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, it had been the palace of palaces. Built by Lamb, it 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 its 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.”
Cincinnati’s Albee opened on Christmas Eve in 1927, its first movie the silent Get Your Man! starring Clara Bow. For fifty years, the Albee — 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 is a description of what some local citizens had to say, while still others fought 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?
In 1977, the entire block...was demolished for Fountain Square South [a project] that consisted of a Westin [hotel] and a Firstar Bank...
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. It spent about a decade in storage, emerging in 2009 to a safe, and 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 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 Music Hall’s ballroom — a pilgrimage I need to make. A pair of magnificent bronze doors graces the Ohio Theater in Columbus, a few hours’ drive north. But the theater’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 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?"
Indeed. 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 or Three Coins in a Fountain under an elaborate and sheltering dome.
Afterthought: Nobody knows how to spell the name of my home town, except people who grew up there; it’s one of the random advantages of being a Cincinnatian. Another advantage, if you also happened to grow up in the nineteen fifties or before, is the ringing of the RKO Albee’s 31-rank, 2000-pipe Wurlitzer organ in the dim recesses of your memory.