How is it exactly that a theater gets sanctified? When my husband, Dean Thompson, and I ran the St. George Theatre in Staten Island in 1976, we rented it for a Sunday to an evangelical group, who arrived in several busloads. We watched that afternoon, as worshippers dropped their crutches and walked in faith to the stage. That was just a single day; after the rental was over we went back to showing Jaws. The St. George was church for a day, but the Valencia is a dedicated sacred space. There’s a wall just outside the auditorium (sanctuary) hung with crutches and braces of all kinds. I imagined those healing moments, not unlike the time lightning struck my childhood home, and Great Aunt Marie dropped her cane, running, miraculously, three times around the kitchen table. Presumably the owners of the crutches on the Valencia’s wall never went back to fetch them (as Aunt Marie finally picked up her cane and began using it again). God’s power is after all more permanent than lightning.
Upstairs, in the lobby outside the balcony, I spied a pair of locked wainscot doors, bearing the sign PRAYER TOWER (see the photo in the slide show above). Intrigued, Dean asked Sister Forbes what that might be, and she replied, “People go up there to pray.”
“But what was it before that?” he asked.
“You know, it was where they showed the movies from.”
In other words, the projection booth! I couldn’t help thinking about the lonely projectionist, and I wondered if, whoever he was, he sometimes prayed. For the carbons that lit the projectors to last till the end of the show? For a smooth night with no splicing or mishaps?
It was in that darkest of movie palace years, 1977, that church founder, Apostle Johnnie Washington, eager to move his congregation to a worthy space, purchased the 3,554-seat palace for a single dollar. The flock then accomplished a Herculean task, working night and day and raising two hundred thousand dollars to do a basic clean-up and paint-up. Solidy built and with a sound roof, the Valencia has actually never undergone a major renovation.
Gone, sadly, is the Robert Morton Wonder Organ (4 manual/23 rank) which originally distinguished this and four other palaces in outlying areas of New York City as “Wonder” theaters. Remarkably, all five — the Valencia (first to be built), the 175th Street Theatre in Washington Heights, the Paradise in the Bronx, currently leased to a church, the Jersey in Jersey City, and the Kings in Brooklyn — are still standing. The Washington Heights theater, (United Palace of Cultural Arts), these days a part-time church, still possesses its Robert Morgan instrument. The Jersey City has acquired what was once Loew’s Paradise’s organ. As for the Valencia’s, it was sold in 1964 to the Balboa Theatre in San Diego where it happily sings out to this day.
As many times as I have written about atmospheric theaters, Saturday was my first visit to one, and, although the original electric stars in the night-sky ceiling of this Eberson-designed theater were twinkling, no clouds drifted over. Of course, I knew all good atmospheric theaters had had drifting clouds, but if I hadn’t recalled this, I’d have been reminded. Taking the tour along with us were two or three men who had grown up going to the movies at the Valencia. David Delbaum, a lawyer, who recalls the theater from his late adolescence, said, “When the movie wasn’t any good, you could always just look up!” Several other people, including his friend Steve Friedman, a photographer accompanied by his wife Maggie, remembered the clouds. At our Q&A, Sister Forbes and Bishop Davis said they knew of the whereabouts of the equipment that projected moving clouds on the ceiling, but neither one knew how such equipment might work. The mechanism is explained in a wonderful paragraph from a book on the Palace Theatre in Marion Ohio, one of Eberson’s atmospherics:
Rather than seating the...patrons in a boxlike, formal setting as passive observers of stage entertainment, the atmospheric design transported them to an exotic European courtyard or garden. A plain cerulean sky replaced the ornate dome of traditional theatre design. Wispy floating clouds produced by a projector replaced crystal chandeliers and gilt. Trees, plants, vines and taxidermy birds replaced gold leaf. Arches, trellises, balconies and plaster statuary replaced marble, painted wood panels and crystal chandeliers. As the entertainment was about to begin, lighting effects created the illusion of a setting sun, as colors changed from yellow to red to mauve. Small lights, arranged in the ceiling in constellation patterns, twinkled to create a sense of infinite space. The atmospheric theatre design made the theatre patron an active, comfortable resident of an imaginary time and place, not a passive, aloof occupant of an oppressive formal space.
A chandelier, imported from Greece and added to the Valencia some time in 1977, seemed dead wrong to me from the moment we walked in. Atmospherics, by their nature, never featured central chandeliers. These theaters were supposed to replicate an open sky, the way a planetarium does.
These days, an illuminated cross on the back wall of what was originally the fly-space, a banner reading “Reach the heart and save the soul,” and stepped acoustical tiles where ropes and chains once held curtains and scenery, give the backstage area a feeling somewhere between the stage of a music hall and a formal church’s apse. To the left and right of the stage were once dressing rooms, some of which serve to fulfill laudable church missions, such as outreach ministry.
Sister Forbes is quick to point out how lovingly Eberson fulfilled his promise to transport the Valencia’s patrons from their ordinary lives. The proliferation of lion heads in the carved ceiling beams of all three lobbies, for example, may be references to none other than Marcus Loew himself, an immigrant from Austria, whose last name, in German means “lion” (lowe). The church welcomes this theme as underscoring the Biblical “Lion of Judah,” which, in Christian iconography, is said to refer to Jesus, another layer of meaning for an already meaning-layered house.
Looking down from the mezzanine on a tiled fountain covered by a remarkable carved wooden roof, I was joined by my new friend David, whose memories of the Valencia date back to around his seventeenth year. I was staring at the artificial flowers that edge the tiles of the dry fountain, dreaming of water, when he recalled, “There were goldfish in there once.” Immediately I saw them, and wished that the church might consider adding this symbol of Christianity to its reinterpretation of the space.
The outer lobby is as big as a good-sized screening room. Its carved pillars reference the Alhambra, and it contains, in addition to wrought iron railings for movie patrons standing in long lines, twenty or so poster cases. Where once they offered Should Ladies Behave? or The Ice Follies of 1939, these days they inspire a different audience, the waiting congregants, with Bible verses:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, / because he hath anointed me / to bring good news to the poor. / He hath sent me to heal the broken hearted / to preach deliverance to the captive/and recover sight to the blind,/to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18, variation of translation).
The great movie palaces, in their way, promised to do all of the above.They brought good stories, the next best thing to good news; and what could heal a broken heart better than a fine movie? So the captive and the oppressed were freed — and if you consider the blind, my husband (his whole life suffering from macular degeneration), who at every movie still sits in the front row next to me, struggling as he always did, to absorb all that light transmogrified into images, well then, isn’t that a form of redemption?
The lesson I’ve taken away from the Valencia is that there are all kinds of salvation.
Afterthought 1: Enjoy the slide show! Robin Locke Monda, an artist of considerable talent and a close friend, whose work in graphics and design frame this blog, discovered the tour we took of the Valencia last weekend. The pictures, except when otherwise indicated, are hers.
Afterthought 2: Note from the slide show that the faux “buildings” left and right of the proscenium are not at all symmetrical! This would, of course, be true for a real cityscape, which Eberson sought to capture.
Afterthought 3: Constructed in just six months, the Valencia was the first of the five Wonder Theatres to open, in 1929, with Monte Blue and Racquel Torres, in White Shadows on the South Seas. It screened its last film in 1977, The Greatest, starring Ernest Borgnine.
Afterthought 4: Thanks to