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A Tribute to Newark's Movie Houses

By Barbara L. Rothschild

        September 28, 1956, a date which stands out in my memory, is the date of the grand Newark premiere at the Adams Theatre, of Cecille B. De Mille's long-awaited biblical epic "The Ten Commandments." There I stand, in my mind's eye, a twelve year old child, patiently waiting in line with my late mother, eagerly waiting to see what was billed at the time, as one of the greatest of spectacles in the motion picture industry. At the curbside entrance to the theatre, stood many yellow school buses from all parts of Newark and vicinity, emanating from public and parochial schools. Many of them were there, the Yeshiva from the Old Clinton Hill area, (The Hebrew Academy of Essex County, located then at the corner of Seymour and Clinton Avenues, next to the Federal post office); Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, St. Lucy's, St. Rose, everyone was there to witness this grand event. In the lobby and outside the theatre, under the marquee, ushers were hawking and promoting the sale of the program, which today, has become an actual collectible item (!), should any person be lucky enough not to have tossed it out over the years. I recall how mighty and noble Charlton Heston was in his role as Moses, and how evil and resolute in his ways was the late Yul Brenner, as the Pharaoh, Ramses II. The late Sir Cedric Hardwick, magnificent, as the Pharaoh, Seti I, father of Ramses II. For years thereafter this movie, I always imagined in my child's mind, that this is how Pharaoh must have appeared, as well as Moses, and the beautiful Nefretiri, as portrayed by the equally beautiful and late Anne Baxter, who passed away at too young an age.

        The Adams Theatre played host to most all of the biblical spectacles and extravaganzas of the day in the late 1950's, when such films were very much in vogue: "The King of Kings", starring the late Jeffrey Hunter, in the role of Jesus of Nazareth, John Huston's "The Bible,", starring Ava Gardner and host of other equally famous celebrities in this, the story of the first five books of the Bible, (the Old Testament), John Huston appearing as Noah in the flood.

        In 1959, once again, mother took me to see the second spectacle at the Adams Theatre: "BEN HUR," once again starring Charlton Heston, the late John Derek (of Bo Derek "10" fame), Debra Paget (one of Elvis's loves), and the late "Little Caesar", himself, the fine actor Edward G. Robinson, as the dreaded Dathan, Pharaoh's wicked and conniving overseer of the Hebrew slaves, rapist and seducer of women, and the late Stephen Boyd, as the evil Roman soldier, Messala. For years thereafter also, I can recall, disliking Robinson, (and Boyd, too), without any particular reason, so fine did he portray Dathan, which may or may not have been an outgrowth of his "public enemy" image of the 1930's gangster films, so popular in their day and time.

        In July of 1956, mother took me to see Elvis Presley in his first debut role at the magnificent Broad Street Loew's Theatre. Elvis starred as the returning soldier from the Civil War, Clint, who returns home to find his sweetheart, (Debra Paget), married to his older brother, and the hostility begins, in what was a real teenage tear-jerker, entitled, "Love Me Tender>" Elvis dies at the end of the movie, leaving all the teenagers distressed and very weepy, (me, too, of course)! Poor mother, she had to sit through all those screaming teenaged girls, myself included! Mother was at least more rational about Elvis than dad was, because dad thought Elvis was the most vulgar and lousy singer this side of creation! Daddy hit the ceiling one day, because I slept with Elvis's picture under my pillow! Elvis had made a "fallen woman" of me! If Daddy were only alive today, to see what passes for "talent" today, and the vulgarity in what passes as "music" in these times.

        I recall the grandeur of the Loew's Theatre, located directly under the Lippel School of Dance, (which I also attended). The theatre was located at the corner of Broad and New Streets, directly across from Hahne's wonderful Department Store, at which we frequently shopped, unless we were looking for "bargains" at S. Klein on the Square, or Ohrbach's Department Store, on Broad and Market Streets! As a child, I was greatly impressed by the beauty of the Loew's Theatre: the twinkling lights (stars) in the lofty ceiling, featuring and centered by the huge and sparkling crystal chandelier, the centerpiece of the ceiling. The seats in the theatre, were a comfortable and plush crimson-maroon velvet color. The "loge" seating , which rimmed the stage, as a child, I always thought that it would be reserved only "for royalty", such as the King or Queen of a country, or maybe even for the President of the United States!!! Since it was more "expensive" to sit there, we never did, and I think at that time, it cost all of $2.00 or $2.50, to be seated there for the movie. At any rate, the loges were not for us "poor, plain folk", so this is where I probably got the child's notion of royalty being seated up and above the rest of us!

        A trip to the "Lady's Room", at the Loew's made another fantastic impression on this child's mind. Up the curving golden-hued staircase we went, our feet sinking into the heavy, plush crimson-maroon carpeting, with the golden crescent-like design pattern in it, (to match the golden and grand painted staircase , I guess)! On the second floor, amid golden hued ersatz Louis XV French type furniture and lounging sofas (Chaise longues), we spent our "intermission" freshening up. It was always coming attractions, cartoons, and maybe even a "Movie Tone newsreel, before the feature presentation, and you could stay as long as you wished for the next showing, if you were a late entry to see the start of the first showing, that you originally came in for.

