There is so much elegance still left in this place, the “Grand Dame of the Paper City.” The grand (Brazilian mahogany lined) staircase is strewn these days with fallen plaster, but at the top is an oval room (an “oculus”) so acoustically perfect, that if you stand in the middle your echo comes back to you from two ends at once. Floors of hand-cut Vermont marble, Tiffany windows. The trove of memorabilia in the hallway at the back of the orchestra — signage and candy wrappers of a half-century and a stack of ancient popcorn cups — did come rather suddenly from a signage room upstairs that collapsed into the orchestra, but they make a fascinating still-life.
Ghost-towns fascinate, and this is a ghost of a theater: an eerie orange light filtering through from the fly loft is not some exotic scrim left over from Vaudeville after all, but a plastic tarp protecting the broken skylight backstage — which explains the damp, and those mushrooms.
Still, it is easy to imagine a heyday.
The Victory’s biography is typical for a small-town theater of the twenties. Built by the Goldstein Brothers Amusement Company, a Nickelodeon storefront outfit making a bid for big time entertainment, it opened its doors in 1920, complete with a house “Victory” orchestra to accompany film and live (Vaudeville) performances. With 1680 velvet seats — orchestra and balcony — ringing a modest stage, it’s an intimate house. Standing near the orchestra pit, it was easy to imagine voices, perhaps a show tune. When the place reopens, I hope it’s to the strains of “April Showers” or “Crazy Blues” — or some other tune that came out in 1920. After a career of continuous double features, doors closed for good in 1979, a year when so many other great theaters were either demolished or abandoned or — if they were fortunate — transformed into churches.
If only the Victory had become a church, it would have been spared the rot and the vandalism. For me, once a proprietor of an imperiled movie palace (the St. George Theatre in Staten Island) to see the Victory’s condition and to tiptoe carefully over weakened stage boards above a flooded basement is to shiver at what can happen to these places.
The St. George, as it turned out, had its savior, a woman, Rosemary Cappozalo, whose life was dedicated to teaching dance locally in Staten Island, and who mortgaged her house to buy the St. George and make it a working house again. In Holyoke, Rosemary’s counterpart is one Helen Casey. Helen had seen Casablanca at the Victory first run, when she was just fourteen. She remembered the crowds on what is now a desolate street corner, just outside. Commencing in the early 1980‘s, her efforts to save the theater nearly dwindled, then a certain Donald Sanders took up the strain and the fledgling arts nonprofit, MIFA, dedicated to theater, dance and music, finally bought the Victory in 2008 for $1,500 from the town council.
And so it goes, from city to city all across America. If you don’t try to rebuild the town core, if abandon-and-tear-down is the policy, what will remain but franchises and boarded-up storefronts?
“There’s still a lot of people here who went to see the movies...and have a real tactile...” and personal involvement, observed Kathleen Andersen, former director of Holyoke’s Planning Department. She believes in “creating a downtown people want to visit.”
Beyond that notion, every good show house is a kind of sanctuary, a place where people gather in the dark to share being moved — or scared — or transported — or reduced to giggles. It’s a way to drop out of time. We need these places.