What is it about a movie theater?
As a teenager in my hometown of Sidney, one of my favorite haunts was the Sidney Theater on Main Street. I have often told the story about my friend Jim Richards, the owner, and our “little agreement.”
Every night after I would close up my Dad’s grocery store, I would head to the theater to watch the latest flick. Mr. Richards struck a deal with me. The Sidney Theater would be almost empty for the weekday showings, and the crowd was especially spare in the winter. If I happened to be the only customer for a second showing, he’d let me in for free. In exchange, he would turn the heat off inside. And this happened on several occasions.
Me, sitting all alone, watching the latest James Bond movie, munching on my popcorn, bundled in my winter coat and seeing my breath when I exhaled in the cold air. Inside.
I loved it!
Now many of our area movie palaces are in the news. The gorgeous little Colonia in Norwich faced an uncertain future recently, having to meet the requirements of “going digital.” After some scary moments, the Colonia is still there with its classic Art Deco marquee, the shimmering jewel in the crown of Norwich’s main business district.
The historic Walton Theater faced the same dreaded expensive investment required to show today’s movies. It ran an emergency cash drive to raise the money and succeeded. This landmark theater has been the heartbeat of Walton since it opened in 1914.
And now we hear the Oneonta Theatre is possibly closing its doors. To his credit, owner Tom Cormier has thrown everything he had at the 120-year-old Grand Dame on Chestnut Street. Unfortunately, time, repairs, heating bills and reality pushed back, and he just couldn’t keep the doors open any longer. There are intentions of a not-for-profit coming to the rescue, and we pray that becomes a reality.
I have loved going to the Oneonta Theatre for all of my 30 years here. Movies, shows, dance recitals, plays, concerts, speeches and more. I even gave my one-man show there to a sell-out crowd. That is a night I’ll never forget.
And so we have faced another closing of a beloved icon in our area. Bresee’s came, stayed for a century. Stevens Hardware store, even longer. Drogen’s on Southside was around for a couple of generations. And many more. I guess that is just the harsh reality of the business cycle. Out goes the old and (we hope) in comes something new.
But a movie theater? That’s different. It is one of the few universal nostalgic bridges to the past that is irreplaceable. I would mourn the loss of the Oneonta Theatre, not just for me and my amber-encased memories. But for those future generations who would someday say to one another, “Yeah, the old Oneonta Theatre. Gee, I never set foot inside that place.”
I spoke with David Hayes of Oneonta’s First Night about the closing of the theater. And this just after they seemed to grab the gold ring with a series of successful near-sold-out showings of classic movies.
David told me, “The doors to the Oneonta Theatre are closed. But they are not locked.” Let’s hope they open again sometime soon down the road.
Unfortunately for me, my old theater is gone. They haven’t shown a movie in Sidney in decades. What is left of the building is now a restaurant and beauty parlor. It used to have a dazzling old-fashioned marquee just like the Colonia. That too is gone. Too bad for the youth in my hometown today.
It is easy to wax sentimental about memories of old movie houses. The excitement of an opening night. The buzz of a live performance, whether it was Roy Rogers in Sidney, Teddy Roosevelt in Walton or John Philip Sousa in Oneonta. The Norman Rockwell background of the marquee proclaiming “Now Showing!” The taste of the popcorn and the penny candy at the snack counter. Memories.
But for me, thoughts of a movie theater always take me back to any of a number of snowy February nights in the 1960s when I would barge through the front doors of the Sidney Theater around 9:15 p.m. on a Tuesday night. I’d shake the snow off my shoulders and give Mr. Richards a look. He’d wink back at me and say, “Private showing tonight, Chuck. No charge.”
Like I said, I loved it.
I’ll catch you in two. ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.