High Anxiety: Neurotic Memories of Movie Theatres in the Bronx (1950s-1960s)


Odd how the tiniest thing can bring back paralyzing memories. Someone said they’d be interested in hearing about the Loew’s Paradise movie theatre in the Bronx after I mentioned I’d seen “Hard Day’s Night” there on opening day. I thought, ‘Simple enough. I’ll just go find some images of it and write.’

But once I started looking at photos of theatres I’d gone to as a kid I wondered if I’d ever even gone to the Paradise. I didn’t recognize it’s magnificent facade. So I looked at photos of other theatres in the Bronx. The more photos I looked at the more I found that I had no distinct memories of any of them. They’d all become one hazy huge theatre where certain things existed or happened.

My ‘Hazy Bronx Movie Theatre(TM)’ had a beautiful ticket booth on an inlaid marble foyer, red carpets, wide stairs with polished brass banisters that led up to the balcony section, a huge domed ceiling painted like the sky with clouds and twinkling stars, and an enormous chandelier hanging precariously from the center point of the ceiling. I am unable to sort out which was which or what was where because I’ve been unable to find photos of the interiors taken before 1975.

Maybe distinct memories of each aren’t there because during those years movie palaces were the rule rather than the exception so the incredible architecture didn’t seem unusual enough for me to think to remember it… like others who grow up in NYC and have never been to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty (and I’ve been to neither) thinking ‘They’ll always be there, I can visit any time, I’ll get there sooner or later.’ Sadly that’s not always the case. Nothing is forever.

Or maybe I have no distinct memories of the theatres because my life as a young kid was one long anxiety attack exacerbated by two architectural features of the hazy theatre that terrified me: The enormous chandelier hanging from the center point of the incredibly high ceiling. And the seats at the balcony railing.

I have no idea what movie theatre had the scary giant chandelier and I cannot find any mention of such a thing anywhere. But I remember it with more clarity than I remember anything else about going to the movies as a kid. I always sat as far away from it’s perimeter as possible and then I’d stare at it the entire time I was inside. Why? Because I knew that at any second the chandelier was going to fall and kill everyone in the seats below and that I’d have to watch helplessly as it happened. Every visit I went through the same thing. Every visit was the visit it was definitely going to happen.

[Apparently I was ahead of the times. While looking for an image of a huge scary chandelier to include I came across the very funny “Falling Chandelier of Doom” on TV Tropes:

“For some reason Agnes’s practical eye was drawn to the huge chandelier that hung over the auditorium like a fantastic sea monster. Its thick rope disappeared into the darkness near the ceiling….

When in high-class surroundings, the standard way to create chaos or kill people is inevitably to drop the enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling. This is usually intentional on the part of the character (and strongly indicative of Badassitude), but occasionally it happens by accident. A frequent comedic subversion is for the hero to accidentally drop the chandelier on his own allies. This is most common in film and theater, since it exists mostly as a way to create a visually spectacular effect. Generally it’s a subtrope of Death by Looking Up. Might overlap with Impaled with Extreme Prejudice. “]

Balconies were a more generic theatre feature and probably all I went to as a kid had them. I wasn’t allowed to sit in the balcony until I was a teen which of course made it the most desirable place to sit in the theatre. I loved the balcony but always sat as far back from the railing as I could. Why? Because flashing across my eyes was not the movie but visions of myself falling over the railing and dying in a crushed heap on the floor below. Sitting back from the railing didn’t remove the anxiety. It just redirected it. I stared at the people sitting at the railing knowing that at any second one of them would fall and die and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.

[Apparently this actually happens… to really stupid people:

At the haunted Capitol Theatre in Willimantic, CT: “As it turns out, there is no record of any murders or stabbings, accidental or otherwise, having occurred in the Capitol Theater. The only known tragedy was when a woman fell from the balcony and died a few days later in a local hospital.”

and this past October at the Chicago Theater: “A man was critically hurt when he fell about 15 feet off a balcony Saturday night inside the Chicago Theatre. The 26-year-old man fell from a first-floor balcony onto a marble floor around 11:30 p.m., inside the theatre at 175 N. State St., police said. Police believe he was drunk when he fell. Foul play is not suspected. The rock band Widespread Panic played a 7 p.m. show at the venue.”

OK, so he didn’t die… yet. And how appropriate is it that a band named Widespread Panic was performing?]

