A True Story –
My sister stumbled upon a fifty-five-year-old set of documents. Buried beneath the legalese, the text evokes a flood of personal memories as it reveals the story of a family in the 1950s. The sales agreement, mortgage releases, and title insurance papers on their face codify the sale of the Palace Theater, located in Orange, New Jersey, dated November 1953. The buyers were the Kridel family, represented by Myron and Jerome. The Sellers were my family, the Levins, represented by my deceased father’s brothers, Harry, Lewis, and Abe.
This is where it gets personal. From age seven on, I could walk or take the bus to the Palace on Saturday mornings. With my free passes to watch Sinbad, Godzilla, and Disney films, it didn’t matter what was showing—I just went. My reading skills were a bit limited at the time, but I did understand the sign that said Air Conditioned. That was a big attraction too. In the 1950s, very few places were air-conditioned, and movie theaters were among the first places where people could escape the summer heat. In fact, my failure at age 8 to read the marquee led me alone to one Saturday showing of a very adult, tragically emotional film, Imitation of Life with Lana Turner and Sandra Dee. This wasn’t Sinbad — I cried my eyes out.
About those free passes. I had no real idea of how we got them. I knew my family had owned movie theaters at one time, but no longer owned the Palace. When my sister gave me the contract mentioned earlier, it piqued my curiosity. I felt like Sherlock with a mystery and a hot lead to follow. My investigation started with my grandfather, Simon, who emigrated from Russia in the early 1880s at age 14. His parents sent him to the U.S. to escape the pogroms and the inevitable conscription into the Russian Army. His only possession was a large, very sharp pair of tailor’s shears. He plied his trade as a tailor into growing a department store, which he later sold to Bamberger’s.
Apparently, Simon was quite the savvy businessman. He bought real estate in Newark and the Oranges early in the post World War I boom when values were rising. When the depression crippled the country, the one thing people would buy, other than food, was an escape from the horrors of every day, and tickets to the movies was a salve for the pain. The Palace was built in 1918 and Simon acquired it in the ‘30s. Unfortunately, his five sons, including my father, did not generally have such fortuitous timing, the exception being the Palace Theater. They sold it for $210,000 in 1953, the equivalent of two-million dollars today. With sympathy and knowing my father had died shortly before the sale of the theater, the Kridels, gave my mother the free movie passes.
In retrospect, I believe it was all those Saturdays at the movies that sparked my imagination and kindled a love for storytelling. And maybe years later led to my becoming a writer. OK, what is the story hidden in the contract? One clue is the Schedule A attached to the agreement of the “List of personal property located at the Palace Theater.” Perhaps the most valuable item on that list was the “6 Carrier Air Conditioning Units – 68 tons.” The A/C in July was probably a bigger draw than the latest Elizabeth Taylor or Cary Grant film on the screen. Then there are the “1400 Theatre Chairs.” So, we know this was a big theater, probably three to five times larger than the average theater today. How about the ‘Stage Draperies” or the “350 Marquee Letters?” What picture does that paint?
The history of the theater gets more compelling when you learn that half the theater was in Orange and the other half was in East Orange. Back then, East Orange had Blue Laws, which meant businesses within the town could not be open on Sundays. On Sundays then, the left side of the theater was roped off and patrons were only allowed to sit on the right side of the theater in the town of Orange.
Then there’s the 1942 picture above with the long line of people in front of the theater. The crowd was the result of a promotion — free admission in exchange for scrap metal to support the war effort.
The real story for me was that my father died at age forty-nine of a sudden heart attack. I was only a year old and I never really knew him. I heard from my siblings that he was a loving, generous man with a passion for making home movies. At the same time, due to my father’s faulty will, my mother was forced to go to work fulltime during the day to support her three young children. At night, she endured lonely evenings since the light of her life, my father, had been so unexpectantly snuffed out. It was a struggle for her both financially and emotionally. As a result – there was little time left over from her grinding existence for mothering. Hence the movies became, for me, a kind of cosmic connection to my lost father and an escape from a fractured childhood.
Sometimes now I have a vision, maybe it’s more of a dream. I’m sitting alone in an aisle seat at the Palace Theater, buttery popcorn in hand. Laurel and Hardy are on the screen tripping over Christmas trees. It’s Sunday and there is joyous laughter coming from someone, someone long-gone, on the right side of the theater.
Do you have some great childhood movie memories? Please share in the COMMENTS below.