Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Movie Theatre I Grew Up In

Less than a mile from the house where I lived as a young boy was the Westvale Plaza. This old strip-mall started at one end with a Fay’s Drugs, beside which was a Champion outlet store and (I think) a store named Century that I recall being some sort of department store. These three stores were situated at the west end of the mall, perpendicular to West Genesee Street and the rest of the plaza.

Next was a P&C supermarket, then Geddes Savings Bank, a dry cleaners, then Ben Franklins Five-and-Dime. Actually, Ben Franklins may have been a bit farther down. Next you had the Stop & Swap used bookstore, the Fish Cove take-out seafood restaurant, a hardware store along the lines of a Home Depot (but much earlier), a card store, and a clothing store. Undoubtedly there were four or perhaps five additional stores that I fail to remember because they didn’t hold any interest for me.

Lastly there was a small block of stores with an anchor establishment. At the rear of the block was a store where you could buy, upgrade and race small electric slotcars. They had one very large track set up for the bigger cars and a smaller one for the little HO scale cars.

At the front of the block was a restaurant - a western-themed cafeteria-style joint that I remember having pretty decent hamburgers. I believe there was a lawyer’s office or somesuch above the restaurant, and I think the plaza’s management offices were there as well. But the anchor for this block of stores was Kallet’s Genesee Theater. It was the first place outside my home that I ever really cherished.

Built in 1951, The Genesee Theater was a grand old movie house. Not so large as the Landmark, the Genesee originally sat 1077 people in style – plush velvet curtain lit with floodlights, elaborate crashing waves as the frames of the decorative mirrors, statuary on the walls and a large illuminated purple clock at the back of the auditorium. It was a top-grossing theater in Syracuse until it was sold to CinemaNational, a division of Carrol’s Corporation, in 1974. That was the beginning of the end, and it’s sad that I probably never enjoyed a movie there in the Genesee’s heyday.

But with nothing to compare to, I enjoyed my visits nonetheless. Starting around 1979, I found myself old enough (if barely) to wander down from my house to the Westvale Plaza. I’d often stop for candy at Fay’s, French fries at the Fish Cove, and some used comic books at the Stop and Swap. But often, very often, my journey didn’t end until I was at the Genesee Theater. In the summer, especially, it was very much my second home.

I saw Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back with my parents, but I don’t think we saw either of them at the Genesee. However, Star Wars was re-released several times at theaters around the country in the late 70s and early 80s, and that resulted in the perfect summer entertainment for a skinny little boy who loved movies and science fiction. I saw Star Wars at the Genesee over ten times during its two-week re-release. By the end, the staff knew me and had stopped charging me for admission and even for candy. I would occasionally sidle out to the concessions stand and one of the guys and I would recite lines from the movie as it played live in the auditorium.

Over the next couple of years, I saw scads of movies in that theater – many of them multiple, multiple times. I know I saw Tron around a dozen times, and was even given some promotional items by the theater’s staff. I remember seeing the preview for Moonraker (which I misread as MoonBaker, thinking that was a really silly name for a movie) and then the movie itself later on. I spent hours and hours in that auditorium – I had my favorite seat right in the center – and I’d always arrive a bit early. I loved to sit and listen to the music (or Muzak) and look at the decorative gold statues over the side exit doors, or up at the high painted ceiling overhead. I had the run of the neighborhood and there were lots of other places I could have gone to spend my time, but I was rarely happier than when I was sitting in that old theater.

I remember sometime in 1981 or so that after the movie was over the theater’s manager (whose name I never knew) asked if I’d like to come upstairs. He took me up the stairs that ran above the concession stand and I was able to look out the big windows overlooking the marquee. He even have let me turn the marquee lights on. Then he opened a door and showed me the two gigantic metal projectors pointing out through their little square windows like archers manning the arrow slits in an ancient castle. These weren’t the modern projectors with gigantic platters to catch and re-spool the film during each showing, they were goliaths – metal behemoths that squatted under the film like Atlas carrying the heavens on his back. I was deeply grateful to this man for pulling back the curtain, so to speak, and giving me a glimpse at the heart of the place that had given me such joy. I didn’t think to wonder why he was being so nice, as I don’t think we’d ever said more than “hi” to each other prior to that special tour. But clearly he recognized in some way how precious the Genesee Theater had become to me and how I cherished it.

A week later, it made sense. The Genesee Theater closed for the first time, but not the last. I was heartbroken – my theatre, MY theatre, was gone. It would periodically open and close again over the next 15 years, in increasingly dilapidated condition, showing second-run films for bargain prices. Then in 1997, the mall’s management decided that the theatre was done. They tore it down and put up a Pep Boys, which promptly went out of business. It’s not Pep Boys’ fault that this landmark was demolished, but I can’t shop at one anyway – it serves as a reminder of what’s been lost.

After the Genesee closed, I moved up to the Camillus Mall Cinemas 1&2 and later Cinemas 3-6 where I’d eventually get my first job. Working in a modern multiplex wasn’t the same as visiting the Genesee, but the old moviehouse had gotten into my blood and my soul and never really left. I don’t get to go to the movies much anymore, but it’s still one of my favorite things to do. My fondest wish is to one day own a home with a custom home cinema that I can decorate to resemble the Genesee. Hell, if I had real wealth I’d probably build a reproduction of the Genesee and open it up for business. But that’s not likely to happen – the old girl is gone and all that’s left is the memory of floodlights spraying golden radiance upon a crimson curtain, of opulent décor, of the smell of popcorn and the tick tick tick of the projector. Of a giant clock glowing purple on the back wall. Of music and action and sound and energy all reflecting off a great white screen and straight into the heart of a little boy who grew up in a movie theater.

In my research for this blog, I found the local CNY blog NYCO with an entry about the Genesee Theatre including quotes from former manager George Read. I also came across a wonderful article on the Genesee by TJ Edwards at Cinemaviews. Edwards’ article has many of George Read’s photos of the old girl – I highly recommend giving it a look.

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