After a steep descent from Fort Hill Circle, my street, studded with older Tudor and Dutch Colonial homes, I turn left, heading downhill for the harbor and the ferry.
It’s all hills around here, kind of like a rough-edged San Francisco. Half a block, and we pass the Fort Place Deli, an institution in St. George. But when I moved in, almost fifty years ago, this squat red brick building housed an odd little insurance agency, with newspaper clippings taped to the windows: pictures of houses burned down or crashed cars, apparently someone’s idea of marketing. Women inside sat behind manual typewriters. Walking uphill at night alone in the dark in St. George was lonely and dangerous, but some time in the late seventies, the agency packed up its Royal typewriters and stole into the darkness, and the Fort Place Deli opened its door. Other than a place to buy beer or ice cream or a sandwich, the deli was a sanctuary, till ten every night, a place to duck in, just in case you needed to, a good thing, in a ragged ‘hood where muggings were on the rise.
Now we’re facing the back wall of the St. George Theatre, the focus of this blog, a 2,672-seat house built for Vaudeville in 1929. Two tiny windows at the top of that back wall enclose the projection booth, its carbon arc projectors, if they still exist, silent hulks, though once they housed actual fire. When the single bulb that hung from the booth’s ceiling finally burned out, three quarters of a year after we lost the theater, hardly anybody noticed, but I wept.
Turning right, we pass the Brighton Heights Reformed Church, originally a landmarked Civil War-era white clapboard and brick construction with a copper steeple, but these days, after the 1996 fire that destroyed the building, a very useful if ugly brick structure, with a pre-fab steeple. It houses a vital soup kitchen, so I’ll stop complaining. I have my memories.
Turn left at the church, walk under the new ripple-front LED marquee, and we have arrived at the St. George Theatre. Much of the theater is, I’m grateful to say, just as it was, but a few things have changed. New gold doors have replaced the red-painted ones, a definite improvement. And then there’s the LED marquee.
How is it possible to miss the old one, which leaked so badly, leaving a rust stain on the sidewalk that turned to ice in winter and often caused, on the steep hill leading down to the ferry, a considerable walking hazard? I offer in my defense that I have some German blood, which predisposes me to nostalgia, probably why I miss letters on a track.
I dug into my blog files and found this post, from 2014; I offer it to conclude the virtual tour:
Aluminum Marquee Letters 10/1/14
I’m sitting in my car directly beneath the marquee of what once was our theater. Despite the fact that around fifteen years ago someone chose to cover the marquee — like a badly iced cake — in beige stucco. Although it’s been forty years, I can blink my eyes and see the steel tracks that used to run around three sides, and the erratically flickering St George Theater in curved neon centered above.
My original intent today was to get a cappuccino. The space to the right of the theater — a failing barbershop when the marquee still had its tracks — is now a coffee bar. I’m waiting in my car beneath a red NO PARKING ANYTIME sign, just long enough for the barista to make my double shot. When it’s ready, she gives me the signal. I dash in, slap a five dollar bill on the counter, grab my drink and run back to the car. I’m late to leave for my next appointment, but sitting beneath the marquee for even a brief time is a kind of transport, like falling down a mine-shaft in time. I sip my coffee and tumble.
It’s 1976. Jim, a senior usher, is teetering on a 15-foot ladder on the uphill side of the marquee. A dangerous wind threatens him, as he tries to keep his balance while hanging that most fragile of items, black-painted aluminum marquee letters. It’s Tuesday night. A new movie starts on Wednesday. It’s Jim’s job to spell out, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, for all to see. It’s an impossibly long title. He has to substitute an upside-down M for the W, and two capital I’s for the L’s. We inherited our incomplete set of letters — and not much else — from the previous theater manager, who pulled out in the dead of night. At least he left us the means, more or less, to spell out the names of the movies that would break our hearts, week after week, failing, one title at a time, to fill our cavernous auditorium. A gust of wind causes the ladder to sway, and Jim drops a precious capital G. There is no sound quite like the sound of breaking cast aluminum, a surprisingly brittle material. Almost like glass but not quite. What’s a substitute for G?
I shake myself back to the present, press the button that starts my post-millennial Volvo, and pull out from under the marquee’s shadow.
I hope, reader, this finds you well, safe and at home. Some time when it’s okay to do so, you might try walking in your own locale, if you’ve lived there longer than a few years, to see what the buildings are telling you to remember. Even in neighborhoods where there are few shops, you might be surprised what comes to mind -- neighbors who’ve moved on, for example, or buildings that were torn down. Meanwhile, do it virtually, maybe even using Google Street View,,,
Below are some comments from 2014; Paulie, who keeps in touch, worked on the theater staff. Dean, as you may remember, was and is my husband.
10/4/2014 5:00 am
For a moment I was in the car with you in front of the theater, I could see the ladder. The sidewalk in front of the theater was on a hill, making the right side of the marquee a much higher climb than the left. The ladder was on the right, a formidable height. A blonde high school kid was next to the ladder, he was quite energetic and a little nervous, as he steadied the ladder at it's base. The wind was blowing, black cast aluminum letters were being passed up the ladder and others were being passed back down. There were a lot of voices and then a quick yell to watch out, as the G came crashing down, some more yelling and voices, much louder this time, followed by a period of calm, I could hear the wind again. The high school kid was at the base of the ladder, steadying it, but cautiously looking up, there was an unusual movement above, the edge of a white panel popped out, the wind quickly gushed underneath extracting it from the marquee. Flipping erratically, the panel fell towards the ground, the high school kid moved quickly, but the edge of the panel caught him on his nose and mouth. There was a sudden pain in my upper lip, I couldn't help but look in the mirror, everything looked fine, good, I smiled. It was a slightly crooked smile, a smile that has brought unique character and many compliments to my life ever since that windy day. I am not sure what a substitute for G is, but after watching Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles in that film, I certainly figured out why that sailor fell from grace with sea.
10/7/2014 4:52 pm
Paulie I remember that night—you, the high school kid, racing in from the street and asking me for the keys to the letter room.
"What happened? What broke?" I wondered.
"Jimmy dropped a G. The wind took it right out of his hands."
"There's only one more G, Paulie…"
I passed the keys to you, and you started to race to the end of the lobby. You then abruptly stopped, turned with that sly crooked grin and said, "Well, I guess this means we can never book King Kong, ya know?"