Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Night at Grand Army Plaza: Cezar Del Valle on "The Movie Houses of Brooklyn" at the Central Library

This evening we had the joy of attending an entertaining and highly informative talk by theater historian Cezar Del Valle on the history of movie theaters in Brooklyn. By the time we got to the Brooklyn Collection room on the second floor of the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza, we were able to find a seat, but not without difficulty, because this was a pretty hot ticket.

No, there wasn't a riot like the one at the 1927 opening of the Universal Theatre on New Utrecht Avenue when 20,000 people stormed the place trying to get in, but we learned an awful lot and had a great time with a charming, knowledgeable and funny man who seems to know more Brooklyn theater history than anyone in captivity.

Cezar began by showing an old photo and gauging the crowd's age by asking if everyone knew what a johnny pump was. The vast majority of the older audience did, though the term had to be explained for the younger people, most of whom were probably foreigners from places like Ohio anyway. Anyway, Cezar pointed out some clues in the background of the kids playing: an ad for a 1928 Ramon Navarro film playing at the Loews Premier on Sutter Avenue.

Ken Gordon, the silent-film expert who curates a long-running silent film series at the library, added his valuable two cents, as he did at several points during the talk, with friendly joshing between him and Cezar.

Cezar's slide show was amazing; our own pics here are mostly not the ones he showed, but stuff we swiped from the Brooklyn Public Library's amazing Photography Collection and from the website He did show photos of the Loew's Coney Island

and the nearby RKO Tilyou,

as well as the old Meserole in Greenpoint,

which we wrote about last week.

At one time, Cezar said, there were 506 theaters in Brooklyn with a total seating capacity of over 300,000. This was at the height of "the nabes," the neighborhood movie houses which usually did not advertise outside their own area because, well, they didn't need to.

Cezar took us back to May 1893, when the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences sponsored a talk by Thomas Edison, who conducted the world's first public demonstration of films shot using his Kinetograph. Weirdly, the exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths. Here's Edison's Kinetoscope for showing films to individuals, like at a peepshow; Cezar said Edison preferred that idea to showing films to big audiences because he thought it would be more profitable.

So Brooklyn played a big role in the early history of motion pictures. One of the earliest films was this one by Edison taken in May 1897 at the Sheepshead Bay horse racing track.

And the year before, 1896, there's "Shooting the Chutes" at "Bergen Beach, Coney Island":

There were several competing processes of both creating and presenting motion pictures at that time, and the city of Brooklyn was home to all of them. Most of the early venues for showing films back then were not so much theaters (below is the interior of the Metropolitan in downtown Brooklyn; we saw The Graduate there) but stores.

These rented "store theaters," Cezar noted became larger, but the big change came in 1913 with a new law that allowed common-show licenses to have audiences of more than 300. The Regent, below, in Harlem, was one of the first "movie houses."

Another was the TNF Theater, in "aristocratic Flatbush," actually Midwood at 597 East 16th Street, which offered claim-check parking, "retiring rooms" for the ladies, and ushers who would bring cake and ice cream to your seat. It closed before World War II. Sorry, we don't have any pics of it, but Cezar also talked about Feltman's aerodrome (outdoor theater) attached to his restaurant and hotel in Coney Island.

Another place where people at the turn of the 20th century could watch outdoor movies was at the Venetian Gardens of Park Slope's Prospect Hall, where admission was free - "with food and drink." Prospect Hall was home to The Crescent Motion Picture Company in 1908 (Cezar said they had their laboratory underneath the stage) until legal pressure from competitor Thomas Edison forced its closing.

But perhaps the largest airdrome ever, the biggest outdoor theater for the showing of films was - and this was one of Cezar's most amazing facts in a presentation full of them - Ebbets Field. Marcus Loew rented the stadium out as a theater, charged ten cents and included a vaudeville show, adding a second screen for the crowds in 1914.

Cezar also talked aboutr Brooklyn as a home to early movie studios like the Midwood-based Vitagraph, which got its land only with an easement for the old property owner to move her cows through it.

There was more information than we can possibly post about here, which is why you should get to one of Cezar Del Valle's next lectures. He told the audience about the entire twentieth century history of movie theaters in Brooklyn, and he touched on all the well-known Brooklyn theaters like the Kings

and the across-Flatbush-Avenue legendary rival palaces the Brooklyn Paramount and the Fox. He showed the bill for one of the Murray the K shows at the Paramount (it featured "Little Stevie Wonder" billed about seventh) and explained how Ginger Rogers got from one show at the Manhattan Paramount to another at the Brooklyn Paramount by traveling in an ambulance.

He had a treasure trove of anecdotes, from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's historic opening night at the Albee in 1925 (we went to this theater as late as 1969 or 1970) to material about little nabes that are probably remembered only by the very old and theater historians.

For example, we'd never before heard of the Jefferson, on Myrtle Avenue, the Jewel on Kings Highway (which we remember only as the Cinema Kings Highway, though Cezar reminded us that when it became a porn theater triplex, they had straight porn in one theater, gay porn in the old balcony, and foreign films in the last theater), the Starr on Knickerbocker Avenue, or the Marcy in Williamsburg, which Cezar said switched to Spanish movies .

Loew's Pitkin was legendary, at least in the memory of our father and his parents, aunts and uncles, who lived in the neighborhood (Brownsville). We certainly remember it being open but can't recall ever being taken there. Cezar noted that Al Jolson gave his final performance here in 1949. By the way, "Loew's" was always pronounced with two syllables by everyone we knew, but Cezar said the owners couldn't stand that and gave space into their handbook for employees about the proper way to say "Loew's" (lows). The Pitkin was one of the Loew's palaces' "atmospheric theaters," with a cloudy, starry sky and romantic lighting effects.

We thought we knew all the theaters around Flatbush and Church Avenues near where we grew up - and we were going to the Kings, Kenmore, Albemarle, Rialto, and Astor till the 1970s - but we didn't know about the Flatbush Theater, which closed about the time we were born.

Anyway, our notes from Cezar's lecture gave us a lot of names of theaters and a lot of information. His talk was filled with anecdotes - we do remember stories of "dish night" and the other rituals of the 1930s and 1940s from our grandparents and parents, and we have first-hand knowledge of the flashlight-wielding matrons who patrolled the children's sections of the Brooklyn nabes in the 1950s and early 1960s.

And we pretty much expected a double feature on Saturday morning when we and our friends would go to the movies. Of course, as Cezar explained to those few in the audience too young to realize it, the advent of TV in the late 1940s led to the decline and closure of most Brooklyn movie houses.

The talk ended well after 8 p.m., and it still seemed too short. If you can ever catch one of Cezar Del Valle's lectures, you'd be smart to go. We had the feeling he was telling us only a small fraction of what he knows about theater history, and not just in Brooklyn or New York City.

We wrote about our own experiences in "The Lost Movie Theaters of Southeastern Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach," a story-memoir that first appeared at the webzine Eyeshot and is in one of our collections.

And we also wrote "Forgotten Movie Screens of Broward County," which appeared in the anthology Life as We Show It: Writing on Film, co-edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn, and also online at The Rumpus.

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