I’ll build a stairway to Paradise,
With a new step every day...
—Music, George Gershwin;
Lyrics, Buddy De Sylva and
Arthur Francis (aka Ira Gershwin)
After I’d grown up and moved to New York (1976), it seemed the most natural thing in the world to sign on for duty at our local movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, a 2672-seat Eugene DeRosa Spanish Baroque confection, with paintings of bullfighters and lace-clad ladies in the lobby. The lobby of that blessedly still-extant theater leads to one of two elegant pink marble staircases framed in stained glass. Back then we seldom used them, however. It was the Seventies, and movie palaces everywhere were quickly going dark, being demolished, or being converted to other purposes.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we opened the St. George Theatre’s balcony: a local high school graduation, a dance recital, children’s theater, an evangelical traveling ministry, replete with shills who dropped their crutches and headed for the stage. And yes, that movie exception of all exceptions, The Exorcist, which packed the place to capacity on two magic weekends. Beyond these instances, our staircases were tied off with ropes (we only had one velvet one) and a dented sign with some of the letters missing that read “Balc ny Cl sed.” In a good week, we were lucky to sell out half the orchestra, and opening the balcony meant putting on extra staff to keep an eye on sex, drugs and the troubled kid who might show up with a broken bottle. So much for Paradise.
But in a way it still was, on certain afternoons, my own private heaven, where I could go to escape the agonies of trying to balance the theater’s checkbook, and take in the likes of John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, in all of its ruby and gold glory, framed by a proscenium arch as grand as any palace in the Himalayas. When I climbed that far balcony staircase, lifting the velvet rope and bypassing the sign, I knew I was safe for a couple of hours, revisiting my increasingly-remote white middle-class childhood, during which things had been paid for by someone else, and the world — all I’d known of it then — had hummed on efficiently.
They don’t build paradise stairways these days, it isn’t part of the zeitgeist. We live, I hate to say it, in a mean-spirited and stingy age, with narrow, mostly unadorned stairwells. But there are still quite a few lovely flights of stairs remaining, elegant enough for the descent of a duchess or the heated ascent of Clark Gable carrying Viven Leigh (a movie we only ran the trailer for).
I’d like to close by mentioning the totally off-the-charts stairs at several surviving movie palaces. The United Palace, on 175th Street in Manhattan, which the New York City Organ Project describes as, “a palatial staircase...that leads to a grandiose, aurora borealis headed by a goddess decoration...” is one such. Not to mention (which means I’m mentioning) the Los Angeles Theatre’s grand staircase, the (Chicago) Uptown Theatre’s, and, in San Francisco, the Fox’s. I could go on and on. In every single one of these settings, one can imagine Gloria Swanson or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or even James Cagney, who, after all, knew how to dance up or down a staircase.
Speaking of dancing, that’s why the song that started this meditation was written in the first place!
With a new step ev'ry day.
I'm gonna get there at any price;
Stand aside, I'm on my way!
I've got the blues
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes, go on and carry me there!
* * *
Now get a load of this description, apparently in George Gershwin’s own words:
"Two circular staircases surrounded the orchestra on the stage, leading high up into theatrical paradise or the flies, which in everyday language means the ceiling. Mr. White had draped fifty of his most beautiful girls in a black patent leather material which brilliantly reflected the spotlights. A dance was staged in the song and those girls didn't need much coaxing to do their stuff to the accompaniment of [Paul] Whitman's music." (The Gershwins, p. 34).