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Memories of a revival house

Yesterday's entry that discussed both Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, famed for its film star footprints in cement, and the Stanford Theatre a few hundred miles north in Palo Alto, Calif., which shows exclusively classic movie fare, brought back memories to me of a place that combined elements of both of those notable houses. To find it, you didn't look in either northern or southern California, but clear across the country to New York City, specifically Manhattan's East Village.



The place was called Theatre 80 St. Marks, because it happened to be on St. Marks Place, just off First Avenue. The building, a speakeasy during Prohibition, was converted into an auditorium for live theater in the 1960s; "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," a musical adaptation of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," played there before its Broadway engagement.

In 1971, Howard Otway, a former singer and actor, bought the facility and decided to turn it into a revival house, one that would specialize in movie musicals. The place opened for films in late August that year with a double bill of Marilyn Miller, "Sunny" and "Look For The Silver Lining." To both celebrate its opening and generate some publicity over the first few months, Otway arranged for some classic-era stars to come by and leave their handprints or footprints in cement in front of the theater, sort of an East Coast version of Grauman's. Several did so, including Joan Crawford, Allan Jones, Gloria Swanson, Ruby Keeler and two stars whose imprints are shown below, Joan Blondell and Myrna Loy:



Eventually, Otway expanded his fare to include non-musicals, but they were all from the classic era of Hollywood, and invariably double bills. A few more stars joined the cement parade, including one we lost not long ago, Kitty Carlisle:



If you remember the "Seinfeld" episode where Kramer buys an old movie house to show revival fare (just where did that character get his money?)...well, Theatre 80 was more or less its opposite. Aesthetically, the place wasn't much; unlike most movie houses, the seating setup was only a few rows deep and relatively wide, so the viewers' angle wasn't always the best. The projector ran only 16mm prints, and their condition was usually at the mercy of their distributor. The lobby was small, and intermission refreshments spartan, save for tea and coffee in china cups and cake slices served on small porcelain dishes.

Yet no one seemed to mind its drawbacks, because the place had heart. Otway was reportedly a caustic sort, not the easiest person to work for, but for people who wanted to see classic Hollywood films other than on the late late show, this was one of the places on your list.

I lived outside Philadelphia in the late 1980s, but frequently took trips to New York on my days off...and Theatre 80 was among my favorite venues. There, I became further acquainted with Lombard, Powell, Loy, Harlow and their contemporaries.

Sadly, all good things come to an end. The growth of VCRs doomed New York's once healthy revival house trade; the famed Thalia on the Upper West Side closed in 1987, and while Otway fought the good fight, he died in 1993, and Theatre 80 ended its revival days in mid-1994. It's back as a live theatre venue, home to the Pearl Theater Company, and the stars' prints remain in front of the entrance.

There are still theaters where classic films are shown at least part-time, but their number is waning. Even if your home screen fills a wall, it's next to impossible to duplicate the shared theatrical experience without actually being in one.
Tags: joan blondell, kitty carlisle, myrna loy, stars in cement, theatre 80 st. marks
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