An OBITUARY for the HARVARD SQ. THEATER, Cambridge, MA (1926 – 2012)

Posted in PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on September 19th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

Freshman students moving into Harvard and other Boston area schools this fall, and wandering through Harvard Square, witnessed something no freshman student has seen in this neighborhood for over 80 years: a blank marquee on the Harvard Sq. Theater. In 1925, construction began on the 1,800 seat palace, with doors opening in 1926 on Massachusetts Avenue as The University Theater. In the 1960’s it was stripped down, modernized and rechristened the Harvard Sq. Theatre. The entrance moved around the corner onto Church Street in 1982, a change that heralded a succession of theater chain ownerships. When I first visited it had become part of the USA Cinemas chain. In the summer of 1992, when I worked here as an assistant manager, it was The Loews Harvard Square Theater. The final incarnation since 2006 is the AMC Loews Theater in Harvard Square.

Its programming has been as varied as the theater’s name, from major Hollywood studio productions to European films to independent groundbreakers, plus an impressive slate of milestone concerts. Photographs featuring the marquee in Mo Lotman’s fascinating and fun book “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950″ will remind anyone of the classic movies of their youth: the 1950’s featured Halls of Montezuma screening with a March of Time documentary short, and later the odd pairing of the medieval The Black Knight with the noirish potboiler Turn The Key Softly. The 1960’s saw David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago, as well as another odd pairing: Shenandoah with Bedtime Story. One shot of the multiplex in 1987 offers Raising Arizona, Swimming To Cambodia, Platoon, Tin Men and a Ken Russell retrospective.

In the 1970’s, films continued to show here, but so did some significant live events. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, David Bowie and Bonnie Raitt have each performed on this stage. Bonnie Raitt’s opening act was christened “the future of rock & roll” following his performance that night. On January 15, 1974, when the Harvard Lampoon awarded John Wayne their first Brass Balls Award, Wayne entered Harvard Square on a tank riding up Mass Ave, arriving at the Harvard Square Theater to receive the award. From 1984 thru the theater’s final night this summer, the ’70’s continued to reign every Saturday with midnight screenings of the iconic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

When I moved to Boston in 1988, the first theater I went to was the USA’s Harvard Sq. Cinema. Mom & I saw Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War. The building was a pastiche of different eras of movie theater architecture. The single-screen palace had been divided into 3 screens in the early 80’s, and subdivided into 5 by my first visit. The round concession stand in the middle of the lobby seemed like a holdover from the ’60’s refit. Where there had been a balcony, two smaller cinemas with seats at an awkward angle to the screen had been created. Two more small rooms were added where the backstage area stood from back when the theater could support live shows. Despite these modern updates, remnants of the gilded origins remained in the main theater, most notably in the ornamental moldings on either side of the screen.

My brother Ed was honorably discharged for the Army the week before Batman opened in 1989. To Ed, there could be no better homecoming than seeing one of the most anticipated films of the decade on this large screen. We waited in line for 3 hours with 500 other nerds to see the opening Thursday midnight show. Ed still laughs when he recalls the usher who corralled the line, yelling “I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who your friends are, if your ass ain’t in line, you’re not seeing Batman tonight!” I fell in fleeting lust the night I saw Tequila Sunrise in one of those awkwardly angled balcony theaters. I fell in lasting love the night I saw, believe it or not, Total Recall on my first date with Maria. And I was here on the final night for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Between 1990 and 1994 I worked for 5 different movie theaters in Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. I had been promoted to assistant manager in the Loews Copley Theater before being transferred to Harvard Square in ’92. Copley was Loews’ flashship in New England; it had was a very corporate vibe, due mostly to our District Manager’s office being right across the hall from the Manager’s Office. Harvard Square by contrast felt like a small town theater that coexisted with its neighborhood. One of the other assistant managers was instrumental in finding work for a few people who the more corporate types might hesitate to hire in their theaters, including an autistic usher and an elderly doorman who was very friendly as long as he took his meds. I think I liked that manager a little more than she liked me; I suspect she saw me as one more suit from Copley. I thought her shaved head, tattoos, multiple piercings and punk jacket with flowing hippy skirts were emblematic of what made this theater like no other in the Loews chain.

