Love Lost and Never to Be Rediscovered
My love of old movie houses that are gone now but live on in my memory
Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about — Steven Spielberg
I love movies and old movie houses. They’re in my blood by an infusion of films into my DNA when, as a child, I took back deposit bottles to gather the nickels and dimes I needed for a Saturday film.
Once seated in the third row from the screen in terribly uncomfortable seats with rough edges, I was transported, and I never regretted a moment of it. Always afraid of the dark, the blackness in the old Loew’s dream movie houses, I was home in the dark, and I welcomed its embrace.
And what movie mansions they were. Our town had one of the indescribably beautiful Loew’s theatres. Incredibly thick carpeting rivaled that of Radio City Music Hall, and a hall of mirrors led you to the ticket collector in his uniform with that silly hat.
A Dreamland of Design
Even the outside promised something magical. But once inside, a large, highly decorated fish pond with enormous coy greeted you. The wide stairway next to the pond was out of bounds; it led to the adults' loge area. Of course, the loge was for dating because you paid extra and got to sit in seats that slid back for enjoyment or moments of intimacy.
You knew this was unlike any other place you’d seen and you’d gladly run past the candy counter with its smell of popcorn and butter to grab a seat down front in the children’s section.
What if women in black dresses with white collars and wielding large flashlights patrolled the aisles to ensure you stayed put? We were there under a blue make-believe, arched ceiling with twinkling stars in it. Looking up, we imagined that the “stars” twinkled, but they didn’t. Who cared? We were at the movies!
Swords, capes, and knights’ gear decorated the walls where large, carved chairs with plush cushions were placed near the candy concession. Everything was magical, and it cost so little for this fantasy trip that all the bottle collecting was worth it.
One Attraction I’ll Never Forget
My town didn’t have one of these palaces; we had five movie theatres because ours was the only town that had theatres. Yes, I lived on the very beginning of Long Island, and no major theatres had been built in the sandy earth that was to be the playground of the uber-rich in years to come.
But even then, the era of these palaces was passed, and no one would build such intricately crafted movie houses that wouldn’t be packed on the weekends all year long.
One of the smaller theatres had a special Saturday attraction for kids, vaudeville, and once Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came to put on a show. I remember going around the block where I knew the dressing room windows opened on a busy side street.
Positioning myself across the street behind a cement column, I could see the yellow light from the open windows and the cowboys putting on their make-up. A large steel door opened where the horses were led in, and I got to see it all for free! No one saw me, and I stared, enchanted by sight.
I don’t think I saw Roy or Dale, but that didn’t matter. I saw real-life cowboys (or so I thought) from the movies right in my town. I can’t tell you how my heart was beating at that sight.
A Change in the Works
However, the winds of change were blowing, and movie studios were hit with lawsuits that cut their ownership of theatres, actors refused contracts, and a new age began, the New Wave of film. Films would change into a new medium more true to life than the fantasy films where everyone dressed for dinner and used cigarette holders.
One star who would succeed, not in film so much, but in theatrical productions, Tallulah Bankhead, was someone I found interesting. I later read she loved to do cartwheels without underwear, the better to shock everyone.
I would have another of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences at a small theatre in a wealthy town out on Long Island. Tallulah Bankhead was going to be appearing in a limited run of a drawing-room play. I don’t remember the name, but I do remember the audience. One woman came in a tux, and the crowd was decidedly nothing like I’d ever seen before.
The movie house was also nothing like I’d seen because New Wave meant smaller houses for smaller audiences who enjoyed foreign films. This theatre would introduce me to all the classics of the 60s and 70s, and I was, once more, in love with film.
I saw everything from “Breathless” to “Shoot the Piano Player” to “Phaedra” (remember that one?), “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” “This Sporting Life,” anything with Simone Signore or Jean Claude Belmondo. I was hooked.
Where Have They Gone?
My favorite movie palace has been declared a historic landmark and turned over to a religious organization. The interior was renovated, and much of the original ornamentation is gone, but the facade remains.
The one where I saw Roy Rogers was torn down along with much of the surrounding block to become a massive shopping mall. Nothing of the original theatre remains, and even the elevated train line has been removed.
Now, where will movies live? The question of contagion closed many and smaller houses have been closed permanently. Will films stream online, or will we still enjoy the wonder of, as Gloria Swanson said in “Sunset Boulevard,”
You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!… All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.
Let’s hope she’s right. I yearn to return to the movies again.