For anyone who’s new to this blog, the St. George is the very theater a group of us went bankrupt running in 1976, a grand red and gold 2,672-seat Spanish Baroque movie palace (with, some say, Italian overtones) in Staten Island. Forty-plus years later, it’s still standing, five minutes from our house.
I say “still standing,” because so many other marvelous theaters built, as the SG was, in the 1920’s, were torn down in the sixties, seventies and eighties, the era that spawned multiplexes (think the Roxy in Manhattan, the Paramount in L.A., the 20th Century in Chicago). Some theaters are still standing but serve as warehouses, drug stores, churches, or even in one terrible instance, a parking garage.
Lucky St. George! For once, Staten Island’s relatively low real estate values, combined with the zest of a local family, have resulted in the re-emergence of this former Vaudeville house as a live performance space. Who saved it? As I mentioned, Rosemary Cappozalo and her daughters, did what we, in 1976, would have given our life and breath to do: they bought the building and raised the rest of the money as a non-profit. We like to joke that we were a non-profit back in 1976, just never knew it!
The acoustically-perfect space warms, these days, to the voices of Tony Bennett, K.D. Lang, and others, but we’d like to think that our voices, announcing free popcorn while a broken bit of film was being re-spliced, telling stories around the concession stand, talking while cleaning and lighting long-dim chandeliers, are preserved in the silence of the theater’s dome, the way old radio signals are said to linger in outer space. And that’s not to mention the voices of all those people, over nearly a century, who made it their palace, the patron ghosts.
That PBS chose the St. George for its pioneering Treasures of New York documentary series (think the FlatIron Building, the Park Avenue Armory, the Erie Canal) says it all. As Dean pointed out in our interview, “You know...a great society needs a great cultural component. And the St. George is that, not just for St. George, but for all...of New York.”
This week I’m pleased to present a conversation I had with Marisa Wong, the producer of this documentary. Marisa consulted Starts Wednesday on a regular basis early in her process, for research and background. Here’s my conversation with her:
Where did you first hear of the St. George Theatre? What led you and your team to make it part of Treasures of New York?
As it turns out, St. George Theatre president and CEO, Doreen Cugno, is on the board of directors for WNET’s grassroots advocacy and community arm, Friends of THIRTEEN, Inc. Through that relationship, WNET hosted a community engagement event at the St. George Theatre in 2015, called Staten Island Talks Education. The moment our staff walked in the door of the theatre, we knew there was a story to be told.
Beyond the appeal of its gorgeous interior and big name performers, the theater also has a fascinating history and close community ties. It was a perfect fit for the Treasures of New York series, which features New York landmarks and cultural establishments, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral the Cooper Hewitt, and Smithsonian Design Museum. We are particularly excited about Treasures of New York: St. George Theatre, because it is our very first episode to feature an institution on Staten Island.
What was the production process like for the St. George project, how long did it take?
We started pre-production and research in the summer of 2016, and our first day of filming focused on the theater’s annual Summer Youth Outreach Program in June. Since then, we’ve spent about a year producing and editing the half hour documentary – interviewing the theater’s staff and supporters, filming events and performances, and trying to fit almost 90 years of history into a 30-minute program.
In the documentary, we explore the theater’s 1929 beginnings as a Vaudeville and movie house, its ups and downs through the decades, and its recent renaissance as a live performance venue and cultural beacon on the north shore. We also explore the story of Rosemary Cappozalo and her family, who are responsible for the theater’s late revival.
What was the most challenging aspect of finding out about the St. George and then telling its story?
It was exciting to have the opportunity to create the first comprehensive documentary about the theater, but also a great challenge and responsibility. We quickly discovered that the St. George Theatre, like many historic community theaters, has a vibrant oral history that has been passed down over the years through first-hand experiences and word of mouth. But while many Staten Islanders shared their fond memories and stories...with us, we had a much harder time finding written historical accounts and archival photographs of the St. George.
Fortunately, with the help of the theater and all of its supporters over the years, we did manage to unearth several small collections of photographs and videos that have helped us tell the theater’s story. We were able to mine The Staten Island Advance archives for photos and articles. A few months into our research process, we stumbled on the Starts Wednesday blog. We were thrilled to learn that you were writing a book about the theater — and were able to provide names and images to help us piece the story together.
Today, we’re proud that our documentary will live on to share the theater’s story as it continues to grow and change.
What did you imagine the theater to be like, before you ever set foot in it? Did it live up to your expectations?
When we started this project last summer, I had heard about the theater’s beautiful interior and unique community ties — but I had only been to Staten Island once before, and I’d never even ridden on the Staten Island ferry. We had our initial site visit in May of 2016, and I had my first experience of walking through the lobby doors — I was blown away by the space and the stories that people began telling us. At WNET our mission is to create “media with impact,” and our hope is that when people watch this documentary, they will have the same feeling we had, of experiencing the St. George Theatre for the very first time.
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No, I haven’t seen the finished documentary, but the trailer promises a delicious glimpse of a fine old movie and Vaudeville house enjoying its post-millennial revival. Although Dean and I were interviewed for about twenty minutes, I suspect you’ll catch just a glimpse of us here or there, which is fine. Our efforts and those of our long-ago dedicated staff, form a tiny part of the coral reef of care and effort that have helped keep the St. George standing, as it approaches its hundred-year anniversary. Therefor, readers, here we are...and more importantly, here’s the theater.
Is there a theater in your community or hometown that was important in your life? I’d love to know about it, perhaps even feature your story in an upcoming blog post.