When I started going to the movies as a “grown-up,” i.e. without parent chaperones, my friends and I went to Saturday matinees at the St. James, Mayfair or Lyric Theatre in Asbury Park. Big old carnival-like palladiums that were demolished – now it seems pointlessly. Probably the riots that sparked in Asbury Park in the summer of 1970 initiated the slow demise of each of the grand old palaces. One of our parents would drop us off and we would walk through the lobby into a cavernous auditorium, where a heavy, red-velvet curtain protected the mile-wide screen. The curtain would part, and the movie, sans any commercials, would begin. The first time I saw “Gone with the Wind” (falling crazy for Clark Gable), was at one of those baroque confections, so different from the modern seven-screen cineplex.
So, it was with great glee when, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself on the corner of Broadway and 175th Street staring up at a magnificent, albeit broken-looking, movie palace. I could only guess it was built in the late ’20s, early ’30s. It was a city-block wide; the original box office in place. And the entire facade of the building was decorated with intricately carved fretwork. What looked to be a Hindu god graced the marquee high above the street. It is now the United Church, but I closed my eyes and imagined what glory it must have commanded in its day, especially since its architectural splendors still dazzle.
In the back of the theatre, facing Wadsworth Avenue, a balcony had been built on the second floor. I couldn’t figure out if the stars used that space to come out and bow to their fans, or if it was just a place to cool off on a hot summer night because the theatre was built way before air conditioning.
When I got home I called my mother, because she grew up in that neighborhood. I thought she might know what the mystery building was before it became a church. “Of course. It’s the Old Loew’s Palace where I saw ‘Gone with the Wind’ when it first came out in 1939. I was 11.”