I didn’t need to work in the Harvard Sq. Theatre very long before I found my own connection to the neighborhood. There was a middle aged couple who would come by once or twice a month who we would let in for free. I’m not certain of how down on their luck they were, whether they were homeless and living in shelters, or just damn close to it. They were sweet and friendly, had shared their first date in this theater in the late ’60’s, and all these years later still had the genuine affection of a couple you knew could survive anything as long as they were together. They made a point of coming earlier in the week when they knew we wouldn’t be sold out; they didn’t want us to give away weekend seats that others might buy, they just hoped we could spare seats that would otherwise go empty. Movies made them happy and gave them a few hours a month to not have to worry about what tomorrow might hold. Sappy as that may sound, make no mistake, these two were the kind of movie nerds who delivered my nerd education at a very impressionable age. Among the movies I let them into were Howards End and The Player; they engaged the ushers and I in an enlightening debate on Merchant / Ivory and period English films following the former, and Altman films and movies about movie-making following the latter. In short, we benefited as much from their company as they did from ours.

On the most memorable of those quiet summer days early in the week, one of the ushers and I shared an adventure that made us feel like The Goonies. Our projectionist had warned us that he suspected one of the projector bulbs would burn out very soon. Replacements had been ordered, but they were delayed in shipping. The projectionist thought there was a stash of spare bulbs, but couldn’t remember for the life of him where he’d seen them. So this usher and I went hunting, and before we knew it, we’d wandered into corners of the theater that neither of us ever would have imagined still existed. We went under the stage, where former dressing rooms were covered with a layer of dust that would choke a vacuum cleaner. The only other sensation I can compare to the decayed look, the moldy smell, and the ambient dull echo under the stage are the cells in the solitary wing of Alcatraz. As deep as we wandered, so high we climbed. We wandered up into what we suspected was the stage rigging; it was so broiling in the dry summer heat that it felt like the area could burst into flames. And we found our way to the roof. From up there I realized my ultimate Boston dream would be to own this theater and live on the roof. To show the movies I want to show all day, and retire each night to a perch with a nearly 360 degree view of Cambridge, Boston and Somerville, hell I couldn’t think of a better way to blow a winning lottery ticket. We even managed to find one spare projector bulb.

I hate to admit it, but since returning to Boston in 2009, I (and other fairweather fans) may have been part of the problem that resulted in AMC Theaters’ decision to shutter Harvard Square. AMC had not committed any noticeable resources to this theater since taking it over. When 3D projection was added, it was not put in the biggest theater, it was cautiously rolled out first in one of the upstairs balcony theaters. I saw Avatar on opening weekend in the theater where they would normally open movies not befitting any spectacle. Sure, 3D eventually worked its way downstairs, but by then I had already embraced other options. I saw most of my big Hollywood films in AMC’s sparkly new theater on Boston Common. I went to Coolidge Corner or Landmark’s Kendall Square theater for independent films. If I wanted a dose of the Harvard Square that I missed, I went to The Brattle.

I may have not have shown my old workplace the proper affection these last few years, though I did make it here for Where The Wild Things Are, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Public Enemies, and two of the precious few movies Maria has joined me for since our return to the area, Julie & Julia and Captain America. I also made it a point to be here for its final night. Earlier in the week had been the July 4th fireworks, which if you’ve never seen in Boston, are a big friggin’ deal. Sometimes Neil Diamond even shows up — that’s how big a deal! But that didn’t resonate with me as heavily as the hourly countdown to the Harvard Sq. Theatre going dark. It had been 10 years since I’d seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and 17 years since I’d seen it here. This evening’s performance was like a jazz funeral. This cast and crew had performed dozens of times, possibly hundreds of times in this theater. There were no tears; there were laughs and hugs and the most go for broke, balls to the wall, rambunctiously deviant and meticulously staged Rocky performance I’ve ever seen. With so many cast members all wanting to share in the final curtain, the principle characters were all played by multiple performers, making for an electrifying mash-up of the skills that each performer brought to each scene. I never dared hope I’d witness the seduction of Rocky & Janet played by two women, and yet there they were. Sorry, I don’t have any photos of that; everyone else was too busy digging the scene to take pictures, and I didn’t want to be the one guy ejected for that transgression. Suffice it to say: woman as Janet + woman in gold lame’ swimsuit as Rocky = a bargain for the price of admission! Another fun and impossible to ignore facet of this evening’s performance was the evidence via the jokes of just how long I’d been away! Between the audience at large, and once very animated gent right behind me, I heard jokes about Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Mormons, Scientologists, Mel Gibson, Bank of America and who can count how many other subjects that were not cultural sticking points during my last visit to Dr. Frank’s lab & slab. I thought I would take so many more photos, and maybe even video, bu I confess I was quickly overtaken by the spirit of the room, in a way that I have never been at any other Rocky screening in this theater or anywhere else. I made a conscious decision not to document the performance in photos, to only say that I wish you had been there with me to celebrate the defiling of the virgins.

