When the City Was a Silver Screen, by Richard Kim

“Big Al sits behind the night manager’s desk in the lobby of the Hotel Duncan. Dorothea Moore stands behind the bar at the Anchor Bar and Restaurant. They begin their parallel tales with, ‘Once upon a time there were six great picture palaces in New Haven. And they were splendid…’

With that auspicious opening these long-time New Haven citizens and film-lovers recount everything they know about cinema and this city. They talk for hours, sometimes pulling out photographs or backtracking to correct a date, to tell you that it was Katharine Hepburn and not Bette Davis who starred in 1942’s Women of the Year.

Dorothea and Big Al didn’t just go catch a flick at the Bijou Dream Theater. They ingested movies. They lived through them. And through them they built their identities. Here is Big Al, not as a hotel desk clerk, but as a debonair Johnny from the Rita Hayworth noir classic, Gilda. Here, too, is Dorothea, not as a cocktail waitress, but as Gilda herself — sudden, vicious, and tragic.

Dorothea runs the Anchor, where the suburbanites and Yalies stop for a drink after a show at the Shubert, itself a one-time movie theater. Throughout her day, she cites dialogue from All About Eve as if it were a sacred text.

When All About Eve opened at the Paramount on Temple Street in 1950, Dorothea convinced her boyfriend, ‘a blonde-haired fellow, not too good-looking, but nice,’ to take her to the very first screening. He picked her up at her parents’ home off Prospect Street and escorted her to the nearest trolley station. True to the fashion of the time, Dorothea wore white gloves and a hat. Her boyfriend took her arm and walked between her and the street, protecting her from traffic and other urban menaces. As patrons filed into the theater, a large organ and an aspiring young pianist were lifted up on a platform in front of the screen. Dorothea admits that this was often her favorite part of the evening. She relished the glamour of having a uniformed usher escort her to a seat, and then listening to the organ spin out classical and popular music while watching everyone else take their seats.

All About Eve had a special importance to its New Haven viewers. A portion of the film was staged and shot in the Elm City. Over a static shot of the corner of Chapel and College streets, the narrator, an uppity English theater critic, remarks, ‘New Haven. Con-nec-ti-cut. To the theater world a small strip of sidewalk between the Shubert Theater and the Taft Hotel.’ Like most residents of New Haven, Dorothea delighted in this reference to her hometown, regardless of its derisive tone. ‘Usually, we were very polite at the theater. Everyone back then was nicer and had a sense of decency, but when New Haven came up, everyone let out a cheer.’

When the show concluded, Dorothea and her date walked over to Liggett’s Drug Store on the corner of Church and Chapel streets. They had sodas, chatted with friends, and listened to some hit records. Then the blonde-haired, not too good-looking young man escorted Dorothea home and kissed her once before parting.

Years later, when workmen were converting the Taft Hotel into an apartment building, they mentioned to Dorothea that they were gutting the famous room where scenes from All About Eve were filmed. To the bewilderment of her husband and co-workers, Dorothea rushed out of the Anchor, crossed the tightly cordoned construction lines, and climbed in high heels to the top of a dumpster where she begged the foreman to give her the mantle piece from Eve Harrington’s room. He knew exactly what she was talking about and wrapped a piece of it in his jacket for her to take home. ‘I think it’s somewhere in my garage,’ she says now.

Dorothea breaks off her story to hand two customers their checks. She turns back around to give this final invective, ‘Then that Mayor Richard Lee came along with all those modern ideas we call improvements… But things were more elegant then. Simpler. Quieter. Before all the noise.’ Dorothea tells of trying to find the corner where the old Paramount stood, but none of the office buildings now there mesh with her idealized. past. ‘They all look alike, you know.’

