As many of you are probably aware, I hail from Syracuse, N.Y., where film stars Richard Gere and Tom Cruise spent part of their youth. (No, I did not know either one.) I’ve written about the Salt City in a movie context before, first as a lead-in to an entry on RKO (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/141316.html) and then as a tie-in to last year’s annual Cinefest (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/190086.html).
This time, I’ve decided to write my personal recollections of two Syracuse moviehouses I visited multiple times…and yes, the idea for this derives from the entry earlier this week about the theaters my mother attended in her youth.
The similarities probably end there, though; my mom saw lots of movies in her youth, as there were several theaters within walking distance of her home. I never had that luxury. The neighborhood I grew up in was strictly residential, built in the mid-fifties as quasi-suburban within the city limits, and while we had supermarkets, restaurants and a bowling alley not far away, there were no movie theaters in the Valley, the part of town where we lived. So while I was a movie fan, watching plenty of them on TV, the distance sort of discouraged my attendance. And the family left the area when I was 15.
My older sister took me to a few movie theaters, once for a cartoon festival at RKO Keith’s; both it and the nearby Paramount closed in early 1967 and were razed as part of an urban renewal project.
However, there were two venues I attended multiple times. One was an old-time palace, still considered one of the better examples of the genre, and thankfully, it’s still with us. The other was a smaller-scale theater whose end was drawing near when I patronized the place, although I didn’t know it.
With the help of http://www.cinematreasures.org, a site I can’t recommend highly enough for people fascinated with movie theaters, I was able to learn more about the histories of these venues – and much of it surprised me.
We’ll begin with Syracuse’s best-known movie house, called the Landmark Theater today, though it opened in February 1928 as the Loew’s State. It was designed by Thomas Lamb, one of the very best filmhouse architects, and it was every bit as luxurious as its Loew’s brethren downstate.
It seated more than 2,900, blending several architectural styles, mostly in shades of red and gold, and wowed the throngs who came, initially for silent movies; the first talkie shown there was “The Broadway Melody” on March 30, 1929.
In the first few years, film actors made personal appearances. For example, in early October 1929 “Sunshine Sammy,” who I believe was the black kid appearing in the “Our Gang” shorts of the time, appeared on stage. Loew’s State also had an outstanding Wurlitzer organ.
Note the ad mentions that Gloria Swanson’s “The Trespasser,” a Pathe film, would be playing there the following week, meaning the Loew’s State occasionally showed non-MGM product. (One doubts any of Carole Lombard’s Pathe talkies were deemed high-grade enough for the Loew’s, but it’s possible some of her non-Paramount or RKO product did play there.)
Of course, Lombard husbands William Powell and Clark Gable were regularly featured at the State. Here’s the marquee in 1936 promoting Gable’s “San Francisco”:
The marquee was later made more utilitarian, and people associated with the theater hope to someday replicate the style of the old one.
As decades elapsed, Loew’s slowly began to deteriorate. Once kept in meticulous shape, that eventually changed. By the 1960s, the organ was long gone, although it found a new home at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, Calif. Moreover, Syracusans were increasingly going to suburban venues (one theater showed “The Sound Of Music” for a year and a half). But I went a few times to the Loew’s, just as my older sister (and parents) had.
Our family left Syracuse in 1970, by which time there was talk that Loew’s would raze the theater and the eight-story office building that accompanied it. The theater was still showing first-run films, but not many came to see them. By 1973, the place was so defeated that it began showing X-rated fare, the upstate equivalent of that era’s cinematic tawdriness on 42nd Street.
And like what happened in Manhattan, there would be a happy ending…but it didn’t occur overnight. In fact, Loew’s was closed for several months in mid-1975.
A community group volunteered to clean up the place and was able to purchase the theater portion of the building. In October 1977, Harry Chapin performed in a sold-out fundraiser, the first of many acts to use the house as a concert venue. Performers who have trod the Landmark stage range from Lena Horne, B.B. King and Tony Bennett to Jerry Seinfeld and Rockpile (the roots-rock band featuring Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe).
The Landmark has occasionally struggled at times; downtown Syracuse is no longer the shopping mecca it was during my youth, although the growth of nearby Armory Square as an arts/nightlife scene has somewhat eased the pain. If you’re in town and there’s a show, check out the place and indulge yourself in the feel of a real movie palace. For additional information on the Landmark, go to http://www.landmarktheatre.org/home.html.
Yep, that’s Syracuse in snow, which it gets more of than any other major city in the continental U.S.
Sadly, I could find no photo of the other theater I will discuss. Like the Loew’s, it was on South Salina Street, the city’s main road, though it was a few miles down on the South Side. It was called the Riviera, and I was prepared to dismiss it as a Syracuse “nabe” (neighborhood house) until I learned more about it at CinemaTreasures.
The Riviera opened in 1929 with a coral color scheme designed to give a feel of an Italian garden; it also was somewhat less showy, which allowed it to hide its age a bit better.
It seated about 900 and was even built with an organ, something that by 1929 wasn’t deemed a prerequisite for a new theater. For several decades, it played second-run fare, but in the early sixties in became a bit of an art house (the theater was a short distance from Syracuse University), showing lots of foreign films, especially those from Italy. I believe our family was on their mailing list, because we regularly received postcards from the theater advertising upcoming films.
My father may have gone to those movies, but I didn’t. I think the only times we went to the Riviera were on weekend afternoons, when it showed matinees geared for children. I recall seeing the godawful “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (whose cast included a pre-teen Pia Zadora) around 1964. A few years later, the Riviera capitalized on the “Batman” fad by showing a string of 1940s serials starring the caped crusader. They may have reflected Bob Kane’s vision of the character, but at the time I found them boring.
The neighborhood around the Riviera was changing, falling prey to white flight. The theater closed in 1968 when the roof caved in following heavy snow. It was razed in 1975.
Theaters have fascinating stories, and I'd appreciate learning about your favorite filmhouses, whether they be Golden Age palaces or more recent venues. Go to CinemaTreasures.org, get the history of the places you patronized then (or now), and then tell us.