The morning after: I’m hearing that the investment group who bought this theater from AMC did so within 4 days of the closing, for a sum in the neighborhood of $6.5 million. Please allow me to publicly state here that if I win my aforementioned rooftop perch lottery, I will offer these folks an immediate 20% return on their investment to walk away. I have no idea what they intend for this space, but I’ll tell you what should go here: an East Coast version of the Alamo Draft House. In my Hollywood ending dreams, the Harvard Square Theater would have 2 dozen beers on tap, wine shipped in from my small market compadres in Santa Barbara County, and the best L.A. street vendor style bacon wrapped sausage sandwiches with caramelized onions and peppers, beef and black bean chili, eggplant lasagna and thick bacon-gasmic clam chowder in town. I’d lose a significant amount of seating in order to allow patrons maximum foot room and comfort; a little trick that makes The Vista Theater on Sunset Blvd one of movie-nerd-nation’s premiere destinations. And while I would never presume to compete with my beloved Brattle, I would go out of my way to keep the Lunch Movie ethos that defined my old agency conference room screenings alive for the next generation of movie nerds. I’d dig out the old and seek out the new with a diversity of titles such as we’ve already discussed, plus others I saw here, like Stormy Monday, Aria, Indiana Jones, Zentropa, and Wonder Boys. Until that day comes, I’ll happily remember the Harvard Square Theater this way, with hundreds lined up and eager to visit:

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The Perfect Moment: CASABLANCA at The Brattle Theater

Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued..., PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on February 14th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

CASABLANCA (1942) Directed by Michael Curtiz, written by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch, starring my personal favorite ensemble cast ever, anywhere, of all time, bar none.

My New England hero Spalding Gray spent his monologue SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA searching the world for “a perfect moment” of peace and happiness and insight. Long before I was aware of Spalding’s quest, CASABLANCA had been one of my favorite films. Not a perfect moment, or even a perfect movie (if there is such a thing?) but something that made me very happy. My earliest visits to The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA were a similar source of happiness. Back in those days the ceiling would sometimes leak during rain, and in winter it was almost as cold inside as outside, but they showed double features of classic movies almost every night. I don’t recall what film first brought me to The Brattle, but I’m sure that from pretty early on, I figured it would be a damn cool place to see CASABLANCA. I had no idea, in what was early in my relationship to both the film and the theater, that a confluence of the two predated my affection for either.

My awareness of CASABLANCA predates my awareness of The Brattle by about ten years. While my Mom was the warden of my bedtime when I was younger, my Dad became the governor, granting me a stay if I watched old movies with him. I learned my first hints of a World War 2 political structure more complex than Us versus Them from watching CASABLANCA past midnight on a school night. My junior high history class covered the Nazi occupation of France, reminding me of Rick Blaine’s question to Capt. Renault, “Louie, are you pro-Vichy or free French?” Renault dodges the question initially, but answers it later with a water bottle and a garbage can; the characters of CASABLANCA personalized for me many of the dates and map positions that most of my classmates memorized only briefly in case they were on the test.