Strangely enough, although I was a very young kid, no-one seemed to notice how stressed out I was or that I was oddly preoccupied with ‘death by chandelier’ and ‘death by movie balcony’ when I should have been having a good time.

My best (and perhaps only good) memory of ‘The Hazy Bronx Movie Theatre(TM)’ is of sitting under a huge domed ceiling painted like the sky. It was dark blue with clouds and it twinkled with thousands of tiny stars. I was so enthralled by that vision, so beautiful and unreachable, that I remember nothing else about being there. Apparently the Loew’s Paradise on the Grand Concourse had such a ceiling but I don’t recognize the magnificent facade. I was thankful to find that the Paradise has been restored (except for the twinkling star lights) and is now a historic landmark. But had I ever really been there? Perhaps there were others that had similar domed ceilings?

The Palace theatre on Unionport Road was cheap so I spent most of my movie theatre time there. Perhaps it was this theatre that had kids matinees on the weekends? Hundreds of kids packed into the theatre free from the watchful eyes of parents… but not free from the watchful eyes of the dreaded ‘matrons.’ Dressed in white uniforms and white caps and carrying huge flashlights, the matrons patrolled the aisles of the theatre looking for anyone doing anything besides sitting quietly watching the movie. Woe to any kid caught misbehaving! I never misbehaved. I’d already been terrified into good public behavior by my mother and the matrons had nothing on her.

By the time I hit my early teens in 1960, the Palace was commonly known as The Dump. No-one said ‘Hey, wanna go see something at the Palace?’ It was always “Hey, let’s go see what’s playing at The Dump.’ I don’t remember it being particularly ‘dump-y’ but there was certainly nothing grand about it like the other theatres in the area. Perhaps there was balcony seating area? I remember a balcony area but that doesn’t mean it had one. And I remember making out on the balcony and smoking lots of cigarettes on the balcony and drinking from a pint of something being passed around on the balcony. In a seat not anywhere near the balcony railing, of course.

Anyone have a photo of the old Circle Marquee?

Or perhaps all that went on at the Circle Theater in Parkchester which is now either a shabby fitness center or abandoned. And which is where I most likely saw “Hard Day’s Night” on it’s opening day.

Going to the Circle was a wonderful treat. The Circle was a grand place with a beautiful ticket booth set on inlaid marble floors. I remember it having a balcony section too. Which means nothing. When I was about 10 my mother would occasionally take me along on her sacred ‘movie nights.’ She always went to the Circle on the weeknight they showed ‘Free Previews’ so that she could get more for her money. The ‘Previews’ weren’t previews. They were full length movies. After a double feature and a third full length ‘preview’ I could hardly feel my ass but it was worth it just to be out of the house after 7pm.

And there were other theatres (perhaps more parts of ‘The Hazy Bronx Movie Theatre(TM)’)…

The Globe on Pelham Parkway

The Loew's American on East Avenue

The RKO Fordham on Fordham Road

… and others I no longer recognize except for the names.

What I remember better and with better memories than the movie theatres are the places that were next door or on the way to them. Which I’ll leave for another time.

… so as it turned out (and as it usually does with me) looking back and writing about something I experienced is not as simple as it could or should be. I wish I had a better story to tell about the Loew’s Paradise but I can only tell my story… and this was it.

Acknowledgements:

Vintage Photos are from: Movie Theatres and Drive-Ins of New York City Part 3: The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island

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2 comments on “High Anxiety: Neurotic Memories of Movie Theatres in the Bronx (1950s-1960s)

  1. Very cool. Thank you for writing those memories down. It’s funny how time and age alter our perceptions of things. I’m pretty sure the things that seemed so magnificent or terrifying when I was little, are neither. Here are a couple of links on movie palaces (warning: the second one has a shot of a chandelier in the opening):

    • Thank you and you’re very welcome! I’m sure it wasn’t the story you were expecting 🙂 I hope that at least it was a bit funny since I stopped taking myself seriously years ago.

      And thanks so much for the vids. I enjoyed the first one very much. For some reason I can’t get the second one to play. It opens the YT page but the vid doesn’t do anything. I likely have some something blocked that the poster uses. Maybe it’s a good thing since it has the scary chandelier right at the beginning!

      It’s so true about perspectives changing over time. Things once so important to me keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller while things I never concerned myself with grow larger.

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