by James P. Hughes
We settled back in the reclining leather seats with attached tray tables as the movie flickered across the silver screen. Sipping a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio, I munched on a Bacon Burger Paradise sandwich and Caesar salad. My wife opted for Pan-Seared Salmon and a frozen Margarita. What a luxurious way to enjoy a feature film … feet up, first-rate dining … sometimes life can be good.
We had ventured out to experience the new kid in the neighborhood, the Movie Tavern at Township 5 in Camillus. State of the art, yet with a calculated retro look, it’s the next generation in movie theaters and the first of its kind, not only in the Finger Lakes Region but in all of New York State.
Far beyond our youthful perspective of the 1940s and ‘50s, the whole experience was a bit dazzling. High-tech movie viewing? Sure. But food and beverages ordered from your padded, reclining leather chair and served by waitstaff? That was new, even bizarre.
Pondering the experience later, a veil of reflection swept over me. Misty memories from long ago came rushing back; a time when viewing movies was different, so very different. A radiant image sprang to mind as I recalled watching motion pictures at Loew’s State Theatre – the country’s oldest theater chain – and perhaps the most lavish of the large “movie palaces” in downtown Syracuse.
The theater debuted in 1928 with seating for close to 3,000 patrons. Its rich red and gilded gold décor, grand staircase, exotic furnishings, and ornate chandeliers created what was then proclaimed as “the last word in theatrical luxury.” My memories of watching the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age illuminate the screen in such opulent surroundings will never fade.
The era of large downtown theaters eventually waned and by the 1970s Loew’s State, worn and ragged, was threatened with demolition. Saved by a community group, it has been restored to its former glory as the Landmark Theater and hosts films, live performances and special events. Rochester’s Loew’s Theatre and the RKO Palace, two of the city’s finest and most elaborate movie palaces, were not quite so fortunate. Their splendor was crushed under the wrecking ball in the 1960s.
The huge downtown theaters in cities like Syracuse and Rochester are only part of the story. Memories of a multitude of modest movie houses lingered, more wistful flashbacks to simpler times. Scattered throughout city neighborhoods and prominent along the main streets of many small towns, flashing lights promised the fantasy and adventure that waited within.
As the 19th century melted into the 20th, many of these had evolved from “opera houses” where live theater once took place. Often folding chairs or straight benches provided the only seating. A few were housed in fancy buildings, others in a second floor auditorium either over the village hall or somewhere along the business block. The opera houses later morphed into venues for the silent film era, later followed by the introduction of the first “talkies.”
As the popularity of moving pictures increased, new theaters popped up in Finger Lakes communities and the rest of the country with ticket booths, glossy photo displays, neon-emblazoned marquees and a variety of monikers: Park, Globe, Glen, Regent, Rialto, Babcock, Capitol, and Temple. Folks in Skaneateles patronized the Colonial. People lined up at the Playhouse in Canandaigua. The Majestic along Broadway in Hornell was one of three theaters in that booming railroad town.
In my city neighborhood we usually attended the Elmwood or the Cameo – special places, although neither flashed a trace of the glamour found at their downtown counterparts. With a bag of popcorn and a packet of Milk Duds or Good & Plenty, we would while away an afternoon with a cowboy flick (Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy were my favorites), a cartoon or two, a wave of promising previews, and the latest episode of a cliffhanger serial. At night the screen gave way to people like Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and Marilyn Monroe. Most seats had an errant spring poking through here or there and a tear or two in the upholstery. The floor was sticky from years of spilled soda pop, but who cared?
Sadly, most of these theaters have long ago passed by the wayside. Some sit vacant, their marquees blank for years. Others have been demolished or remodeled to accommodate other businesses. No sign remains of the Elmwood in Penn Yan. It was torn down and replaced by village offices. The State in Waterloo is now a Chinese restaurant, its movie house façade from 1934 to 1955 just barely recognizable. The Strand in Seneca Falls closed down in 1955 and was later demolished. It was there in the 1940s that local barber Tommy Bellissima attended a showing of It’s A Wonderful Life. On a poster, he recognized the face of director Frank Capra as the same man whose hair he had trimmed a year or two before in his shop. Many believe that Capra’s visit to Seneca Falls influenced his portrayal of “Bedford Falls” in the classic film.
A scattering of old-school movie houses still exist. Constructed in 1915, the Ohmann Theater in Lyons is a gem that perfectly melds the past with the present. Since the days of silent films, the family-owned business has presented movies, vaudeville, musical performances and special events of all sorts. Closed for some years, it was revived in 2005 by the Ohmann family and received recognition by the Theatre Historical Society. The modern renovation has preserved the history, charm and character of the original movie house.
Ah, well. Memories of the past are inescapable … forgotten are rough edges shaved off by time while only a pleasant essence remains. I thought once more of that little theater in my neighborhood, and of sitting on a lumpy seat with a box of Sno-Caps watching a good “shoot-‘em-up” on the silver screen.
Then my thoughts wandered back to the nuances of modern technology and the finery of a cinema experience at the Movie Tavern. The luxury of that reclining chair with a menu of food and beverage at my beck and call could be habit-forming.
A perceptive quote came to mind summing up the mixed emotions of joining a nostalgic past with a comfortable present … “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”