I moved to the Boston area in the summer of 1988. My first friend at Emerson College, my encouraging teacher Al Girelli, hipped me to The Brattle Theater during summer Freshman Composition 1 class. Later in that school year, I made my fated attempt at a perfect moment with CASABLANCA at The Brattle, a moment that almost did not happen. I lived with my family outside of Boston in Acton, driving each day to Alewife Station, and riding the Red Line to class. A blizzard was expected the night of the show prompting my folks to ask me to weigh driving conditions versus staying out to see a movie I’d already seen. Walking from my last class to the Charles St. train station, large wet snowflakes fell, turning to slush when they hit the street. I got to the platform in Charles St. and could barely see Cambridge across the bridge through the falling snow. Damn, I really wanted to see CASABLANCA on a movie screen for my first time! An announcement came over the P.A. system: “This next train is an express to Harvard Square.” That’s where fate kicked in. That was the Boston MBTA telling me “Go ahead kid, go to the movies, this snow will pass.” So I went. And it was beautiful; I had real butter on my popcorn, an audience who appreciated the movie as much as I did, and a seat in the front row of the stage-left balcony where I still prefer to sit today.

There are elements that you miss on a 27″ TV that become more apparent on a theater screen. We have a good idea of when the movie takes place from Rick drunkenly asking Sam “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?” What I had never seen until The Brattle show was an insert in the scene that introduces Rick. We see him signing a casino check. A close-up of the check reveals a detail, lost on TV, that the movie begins on December 2, 1941. The entire story takes place over three days; knowing that those three days conclude within moments of the U.S. officially entering World War 2 adds an extra resonance to Rick’s transformation from bitterness to nobility. When the show was over, the snow had turned to rain and the streets were wet but clear, and I got home more safely than I probably would have if I’d driven earlier. Hell, for all I know, The Brattle saved me from being in one of the car accidents I passed on Route 2 that night!

The Brattle doesn’t show quite as many double features now that they are a non-profit as they did 20 years ago, but if at all possible, these days they show an even more diverse schedule of classic and recent and foreign and independent films. Happily, they uphold a longstanding tradition of showing CASABLANCA, which began mere months after Humphrey Bogart died. The initial response from The Brattle’s neighbors in Harvard University could be described as little more than pleasant. Before too long though, legends of Harvard students rising to sing La Marseillaise with Paul Henreid cemented The Brattle’s relationship with CASABLANCA, and helped secure the film a position of honor on the schedules of revival houses across the country. Today, Wikipedia tells us that CASABLANCA’s “lasting impact” traces first and foremost to The Brattle. So strong is their bond that a restaurant called Casablanca, complete with wall murals inspired by the film, draws a good crowd directly beneath the theater.

I have since taken nearly every opportunity to see CASABLANCA in a movie theater. For the 50th Anniversary of its release in 1992, The Brattle showed it for an entire week, unusual for repertory cinemas where a standard run is one or two days. I saw it four times that week, once each with Ed and Maria, and twice on my own. While I lived in Los Angeles I saw it a handful of times in The New Beverly Cinema and American Cinematheque‘s Aero and Egyptian Theaters. Though I was very happy to see one of my favorite movies in these great theaters there is a chemistry between The Brattle and CASABLANCA that I have yet to see duplicated anywhere else. From L.A. I once plotted to extend a return visit to Maria’s family back east by another day because The Brattle was showing CASABLANCA on the night we planned to leave. That plan failed, so I did the next best thing: I ran it for the first of many times in the agency conference room where we used to screen The Lunch Movie.

I moved back to the Boston area shortly before the August 2009 show featured in the poster above. As if CASABLANCA at The Brattle wasn’t enough of a treat, the theater had begun serving wine and beer! They even used an image from the La Belle Aurore flashback in the slide promos between shows to alert the audience to the presence of adult beverages. Drinking in this film is something I have spent considerably too much time pondering; Rick and his cohort Signor Ferrari are never far from a bourbon bottle, but it is Victor Laszlo’s drink choices that I’ve become fixated upon. A Czechoslovakian fighting Nazi expansion across Europe, Laszlo orders two Cointreaus, a champagne cocktail and two cognacs at different points in the movie. I love the defiance of a man fighting to reclaim France from the Nazis specifically choosing drinks made within the Nazi occupied regions of France. Maybe that was not intentional, and I doubt it was, but it’s one of the innumerable facets that make this story sparkle like no other.

