ, long absent from its “elevator” hidden in the stage. I was glad to hear anything she had to say about that long-absent instrument. I wrote several posts about it, a 3/30 (3 manual/30 rank) Wurlitzer, sold off to a pizza parlor in Texas, in the early seventies, before we came along. We had found the elevator in the stage, so I knew there had been an organ, and researched what became of it; but I have no personal experience of the instrument. Though the organist was let go in 1935, from time to time the theater presented a little musical entertainment before movies, and my friend remembered several of these interludes. From our seats in the upper balcony, she pointed to the exact spot on the stage where the “lift‘ had been, “They darkened all the lights, and then, there he was, [the organist] rising out of all that blackness, sitting on his bench.” He must have been dramatically lit: a follow spot whose beam no doubt descended six stories from the projection booth would have added drama. I know those old carbon-arc spots well, having watched our friend Bob Endres, a projectionist of considerable chops, operate them back in 1976 for one of our modest attempts at live entertainment), probably Chaka Khan, who sang at the St. George in a disco night number when nobody knew her. I asked my friend where the organ pipes had been; as I suspected, they’d inhabited part of the alcove stage right, whose sole resident for some time has been a giant gold Greek goddess. “I’m going to ask some people I know if they remember any more details,” she promised.
Simply sitting in the space seemed to have pierced my friend’s memory in several ways: she had a darker recollection of her times at the St George, a newsreel, towards the end of WWII she’d seen in the theater, back when going to the movies was how you got your news. “Nazi Murder Mills, April 26, 1945;” I googled just enough of the newsreel to find that headline. You can access the actual film under that title, if you’d like; but I can’t bring myself to subject it to an ordinary link. This horrendous (now infamous) footage of the Bergen-Belsen camp, shown just days after it was shot, in American theaters across the continent, reveals the bulldozing of thousands of emaciated bodies. My friend would have been seven. “How could they show this to young children?” she wondered last night.
I thought of the transfiguring qualities of cinema, the effect of that black-and-white imagery blasted on the St. George’s giant screen. Under the sheltering recess of the theater’s cream and pink dome, my friend learned very quickly that if this could happen to people in Germany, it could happen, as she pointed out, “...even to my family.” She was seven in April, 1945.
Our visitors from the New York Phil played on. They honored D-Day with Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis,” and Meacham’s “American Patrol.” They played an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Blue Lullaby.” That’s the second time I’ve heard Gershwin rising to the recesses of the dome. The first time, was almost fifty years ago, in 1976; a friend played “Rhapsody in Blue” from an upright piano we hauled center stage. It was late in our theater year, and our contentious landlord had seen fit to cut off our heat; it was so cold you could see the pianist’s breath, just above the keys. These and other flashes of light or fragments of sound are my own memories, decades younger than my friend’s, but keeping company with hers, in the plaster recesses of a theater I am grateful to say still stands.
1: Philip Smith, the conductor, a 37-year veteran of the Philharmonic, made the Sunday concert at the St. George into a lesson in brasses, playing along at intervals with the 3 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 percussionists, solitary tuba and equally solitary euphonium that comprised the group, quite enough to make the dome ring as if heaven itself were opening!
2. My friend’s memories of the camp footage were underscored by her distant memory of having just escaped Denmark, her father’s land of birth, on one of the last liners to sail before WWII broke out. Subsequent ships, tankers, liners and otherwise, were targets for German torpedoes. So those bulldozed victims must have had additional meaning for her...
3. I mentioned the architect of the St. George Theatre early in this post; here’s a little something about him (also the architect of the more famous Apollo Theatre).