Matinee memories: Norman Keim, shown
here during his days with Syracuse University’s Film Forum, revisits
many a bijou for the book Our Movie Houses. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
From this base Keim brought in big names
like Henry Fonda and Rod Steiger to speak on retrospectives of their
work, a startling innovation on American campuses at that time. His
library for Film Forum helped establish the Film Studies Center at SU,
and he taught courses in the great directors at Newhouse. More
recently, he’s been the head of the selection committee for the
Syracuse International Film Festival. Keim’s new book, co-written with
David Marc, combines his love of the movies and a second passion, four
decades of studying local history: Our Movie Houses: A History of Film & Cinematic Innovation in Central New York (SU Press; 181 pages; $24.95/hardcover).
Within living memory, South Salina
Street was a miniature version of the great white way with brightly
lighted marquees for RKO Keith’s, the Paramount and Loew’s State. Only
Loew’s, renamed the Landmark, was saved, but the others fell under the
wrecking ball. Movie houses, like the projected image itself, have been
evanescent. They gave a good night out, escape or romance on the silver
screen, but as soon as they could not draw a crowd, down they came,
living on only in memory.
Through Keim’s diligent work we can see
there were more than 100 houses at different times, depending on how
you define “movie house” or, for that matter, how you define “movie.”
Early in the last century trolley services offered free movies in the
open air at the end of the ride, at spots such as the Valley
(1899-1916) on Seneca Turnpike that entertained up to 2,000 at a time.
Dozens were nickelodeons, where the customer escaped the confines of
everyday by looking through a viewer and turning a crank. Dozens more
served loyal niche markets, like the Turn Hall (1912-1954) at 621 N.
Salina St., that showed features in German and Italian for immigrant
families. A tiny handful, like Eastwood’s Palace, opened in 1924, have
survived and continue to flourish.
Scene it all before: While some movie
palaces like the Landmark (formerly Loew’s State, above, when it
premiered The Freshmen in 1970) are still around, other gems like
downtown’s RKO Keith’s (below, from 1952), the Franklin on South Avenue
(circa 1989 as an adults-only grindhouse) and the Kallet Genesee
(bottom, literally meeting the bulldozers in 1997) are long gone.
While the movie industry usually means
“Hollywood,” with the support of New York banks, Keim traces its vital
roots to upstate New York, starting with the important role played by
Waterville-born George Eastman, who championed a series of
technological advances, starting with sprocketed reels of film. In the
first decade of motion pictures, there were many rival contraptions
that produced the illusion of a moving image, one of which was invented
Herman Casler was part of C.E. Lipe’s
workshop for inventors on South Geddes Street, the same heady venue
where the air-cooled engine was developed. Known as the mutoscope, a
wheel of flipped still images, Casler’s invention was popular in penny
arcades from 1895 to 1909. America’s very first display of a projected
film image was arguably in Syracuse. Eugene Lauste ran a 12-minute
movie on March 28, 1896, in the Everson Building, 110 S. Salina St., 26
days before Thomas Edison’s first such demonstration as the concluding
act of a vaudeville show in New York City on April 23.
Keim’s first record of a movie made in Central New York was a fake newsreel of the Russo-Japanese War, titled Battle of the Yalu (1904).
Billy Bitzer, later a right-hand man to D.W. Griffith, shot the footage
on the grounds of the St. John’s Military Academy, later known as the
Manlius School. Col. Verbeck, head of the school, played a Russian
general in authentic uniform, and the school’s two Japanese students
appeared in most of the close-ups. Before the advent of sound, hundreds
of films were made in upstate New York, the most memorable being the
series shot in and around Ithaca, notably those starring Pearl White of
The Perils of Pauline.
The first three decades brought not only
a struggle for technological advance but also a fight for
respectability. Hoity-toity opera houses like the Wieting (1897-1932)
on West Water Street or the Bastable (1893-1923) on East Genesee might
have deigned to show movies from time to time, but a high percentage of
early houses, some of them storefront operations, did not always
attract the best crowd. Respectable mothers tried to keep their
children away from the Novelty (1909-1953) on 213 W. Fayette St., of
which it was, “If you caught a rat you get your money back.”
This social disesteem partially explains
why early records are so fugitive, and why Keim has struggled for years
to put together a photographic record. Often his judgments have to be
tentative as he can speak only on what recovered documents support. It
appears that the first edifice built to project films in Syracuse
predated the development of the feature film. That was the Crescent
(1909-1928) at 451 S. Salina St., site of the present Galleries of
Syracuse. Portions of the earliest houses live on greatly transformed.
The former facade of the Brighton is the front of Dunk & Bright’s
Furniture, 2203 S. Salina St. And the shell of the Regent, built in
1914, now houses Archbold Theater, home of Syracuse Stage, 820 E.
As the country prospered in the 1920s,
movies grew longer and attracted huge crowds, who expected to sit in
comfort for an extended period. Well-capitalized corporations took
over, building large houses or palaces across the country, many of them
copies of one another. The 2,900-seat Loew’s State was the model for
two other Loew’s cinemas in Manhatttan, both now gone. Before sound
came in, 1927 to 1929, each movie house had a huge organ. Keim is quick
to remind us that the “mighty Wurlitzer” was manufactured in North
If the glory days of the movie palace
were marked with an over-the-top excess, that was a sign of what the
movies, and the nation, had become. Thomas White Lamb, architect of
Loew’s State, put it this way: “The theater is the palace of the
average man. As long as he is there, it is his, and it helps to lift
himself out of his daily drudgery.” Lamb’s designs, a pastiche of
conflicting Persian and Byzantine styles, subject of critical
condescension in his day, have endured better than he or his detractors
might have imagined.
Our Movie Houses includes a
chapter on the upstate-based Schine and Kallet chains, 10 pages of
color photographs, and 86 pages of appendices. One of those lists
leading cinema personalities with any connections to upstate New York,
from avant-garde doyenne Maya Deren, who lived in Syracuse and attended
SU, to Lucille Ball, who grew up in Jamestown, 225 miles to the
Keim will also continue his book
signings, including stops at Rome’s Capitol Theatre, 220 W. Dominick
St., during the venue’s Capitolfest on Saturday, Aug. 9, 11 a.m. to 2
p.m. (right when the Capitol offers a lunchtime buffet of hamburgers,
hot dogs, salads and chicken for $8.50), and later that day at 5 p.m.
at Carousel Center’s Borders Books and Music. He’ll also be at DeWitt
Community Library in Shoppingtown Mall on Aug. 19, 7 p.m.