This weekend I saw CASABLANCA in what has become another Brattle tradition: the Valentine’s Day show. Novelist and Boston University professor Leslie Epstein, the son and nephew of the film’s Oscar winning writers Julius & Philip Epstein, spoke before the show. Mr. Epstein joked about his father and uncle’s writing process as starting to work at 1p.m. each day until stopping to play tennis around 3. He explained the hiring of third writer Howard Koch as being necessitated by The Epstein Boys’ period helping Frank Capra and the War Department prepare their WHY WE FIGHT series of films. He also addressed the rumor that CASABLANCA began filming without a firm ending. He told a story of his father and uncle driving east on Sunset Blvd, when at a red light at Doheny Blvd, the line “Round up the usual suspects” struck them both. As they continued east, by the time they’d reached Fairfax Ave, they had planned the entire ending. He even brought the Oscar with him that his father and uncle won, which you may be able to see in his left hand in this photo.

Perhaps this most recent viewing illustrates why seeing CASABLANCA at The Brattle is my perfect moment. It is comfortably familiar but never the same experience twice. If I’m not noticing a detail that I was unable to see on television, or spotting a character nuance that speaks to my life as much as the film itself, then I’m learning how the convergence of this film in this theater came to be. These two are so permanently linked that they become something I can carry with me, reflect upon, and return to like a hometown. I know very well the stretch of Sunset that Leslie Epstein spoke of; I’ve even seen period photos of what it would have looked like during his father and uncle’s epiphany. The next time I drive those two miles, regardless of what else is happening that day, I will have a flash of this perfect moment that never fails to transform and delight and intrigue me.


THE CEDAR LEE THEATRE, Cleveland Heights, OH

Posted in PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on January 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney

Before I turned 15, most of what I’d experienced from the world of independent American film was limited to horror and action movies. I had seen my fair share of foreign films, though most were dubbed, and starred Godzilla. I’d seen precious few subtitles to date; my friend since 5th grade, Jon, reminds me that I used to hate the idea of “reading a movie.” That was set to change. My movie world turned upside down the Sunday afternoon that I rode my bike and extra few miles past my neighborhood to the Cedar Lee Theater. Cedar Lee, at the corner of Cedar Road & Lee Road, was the first art house I ever visited.

I felt slightly bad@$$ for telling my Mom that I was going half the distance to the Cedar Center Theater, and then riding to a neighborhood that was at the time notorious (or so my folks were led to believe) for car thefts. I was ironically amused that the movie that drew me to this grand theft auto zone was Alex Cox’s REPO MAN. This movie was like nothing I’d seen before. I’d seen plenty of science fiction movies and a handful of black comedies. I’d seen movies with social commentary, but usually as Oscar-bait drama, not satire. I had seen movies with punk rocker characters, but never a movie that was a punk rock rebellion in itself. Truth? I didn’t like it that much at first; it took a few months pondering it for it to grow on me. REPO MAN was the first of many Cedar Lee films that would hang with me long after I’d left the theater; such an experience rarely happened up the street at Cedar Center.

A few weeks later I went to see Jonathan Demme’s concert film of The Talking Heads, STOP MAKING SENSE. I only knew a few Talking Heads songs, but the band had the strong endorsement of my buddy Stefan, a guy whose opinion I trusted because he loved rock-n-roll like I love movies. STOP MAKING SENSE was such an oddball ode to experimentation and discovery, it not only raised the bar for concert movies and performance music videos, it even made me expect more from live concerts.

I could not get The Cedar Lee out of my head after my first visit. The two screens looked like your average 80’s cube of a shopping mall theater, but the lobby included an arched ceiling and decorative molding that spoke of an earlier era. The girl at the popcorn counter told me it opened sometime in the 1920’s; recent online articles peg it at Christmas Day, 1925. It had been an 1,100 seat theater until 1983, when it was split into two sceens. In my youth I was less concerned with where Cedar Lee had come from than where it would take me. I couldn’t keep lying to my folks and riding my bike here — what would be my excuse if someone cut my bike chain in a neighborhood I wasn’t supposed to go to?!

Fortunately, my folks trusted my safety when I was in the company of my older brother Ed. Fortunately, Ed liked science fiction even more than I did. Fortunately, Cedar Lee showed an end-of-the-world movie from New Zealand called THE QUIET EARTH. I was afraid the disturbing stillness of this story might bore Ed, but he dug it as much as I did; he returned here with me whenever we were uninspired by the major studio stuff in Cedar Center or Randall Mall. We both began a lifelong appreciation for Werner Herzog, and I got extra credit in my German class, when Cedar Lee revived NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE around Halloween.

