So… as I mentioned in a previous post, somewhere down below, a couple of months ago I bought the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a small movie theatre in Santa Fe that has been dark since Trans-Lux closed it down in 2006. We've been busily restoring it ever since, and hope to reopen in August. More news on all that will be forthcoming, as we get closer to the grand re-opening. My builders and designers assure me that all is going well, even though the place looks a total mess right now. That's the way it goes with construction; it has to get a lot worse before it gets better.
But I don't want to talk about the Cocteau just now, but rather theatres in general. I've always loved old theatres, especially the grand movie palaces of the 20s and 30s (the Cocteau, I hasten to add, is not one of those, as it was built in 1984), and the vaudeville halls that came before them. Buying the Cocteau, and putting its restoration into motion, has rekindled that old love. We've lost way too many of these beautiful buildings in the past half-century. Today's multiplexes are, with a few rare exception, soulless sterile cubicles with neither beauty nor personality. Sure, they are functional… but for me at least, they will never match the old halls.
I was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey. In my childhood, Bayonne had five movie theatres, every one with its own distinctive character. Four of them were on Broadway, Bayonne's main drag. The Strand burned down when I was very young, so I have no clear memories of it… but I recall the DeWitt, the Lyceum, and the Plaza vividly… and even the Victory, a gargantuan mausoleum the old timers all called "the Opera House," since that's what it had been. All of them are gone now. Bayonne has no movie theatres at all at present. The DeWitt, the best of them, has been a McDonald's for a quarter century. Whenever I go back to Jersey to see my family and see the golden arches where the theatre once stood, I want to weep and gnash my teeth.
The Bayonne theatres were not the only places I saw movies as a kid, however. Jersey City is just north of Bayonne, and at the heart of Jersey City is Journal Square, where three huge movie theatres once stood. The Loew's Jersey, the State, and the Stanley were true movie palaces, dwarfing Bayonne's smaller and less ornate theatres. That's where my family would go (by bus, of course, we did not own a car) once or twice a year to see the BIG pictures. They had huge screens, huge lobbies, huge auditoriums with seating for thousands. And my god, but they were ornate. Cathedrals of the cinema… they impressed me more than any of the [many] real cathedrals that I've visited since
But sad to say, Journal Square fell into decay in the 60s and 70s, and people stopped coming there as they once had. Inevitably, that took its toll on movie attendance, and one by one, Jersey City's three great movie palaces ran into trouble. The Loew's Jersey was mutilated and turned into a triplex, its huge auditorium divided down the center aisle to make two halls, while the balcony became the seating for a third. Even that did not arrest the decline; the Loew's closed all the same, and sat empty for years. At one point it was almost knocked down, but thankfully some preservationists stepped in and saved it. It has now been restored as a performing arts center, and still screens movies from time to time. Next time I'm back in Jersey, I'd love to visit it again.
The State's fate, alas, was crueller. That one the vandals cut up into a six-plex. Which did not work either. Urban decay took its toll, the theatre closed its doors, developers got hold of it, and they knocked it down. Offices and shops now fill the space where it once stood. The State was never quite the equal of the Loew's or the Stanley, but I probably saw more films there than in the other two. I mourn it.
And the Stanley… well, that's what prompted this long, rambling, nostalgic post of mine. The Stanley was not quite as ornate as the Loew's, but it was, I think, more beautiful. Sitting in its auditorium, beneath a ceiling painted to resemble sky, you almost felt as if you were outdoors. I always loved seeing films at the Stanley, and I was heartsick when it closed. Unlike the State and Loew's, however, the Stanley was never cut up into a multiplex. Instead, purchased by the Jehovah's Witnesses, it became a church and meeting hall. And it continued to decay…
Until now. For while blundering about the internet, I discovered that the Witnesses have recently restored the Stanley… adding a few religious touches that were not part of the original decor, to be sure (there were no murals of Jehovah in a chariot when I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA there), but otherwise coming damn close to bringing this magnificent building back to its original glory.
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Do I wish the Stanley was still showing movies, rather than being a church? Sure, I do. But it still gladdens my heart to see it returned to such splendor.
I'm not a religious guy (unless you count movies as a religion), but this makes me wish the State, the Lyceum, the DeWitt, the Plaza, and the Victory had all been turned into churches too. At least we'd still have them.
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