Among newspapers clippings and yellowing photographs, Big Al points to a picture of a quintet of serious looking businessmen. The only one smiling is a short and slightly oily-looking man with a handlebar mustache standing in the center. Meet one of the forgotten founding fathers of American cinema, New Haven’s own S. Z. Poli. Although he’s been dead for over half a century, Mr. Poli is always addressed in the formal.

Poli purchased the American Theater (formerly St. Mary’s Church) in 1893 and converted it into one of the largest theaters in New England. An intuitive and brash entrepreneur, Poli may have been the first American to show a film for entertainment purposes. In early 1896, between acts of Vaudeville theater, Poli experimented with French cinematograph reels. By the summer of 1897, at Poli’s Bijou Dream Theater, New Haven residents paid less than a nickel to watch the debut of Great American Biograph: The Ride Through Haverstraw Tunnel. Advertisements from a turn-of-the-century New Haven Evening Register tout the theater’s ‘fairyland waterfall encased in a crystal staircase and luxurious marble foyer.’ An enormous success, profits from the Bijou Dream Theater, ‘the house of cinema hits,’ allowed Poli to acquire a space across the street which he named after himself, the Poli Theater.

Already a millionaire, Poli purchased one theater after another, some as far away as Washington, D.C. and Worcester, Massachusetts. When Poli retired in 1928, he had assembled a chain of 28 theaters which stretched across the Eastern Seaboard and were rivaled in opulence only by New York’s and Los Angeles’s picture palaces. In that same year, he remodeled the Hyperion Theater on Chapel Street, renaming it the College Theater. Of Poli’s three New Haven theaters, only the College stands today, a gutted and vacant shell.

He eventually sold most of his theaters to the Fox Corporation and the Loews Corporation for a reported $30 million. With those funds, he built a series of mansions in Milford for himself and his daughters: Then Mr. Poli, a man whose theaters were artfully integrated with lower level cafes and shops, a man who intimately understood the importance of crowds and pedestrian traffic, accomplished the most prophetic feat of his life-he built a private movie theater for his family.

From a leather-bound scrapbook Big Al produces a photograph of the exterior of Loew’s Poli Theater. An over-sized light-bulb letterboard dominates the scene. ‘Disney’s Fantasia,’ it shines. As if the lights weren’t enough to draw a passerby’s attention, two men dressed in fedoras and trench coats point up to rhe sign. When Fantasia opened in 1942, Big Al was just a child. It was one of his first experiences at the movies. He’s been a dedicated connoisseur ever since.

Big Al does not follow worldly events or speak foreign languages. He’s content to occupy the world along the few blocks from his house to his work. He’s happiest when he’s squirreling through his scrapbooks, crying to locate a certain photograph and getting lost in a forgotten newspaper clipping along the way. A natural but untrained historian, Big Al’s instinct told him to start saving these scraps of paper: advertisements, ticket stubs, flyers, posters, photographs, and newspaper clippings, anything which might preserve his experiences at the movies. ‘I just couldn’t throw these things away.’

He points to a photograph. ‘Do you wane me to show you the old Paramount cheater? Nobody appreciates these things anymore,’ Big Al says.

By the mid-1970s the Roger Sherman RKO and the College Theater were the last of New Haven’s downtown picture palaces. Both of them began to cater to audiences that were younger, mostly black, and usually male. Blaxploitation films, reggae documentaries , violent science fiction works, and pornography — these movies were common fare for the College in particular. Big Al remembers when the College played its last film, Evil Knievel, in 1977. Big Al could not bear to attend.

Big Al picks up a newspaper clipping, an article about the ‘College Theater’s demise. He shakes his head. And then with sudden vigor, he clutches one of his scrapbooks and says, ‘What’s a guy to do? What’s a guy to do these days with all of this?’ Surrounded by sheaves of yellowing paper, he’s unable to maintain a single thread of conversation. As he uncovers an interesting photograph, he jumps from past to present and then retreats backwards in time.