It was at Cedar Lee than I regularly began rolling the dice on movies that I knew very little about; the films shown here didn’t have big marketing campaigns, I hadn’t seen their trailers for weeks in advance, and the stars were rarely the A-listers that Entertainment Tonight sought for interviews. At most I’d know that Siskel & Ebert gave these films thumbs up, or that they had been recommended by Julie Salamon from the Wall St. Journal that The Fats (my Dad) would bring home from work. Ms. Salamon alone sent me to Demme’s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. I had never heard of Spalding Gray, but her review told me that SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA partly concerned Spalding’s experiences making THE KILLING FIELDS, which was one of my favorites of the era. If you’ve seen SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, you know it begins with the making of a movie, but ends a world apart. Salamon and Cedar Lee introduced me to a personal literary hero; Spalding changed the way I write and look at everything around me — not a bad way to spend a weekend afternoon, huh?

There were other gambles that paid off gloriously, including when Fats and I went to see BRAZIL. As we were driving there, we realized knew more about Terry Gilliam’s battle to get his version to the screen than we did about the story. Fats asked “What’s this movie about anyway?” I said “I’m not sure, but it has DeNiro in it.” Good enough for us! While we were driving home, he asked “What was that movie about anyway?” and I answered “I’m not sure, but it had DeNiro in it!” We didn’t know what hit us, but we knew it was unique, which is what we aimed for whenever we chose Cedar Lee over the competition. Mission accomplished. Similarly, my girlfriend Lisa came with me to see John Sayles’ MATEWAN. One of the things I loved most about Lisa was that she would see anything with me. Sure, we saw THE LOST BOYS and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 like all our classmates in the summer of ’87, but unlike most people I knew, only Lisa would come along for a movie where we didn’t know the end before it even started. We walked in knowing that MATEWAN starred James Earl Jones and it was about a mining labor strike in the 1920’s. We and walked out with quivering lips, a big lump in our throats, and our eyes opened a little wider. Mission accomplished.

Cedar Lee very quickly earned from me an expectation for the unusual, and it never disappointed. More recently it has been divided into 6 screens but they still show foreign and independent features, plus one-shot screenings of HD live events and midnight cult screenings, and they remain independently and locally operated. Plus they sell beer and wine! Funny story: one Saturday morning Ed installed a police radar detector in Fats’ gigantic Olds 98 company car. Fats went to Cedar Lee alone that afternoon to see DANCE WITH A STRANGER. True to my Mom’s initial concern, his 98 had been stolen when he came out of the theater.



Posted in PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on March 17th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

I lived in Shaker Heights, OH, a little east of Cleveland, from 1983 to 1987. While I am saddened that the single-screen palace that was once The Colony Theater has been divided into the 6-screen Shaker Square Cinemas, my glass is raised to Shaker Sq. Cinemas for carrying on the spirit of The Colony by hosting the 34th Cleveland International Film Festival.

My introduction to The Colony was BLUE THUNDER, which I had already seen, but had not heard until I came to Cleveland. My bones rattled when Roy Scheider fired Blue Thunder’s 20mm electric cannon. Five years before the advent of THX, the Colony could blast you through the back wall of the theater with crystal clear explosive sound. The Colony was equally pristine for quieter movies; in NEVER CRY WOLF, I could distinguish the howl of a lone wolf in one corner of the balcony, while the wind swirled through the theater. If I had been blindfolded when I saw AMADEUS, I would have believed that I was hearing a live orchestra. The acoustics of The Colony made me aware of film as an aural medium, not only a visual one.

My friend Stefan and I had a nerd-tastic evening at The Colony, hosted by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. I’d mistaken an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer to say that he would be giving a lecture on classical music in movies. Turns out that lecture was at Case Western University. Stefan and I got to The Colony and realized we would be seeing Leonard Maltin discussing classical music specifically in cartoons! We got to experience a great collection of Looney Toons and Merry Melodies on a giant screen, in between which Mr. Maltin explained how “Kill da wabbit, KILL DA WABBIT” was one of the pop culture experiences through which many Americans were first exposed to classical music without even realizing it.