        On the days of my Lippel School dancing lessons, daddy would wait it out at the "News Reel Theatre" on Broad Street, directly next door to the palm trees, which stood in front of the American Mens' Clothing Store. Afterward, we would regroup for a meal at the Belmore Cafeteria, which was almost next door to the News Reel Theatre.

        For my birthday, in July of 1957, mother once again suffered in silence, while I reveled in watching Elvis once again, this time at the Paramount Theatre on Market Street, close to where the "Newark Evening News" building was located. This time, it was "Loving You," with a much larger- than- life cut out of a very young, sexy, and hip-swinging Elvis, mounted on the face of the theatre building. Many of the teenaged girls, including me, brought their Brownie box cameras, in order to memorialize this grand event. One could become deaf from all the screaming that went on, mother was wise to bring cotton for her ears!! You never heard the dialogue of the film, but who cared????!!!

        At times, we also went to the RKO Proctor's Theatre, further down on Market Street. It was located near a major appliance store, I think it was either called Vim's or Davega, but somehow, I think Davega's was nearer to Robert Treat Place, down the street from where the infamous mobster Dutch Schultz met his end in 1935, at the Palace Chop House. To the rear of the cashier's cage (ticket window) at the entrance to the Proctor Theatre, stood a white, marble type staircase, with what sort of looked like "portholes," which led you to an elevator, to go up into the Proctor building itself. I once worked briefly in this building as a telemarketer, (during my high school days), for the "Newark Star Ledger," garnering (hopefully) subscriptions to the newspaper.

        And then there was also the Branford theatre, with the long cobble stoned alley entrance directly on Market Street, also next to a mens' clothing store, Larkey's I think it was called. You could also exit the Branford Theatre, on Branford Place, down the street from the Adams Theatre. As of the late 1950's, one already did not venture to risk a late night feature show at the Branford, if one had to exit via the alley entrance, for you risked being held up, at the very least, unfortunately.

        Further up on Broad Street, near City Hall, stood the Rialto Theatre, although I never went into it. Later on in the early 1960's, I believe the Rialto became a "John's Bargain Store", a forerunner of today's dollar emporiums, with lots of "schlock" items to be purchased there.

        At the lower end of Broad Street, near the Public Library and the Robert Treat/Indian statue, stood the Little Theatre, near the Bell Telephone Building, 550 (?) Broad Street, I think it was. There, art and foreign movies could be seen. I believe I saw "Hiroshima, Mon Amour", there first, at the start of the "nuclear age " scares of the late 1950's. Sadly, the Little Theatre later became a XXX rated movie house, before expiring.

        When a trip "downtown" was not in our plans, there were always the more "affordable" neighborhood movie theatres, maybe not always with first run features, but still a very enjoyable pastime for a Saturday or Sunday matinee.

        For about 25 cents or less, mothers would drop off their children for a cartoon or western matinee at the Avon Theatre, on Clinton Avenue, just up the street from Lustig's Tavern, and near to the corner "Food Fair", which was one of the early supermarkets, (besides the A&P on Elizabeth Avenue, and the Acme Supermarket near the intersection of Clinton Avenue and Lincoln Park).

        I can still recall the aroma and sound of the popcorn being made at the red and white topped popcorn machine, which was always lit up, with the huge aluminum bucket overflowing with the freshly popped popcorn. The machine stood in the corner rear of the candy counter, directly to the rear of the doors leading to the movie auditorium.

        My very first date (and kiss) was at the Roosevelt Theatre on Clinton Avenue, in the Upper Clinton Hill section. It was 1959, and I was 14 going out with an "older man" of 17, and we saw a movie with Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens, also on the nuclear theme. It was a very sensational movie at the time, since it dealt with an inter-racial issue, since Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens were the only people left alive after a nuclear blast destroyed most of New York City. I cannot, however, recall the name of this film. I can recall seeing most of the Disney films at the Roosevelt, at a younger age: "Snow White" and "Bambi", just to name two of them.

        In 7th or 8th grade, Friday nights were at the Park Theatre , on Bergen Street. Many of the boys at that age, enjoyed tormenting us girls, by throwing down candy wrappers from the balcony. Afterwards, we would go to Henry's Sweet Shop for malteds, etc. The Park Theatre and Henry's was located on Bergen Street, near Lyons Avenue, in the Weequahic Section.

        On Elizabeth Avenue near Milford Avenue and Schleifer Park, stood the Cameo Theatre. I do not recall going there more than a very few times, but I do recall that the theatre was almost right next door to one of the few veterinarians who practiced in Newark in the late 1940's to early 1950's. It was a Dr. Zimmerman, who operated the American Cat and Dog Hospital there. Further down was a fire house, whose Captain was a relative of my late father's. His name was Abe Wolfson, and I will never forget the ride I was given on a hook and ladder, sirens blaring and faithful Dalmatian dog next to me, courtesy of Abe Wolfson. I think I was about three or four years old at the time, and at age 60, I can still recall this happy occasion!