It was a week before the Christmas of 1952: a young Big Al walked into his favorite theater, the Poli, right across the street from the Bijou. Despite their proximity, the Poli and the Bijou did not compete for audiences. If the Bijou was an elegant beauty, then the Poli was a handsome bachelor. It tended to show serious dramas, continuing to play newsreels even after television had made them obsolete. Big Al was there to see Great White Hunter starring Gregory Peck as Ernest Hemingway. He came alone for the afternoon matinee because none of his friends had time for movies during the holiday season. Afterwards he walked to Malley’s department store to shop for presents. What he wanted most for Christmas that year was a television set. Big Al sensed that everyone was getting them in those days. And he was right. Within eight years, almost 90 percent of New Haven households would have a working set.

Following Big Al’s directions to the old College Theater, my friend Andrew and I bolt down Chapel Street, pausing once in my room to get a flashlight, a tape recorder, and some rope. Excited by the spirit of adventure, we take some steadying shots of whiskey to help us get past the imposing ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Embarking on what promises to be an intrepid historical excavation, we force our way into the old theater. It is no easy task; at moments the danger and fright are enough to warrant our hushed tones. Since the building receives little sunlight during the day, the temperature inside the College hovers several degrees below freezing at night. A thin sheet of ice covers all exposed surfaces, making climbing over piles of rusted metal, fallen bricks, and chunks of plaster molding genuinely treacherous. When we finally reach the center of the crumbling shell, Andrew and I are covered in dirt, cobwebs, and strands of red curtain. The flashlight’s thin, watery beam only permits glimpses of twisted metal shapes hanging ominously from the ceiling and overturned seats impeding our path, their cushions rotting with mold and moisture. Even in the dark, the great silver screen, now faded off-white with a fine dusting of din and soot, dominates our view. It’s center has been cut away in jagged strips. Andrew says, ‘I have nightmares about spaces like this.’ Silence. Beat, beat. Silence. The flutter of wings in the rafters sets us on our toes, and a lone pigeon’s coo is enough to eject us from the building, running and screaming and laughing.

When I return the next day, I am both surprised and disappointed. There is light, and I am alone. Instead of catching only patches of decay, the entire enormous space opens to me. The theater is far larger than I expected, far more impressive in scope and mass. But after my initial awe passes, I only notice the empty beer cans, candy bar wrappers, flattened Kodak film boxes, and plastic grocery bags that litter the floor. After a casual inspection, I note that both the seat cushions and the curtains are made of maroon polyester cloth, not red velvet. One wall is papered with a pattern that resembles a Wonder Bread bag, all candy-colored circles on a white plane. Surely, this could not be the theater of Big Al’s memories? That, that’s some other theater, I think.

The history of movie theaters in New Haven is as fleeting as a series of images projected on a screen; there’s no substance to it, no depth. It can’t be found in the tangible artifacts. It’s not in the architecture, the photographs, or the history books. Big Al and Dorothea tint their recollections with nostalgia and bitterness. If you want facts, you can’t trust their tales. The films themselves are all available on videotape, but what good are they without the crowds, trolley cars, and soda fountains? What’s worse is that the city’s busy streets conspire to keep the College hidden, to conceal from view what should be its looming presence over the downtown landscape. A person might attend Yale for four years and everyday walk down Chapel Street to buy a paper at NewsHaven and a cup of coffee at Willoughby’s. Everyday this person could pass both the College Theater hidden behind the Union League Cafe and the deserted lot behind Laura Ashley where the Roger Sherman RKO stands, and he would never know either place existed.

A culture that is primarily visual leaves no trace of its passage. It is unrecordable. Knowing this, it’s still possible to get fragments of narratives, to imagine a grander architecture from the imprints of a crumbling building, and to reconstruct a small look at the past — albeit inevitably colored by the present, by nostalgia and television and regret.”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New Journal, Volume 29, Number 4, “When the City Was a Silver Screen,” by Richard Kim, photos by Marisa Galvez, February 14, 1997

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