Aside from Leonard Maltin, I also saw Harry Anderson take a break from NIGHT COURT and get back to his stand-up comic and magician roots at The Colony. Mr. Anderson indicated my brother Ed and me in the 2nd row as “the reason we won’t have as much fun tonight as we could in a comedy club: kids coming down to see the TV guy.” Everything I knew about comedy clubs at that point came from HBO specials. It was very unexpected and very cool to see that Anderson was not a standard joke-teller or one-liner guy, but a carny-style story teller who used his magic as props. Despite being called out, still a damn funny show, thanks Harry!

Ed and I had our fair share of epic movie experiences at The Colony too: THE RIGHT STUFF, RED DAWN, Giorgio Moroder’s unfairly maligned 80’s-drenched revision of METROPOLIS, and a midnight marathon of STAR TREK: The Motion Picture, The Wrath Of Khan and The Search For Spock. Ed and I had seen beat-up prints of old movies shown in high school auditoriums, public libraries and even a few revival houses. We had never seen a restored print re-released and looking as sharp as possible until The Colony showed Universal’s 1983-84 re-release of a slate of Hitchcock classics, including ROPE, REAR WINDOW and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. This was a wonderful education for a Hitchcock fan who had only seen pan-n-scan versions on TV, not only to see Hitch’s editing rhythm uninterrupted by commercials, but also his shot composition and balance of vibrant Technicolor with deep shadows. Some movies simply demand a big screen, and The Colony was the biggest in town.

Among the current movies that have come to be regarded as ’80’s classics, I saw THE COLOR PURPLE with my Mom, THE UNTOUCHABLES with my Dad, BROADCAST NEWS with Leslie, BLUE VELVET with Rob and Gary and THE PRINCESS BRIDE with Lisa. It is not easy to pick one favorite moment from all of the experiences I had at The Colony, but it just might be from April 1985:

A group of exchange students from Germany visited my high school. I was taking German at the time; my teacher asked anyone in our class who did not have a German student staying with them to volunteer as a sort of back-up host. She asked us to show a German kid around town so that their Cleveland experience would not solely be through the eyes of their host family. I hung out with a guy named Jens. He told me that all the German kids wanted to see POLICE ACADEMY 2, so he and I went to see that at the Southgate Mall. Toward the end of Jens’s stay, The Colony showed the 229min cut of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Ed and my Dad and I had already seen the 139min cut, coincidentally at Southgate, and had enjoyed the shorter version contrary to most critics at the time.

Jens knew who Robert DeNiro was, and had heard of Sergio Leone, but had never seen a gangster film before. Any gangster film. Not SCARFACE, not THE GODFATHER, it was a blank canvass to him. The longer version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA thankfully included an intermission. I did not expect it to contain all the chronological leaps forward and back that were nowhere in the shorter version. While I was engrossed in the puzzle that Leone’s cut represented, I apologized to Jens, afraid that it might be boring the hell out of a guy who’d only been learning English for 3 or 4 years. I was surprised and so happy when Jens said he really liked the movie too! He admitted that there were often parts where he didn’t know what the hell was going on, but that it was such an unusual world to him that he was completely drawn in. When the movie was over, Jens found that it had answered most of his questions from during the intermission.

The happiest sign that inviting Jens was a good idea came when he asked me to recommend him a list of other gangster and Leone movies. We can usually remember the dawning moment where something changes our own artistic or cultural perspective. It is very rare to be able to be part of someone else’s dawning moment. I hope somewhere in Germany, Jens is writing a blog about gangster movies, and telling people about his first experience with the genre in a palace up the hill from Cleveland.



Posted in PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on February 28th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Between 1975 and 1977, I suspect I visited The Wildey Theater at least once a month. I saw some of the greatest movies of the 70’s there. When my older brother Ed was away at Boy Scout camp in 1976, I was thrilled to go out with my folks on a school night to see a re-release of THE STING. I also saw ROCKY, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and yes, even STAR WARS. There was more to The Wildey than emerging cinema classics and glorious 1930’s art deco re-design of a turn of the century opera house. The first double-feature I ever saw was at The Wildey: FOOD OF THE GODS with EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, both written, produced and directed by drive-in master Bert I. Gordon. Ed spent his allowance from our weekly chores to take me to that show for my birthday.