        By the late 1950's to early 1960's, the Cameo Theatre became a Spanish language theatre, owing to an influx of Puerto Rican persons, who had begun to move into the area, in the mid to late 1950's. I recall passing by and seeing the marquee advertise Spanish language films which were present "todos los dias'", or on a daily basis.

        My late mother spoke of the National Theatre, which stood on Belmont Avenue, not far from Fischer's Baking Company. It had been a popular movie house in the 1920's and 1930's, but by the late 1940's and thereafter, it became a movie theatre catering to African -American persons, who had begun to move into Newark, migrating from the rural South, into the Third Ward area.

        On Springfield Avenue, near where the bridal shops and musical instrument stores were, and not too far away from St. Benedict's Prep School on High Street, stood two movie theatres which, when I was a child in the 1940's, had already closed their doors. Once was called the Essex, and the other was called the Savoy. I cannot recall which one of them had become an African-American church, but I do recall a Christian sect which had for its leader one Daddy Grace, held sway in one of the two theatres. The sect's headquarters were in Chicago, Illinois, and I believe that the sect still operates. I believe that Daddy Grace, was styled after Father Divine's sect, or similar to it.

        My late mother related many anecdotes about Newark's movie houses, especially in the 1920's and 1930's. I can recall she spoke of the Adams Theatre, as being the theatre, in which "live" vaudeville shows were presented. She told me of seeing Ozzie and Harriet Nelson there on occasion, since Ozzie had a band, and his wife, Harriet, was the singer. Jerry Lewis's parents were also vaudeville entertainers who appeared there as well, from time to time.
There was also Minsky's Burlesque at the Empire Theatre, I believe Nat Bodian has a very fine memory on this one. Of course, this theatre catered largely to the gents, because it certainly was not considered family fare!!!

        Earlier in the 20th century, there was even a Yiddish Theatre, in which live Yiddish plays were presented. It was called Elving's Theatre, and of course, once again, Nat Bodian did an excellent write-up on Elvings', as well.

        My favorite anecdote is one my late mother related to me many years ago: It took place at one of the two theatres previously mentioned, either at the Savoy or at the Essex on Springfield Avenue.

        In 1931, the nation was taken by storm and rushed to see a horror film, which still is one of the most popular of such genre of moviedom. "Dracula" had come to Newark, and part of nationwide publicity for the film, the late actor and star of Dracula, Bela Lugosi, had been sent to make the nationwide rounds to promote this, one of his first films in the United States. Lugosi was a Hungarian national, and what was not known, was that he had learned the role of Count Dracula phonetically, since his command of the English language was rather very poor. He had been chosen for the role on the basis of his aristocratic appearance, since at the time of his selection, he had only acted in a few minor role parts, many of which were not in this country. In the 1920's and 1930's there were other actors/actresses who learned parts phonetically, such as the great Garbo, Valentino, etc. As late as the 1980's, the very popular Spanish actor Antonio Banderas made his film debut in the exact same manner.

        My late mother and grandmother had attended the premiere Newark showing of "Dracula." At the close of the film, when the audience was quite sufficiently frightened, who walks out on the stage, but the "Master" himself, black and red silk lined cape flowing, chalk white makeup, Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi, live (or should I say, undead?!)

        My mother and grandmother were also Hungarian nationals by birth, so when Lugosi came out on stage, mother, who , I guess was seated in one of the first few rows, called out to him in Hungarian. Happy to hear his native language, Lugosi had invited my mother and grandmother backstage, and together they shared cups of tea and some delicious Hungarian Apple Strudel, which Lugosi had brought from New York City! Lugosi told of how lonesome he was on the tour, since he had not encountered many people who spoke Hungarian, and that even his after-film "spiel" was learned phonetically!! Meanwhile, grandmother looked at him with sort of a jaundiced eye, since she wasn't sure if he was a real vampire or not, so convincing was his role. True also, was that grandmama was born a town or two away from Lugosi, which was quite near Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains, home of the REAL vampire of myth, Count Vlad Dracula, (Vlad the Impaler!) There were many legends said to come from Castle Dracula, one of them was the myth of the vampire, so grandmother was not taking any chances, and the meeting came to a close almost immediately after the cups of tea and strudel were enjoyed!! I guess she wanted to get out of there before there was a full moon, or whatever condition delights a true "vampire."!!!

        For many years thereafter, my late mother communicated with Bela Lugosi, until he fell into alcohol/drug addiction, in the late 1940's-1950's. Unfortunately, Lugosi had become forever typecast in the role of a vampire, which , to his dismay, led to his downfall and eventual death from addictions in 1956.

        Such are my memories of Newark's movie houses. I am sure you have your own from your neighborhoods, too!

        And so ends my stroll down memory lane of Newark's movie theatres and houses. I hope that a few of your precious movie theatre memories have also been jogged. Perhaps you were also a patron of those movies of so long ago, in our beloved city. Who knows? You might have sat in that plush velvet chair right next to me and mine enjoying the show! I certainly hope you did!!!!
 

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