By Joe Albanese
There are songs that sound like movies
There are themes that fill the screen
There are lines I say that sound as if they’re written
There are looks I wear the theater should have seen
–Widescreen by Rupert Holmes
Today to get the public to attend the picture show,
It’s not enough to advertise a famous star they know
– Technicolor by Cole Porter
Films you didn’t stream. Remember them? Taking your best girl (or guy – let’s be liberal minded here) to the cinema on a Saturday night was considered a date.
The once grand and important Chicago Theater now serving as a theater. It is one of the few that has kept its neon sign and opulent grandeur but streaming means that now it is used solely for live productions.
Photo credit: From the authors personal collection.
In New York every neighborhood (save Little Italy) had their own local movie house showing second or third run films. Marquees were lit with yellowish lights and drew crowds into the palace where you sat in a seat (generally red velour that was itchy) with the smell of popcorn filling the air.
There were so many choices and times to choose from that you were never at a loss to find a movie.
Delancey Street had a wonderful mecca – the Lowe’s Delancey that had a jackpot bonus – it was next door to Ratner’s whose name still invokes memories of cheesecakes dotted with fresh fruit.
You could see a double feature and then go next door blueberry blintzes or cherry cheesecake (and, believe me, the latter gave Sara Lee a run for her money).
Second Avenue had their own special places where, when heaven wasn’t helping the working girl, she could step into a celluloid dream world at the Lowe’s Commodore (also within walking distance of another Ratner’s unless you wanted to go to the 2nd Avenue Deli which, back in the day, was on Second Avenue). Or, one could travel east and go to the Lowe’s Avenue B which, although generally showing movies on their third go-round (until they went into deep storage as television was still a dream) was still perfect for the locals. Founded by Marcus Lowe (hence the name) and B.F. Keith who was the “K” in “RKO”. Both are gone – the Commodore ended so that the Fillmore East could exist and the Avenue B is a part of Beth Israel today.
The Village had the smaller places but impressive, nonetheless. The Art on Eighth Street and the Waverly where, according to a song from Hair, a hippie lady met a hippy boy, Frank Mills, in front of it. Our theaters were so famous, they even made it into songs.
But the lost treasure had to be the Lowe’s Sheridan. Made immortal by local artist (and legend) Edward Hopper. How many movie theaters do you know that are depicted in oil and proudly on display at the Whitney?
Uptown we had Times Square where you could see anything from a triple-feature to a reserved seating theater showing gems such as The Sound of Music (the Rivoli on 49th Street) or My Fair Lady (the Criterion on 45th).
I was too young to go to the Roxy which seems to be the place of dreams and legend but I still have fond memories of Radio City Music Hall when it had sole access to New York showing of Grade A movies and a stage show with the Rockettes. The Christmas and Easter spectaculars had crowds from around the world standing in long lines for hours just to get into the theater which housed over 5,000 seats (along with some of the most impressive architecture imaginable). As unimaginable as it seems today, both the Roxy and the Radio City Music Hall once showed the same movie at the same time – King Kong. 12,000 people per showing could discover that it was love that killed the beast.
And going to “see a picture show” was important event.
Women got dressed up to the nines. A hat, nylon stockings, high heels, a pretty frock with a slip underneath it (heaven forbid that, in the darkened movie theater, one could see a lady’s unmentionables). Men didn’t get away easy either. A white shirt, shined shoes, a tie (at night especially) and his hat (generally purchased from a haberdashery shop on Orchard Street – just because the hat came from a store near the Lowe’s Delancey, it didn’t mean you couldn’t venture into the wilds of uptown wearing it).
Today that magic is gone. Rents for mammoth emporiums make a showcase impossible. The remaining theaters have been divided and subdivided several times over to fill seats. And the AMC Regal on West 13th Street now hosts video game machines, a concession stand and a full bar. Oh, and a movie.