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Palace Walks

On the Road With the Theatre Historical Society

Seated behind me are two projectionists who have just met— Elizabeth Lilley from Garland, Texas, and Barry Took from Send Woking in Surrey, England. They're swapping booth talk. "I love projectors," she says. "The new platters are not much fun. I miss the good old single-screen days and the old changeover projectors." From across the aisle, her dad, retired boothman Roy Ragsdale, nods assent.

We're in one of three buses containing 150 theater-crazed individuals rattling around western New York during a sweltering four-day Fourth of July fete. This is the 30th Conclave of the Theatre Historical Society, founded in 1969 by Ben Hall, author of The Best Remaining Seats, an invaluable history of the movie palace.

THS publishes a quarterly journal Marquee, has built up an impressive archive, and has expanded its activities year by year. The archive and THS's American Movie Palace Museum (where this summer there's an exhibit on drive-ins) are located in Elmhurst, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The conclaves bring together members from around the world to a different locale each year— recent assemblages have taken place in Detroit, Montreal, and Salt Lake City— where theater buildings are relentlessly toured, in front of and behind the scenes, from basements to projection booths.

illustration: Rachel Stuart

Conclaves traditionally kick off with slide shows. This year's batch included a tour of Long Island City theaters; 75 years of Hawaiian theaters; and a superb presentation, "The Picture Palaces of Sweden," by Kjell Furberg, project coordinator at the Stockholm Museum of Architecture. There is generally a sprinkling of THS members from abroad; everyone's favorite visitor this year was the youngest, 10-year-old Simon Fox from Australia, who was accompanying his father, organist Robert Fox, former manager of the Regent, one of Sydney's finest movie palaces. "A lovely old place," the elder Fox said, heaving a sigh. "I cried when it came down."

Fox is one of many organists in THS; the membership includes theater managers and professionals, active and retired, but also publicists, designers, IRS agents, writers, scientists— you name it. And although most members have a general interest in historic theaters, there's a healthy sampling of the truly obsessed for whom god is the details— vertical-sign freaks, cove-lighting aficionados, deco devotees, neon nuts, projection-room passionals, and lounge locos.

Steve Markham, from West Hollywood, was described by one of his colleagues as "queer for curtains. He puts curtains around curtains." Markham, an ex­concert violinist and a champ baton twirler in vaudeville, "does" the curtains for the "Last Remaining Seats" series of classic movies in historic theaters sponsored by the L.A. Conservancy. He owns a famous collection of drapes— a number dating from the 1920s— kept at L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre under the stage in a room especially built for him. During our tours, he could often be heard muttering: "Ugly, ugly curtains!" A friend noted, "He says that about every theater."

We hit 20 theaters in four days— everything from neighborhood playhouses to opera houses to true glamour palaces— busing through the lovely Finger Lakes area, through sleepy backwater burgs, and rolling farmland in Erie Canal territory. At Jamestown there was an obligatory stop at the Lucy-Desi Museum. Lucille Ball's hometown has turned the late comedienne into something of a cottage industry, to the extent of renaming the opera house "The Lucille Ball Little Theatre."

The big guns were four opulent movie palaces, all of which now serve as performing arts centers. The dazzling Warner, in Erie, Pennsylvania (built in 1931), was designed by Rapp & Rapp, architects of the Times Square Paramount. In its elaborate lobby, Versailles meets art deco; a local cinephile dubbed the place "Erie's Very Own Xanadu." Another extravagant Rapp & Rapp house in the French style, Shea's huge (3200 seats) Buffalo, was built by Paramount in 1926. The Stanley, finest and last of the six theaters that once served downtown Utica, was designed for the Mastbaum chain in 1928 by the prolific Thomas Lamb (who studied architecture at Cooper Union) in a flashy hybrid Moorish-Mexican baroque style. The curving staircase leading to its mezzanine is said to be a replica of the grand staircase of the Titanic. The most sumptuous of all western New York's theaters, Syracuse's Landmark was designed by Lamb in 1928 as Loew's State, a showcase for MGM films. Fantasyland incarnate, its spectacular Indo-Persian lobby incorporates a huge mural depicting a royal procession of elephants and riders, all silhouetted against a deep blue night sky.

After these colossi, a visit to the mom-and-pop Syracuse Palace was a marked change of scale. The house was designed, built, owned, and operated by Al DiBella, an emigrant Sicilian carpenter who stayed in charge until his death in 1959. Since then, his daughter Frances has managed the theater. The movie showing, Cookie's Fortune, was recent, but this charming 1200-seater is pretty much the way it was when DiBella opened it in 1924.

The last day of the conclave, one of my dreams came true. I've always wanted to meet someone who wore "the pants of a Roxy usher." The Roxy was my favorite childhood haunt— the golden age of the movie palace reached its pinnacle with this grandest of all theaters. During a lunch break between tours, I was introduced to Simon Saltzman, a writer from Chatman, New Jersey.

"I went to the Roxy in 1956, straight from high school. D-Day, The Sixth of June was my first picture there. We had inspection every morning. It was like the army, with military-type pants. The ushers' officers were tough. It was actually more like being in the marines. I didn't brush with celebrities often, but I did take Sonja Henie on her skates up in the elevator when she was performing there. When AMC shows Anastasia, they precede it with a Fox newsreel of its premiere at the Roxy and you can see me in uniform opening the door. I was there during the last gasp of the glory days. It was impeccably maintained, right up to the end. When the Roxy was demolished, it was like losing a member of the family."

He continued: "But I had really grown up in those movie palaces. My dad, Moe Saltzman, was a pit musician, he played in the orchestra for The Birth of a Nation. He was a theater organist, but also played piano and clarinet. I went to union meetings with him and made friends with all his cronies who were playing in movie theaters around town. Both my parents were in the business. My mother worked for a milliner for Broadway shows. She was sent to South America to buy plumage for hats and fell in love with my dad who at that time had his own orchestra on the Cunard Line. I was also an usher for a while at Radio City Music Hall, which is a bit funny because my mother went into labor with me while she was looking at Bette Davis in Jezebel at Radio City. From that I attribute my love of Bette Davis movies.

"Being able to revisit some of the great picture palaces up here— now that just about all of those in New York City are gone— supplies a kind of closure to the era I grew up in."

For info: Theatre Historical Society, 152 North York Road, Elmhurst, IL 60126.

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