In the days before STAR WARS, when it was rare for a movie to open on more than a couple hundred screens, we used to have a cool tradition of … I don’t know if anyone else has coined a phrase for it yet, but let’s call it Regional Cinema. With these regional movies, someone would raise a pocketful of money and shoot a movie, and then shuffle their one print around a few towns in their area. John Waters’ earliest efforts are good examples of this. Some movies, like the original versions of GONE IN 60 SECONDS and WALKING TALL, would catch the interest of a larger distributor who would crank out a few more prints and slowly role it out state by state.

Others, like RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, would never escape the midwest, the same way Giallo movies would never escape 42nd Street and Hollywood Blvd. I recall KDNL, then a local UHF television station, airing commercials for RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK. The big selling point was “Featuring Dawn Wells from Gilligan’s Island!” ten years after Gilligan was off the air. Here’s how cool The Wildey Theater was: not only did I see RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK there, I also saw SASQUATCH: THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT in the same year! For a seven year-old to have not one but two Bigfoot movies play in their town within one year, well … is it any wonder I ended up a nerd?

When my cousin Freddy and my aunt Connie visited from New York, my Dad took Freddy, Ed and me to see SINBAD & THE EYE OF THE TIGER. The film featured Ray Harryhausen animation and naked Jane Seymour, and the evening featured Freddy doing a goofy impression of Trog, one of Harryhausen’s monsters. Until this moment, movies had always been like church to me: sit there, shut up and enjoy it and allow others to enjoy it too. Freddy’s Trog impression made me laugh so hard that I wasn’t making sound and my ribs hurt. He introduced me that evening to the great Grindhouse tradition of “audience participation.” I’m not talking about muttering and giggling with your friends and annoying other paying folks, I’m talking about making a bad movie good (or a good movie great) with spot-on one-liners delivered loud enough to crack up the whole theater.

My family moved around a bunch of times, but ended up back in the St. Louis area in the early 90’s. I visited The Wildey in 1992, and found it boarded up, but with signs of potential restoration work under way.

I snapped a few pictures out front, then wandered down an alley between The Wildey and the Quality Meat Market, and climbed up an I-beam to reach the fire escape.

The door at the top of the fire escape was open, allowing me to sneak into the balcony. I took a few more pictures, but they were pretty blurry from the low light.

I stood and listened to the voices of elementary school friends for a bit before climbing back down the fire escape.

I went and peered through the glass doors out front … and a man inside waved to me! He came, opened the door, and asked if he could help me. I told him a little bit of what you have just read here. “Well, we’re just starting to get the

place cleaned up,” he said, “but you’re welcome to take a look-see if you like.”

I spent the next half hour meandering around and snapping the occasional picture where I thought the light beaming in from the balcony might be strong enough. I stood dead center in the seats an clapped a few times, but heard barely an echo. This nearly century old theater had cleaner acoustics than most modern multiplexes — and unlike a multiplex you’d damn sure never hear the movie next door drowning out your show at The Wildey. I’d like to tell you that I could still taste the popcorn or smell the cleaner that they used to sop up the Cokes we rugrats spilled, but that would be inaccurate. What came back to me was how many times I’d been scared and thrilled, heartbroken and tickled, amused and amazed in this hall.

As a child I had wanted to climb up on the stage. All those years later, I was able to feel the stage creak under my feet, before discovering there was a way down behind the stage — as a kid I’d never imagined there was anything back there!! Backstage I found remnants of what must have been dressing rooms from the opera days, and I found an old ticket booth. It was too dark to take pictures, so I touched everything I could reach, hoping for tactile memories to fill in where photos could not. Later I asked the man about the ticket booth. He was unsure how long the booth had been down there, but guessed it had been a long long time. I agreed with him, because I don’t ever recall there being an outside ticket booth. I only recall hoping I lived in Edwardsville long enough to work in the Wildey when I grew up.

I took the photo on top in the summer of 2008. If you want to know more about The Wildey Theater, they’ve made it easy and fun: