I love going to the movies. Even as a small child, going to a show, as we called it back then, thrilled me, whether it was a small, neighborhood theater or a grand picture palace. The Loew’s is where my brother and I went for the Saturday matinee, an entire morning of cartoons, fun and laughter for twenty-five cents. We rushed to claim our favorite seats in the very first row where we put our feet on the brass railing and craned our necks to view the larger-than-life screen. From this vantage point, I could gallop over the Great Plains dodging Apache arrows or ride to the ball in a pumpkin coach with Cinderella.
Much as I loved the Loew’s, my favorite movie theater was the RKO Palace, the grandest of all movie theaters in Rochester. A thrill ran up my spine the moment I set foot underneath the majestic marquee where Times Square lights beamed all day and night. As soon as I entered the palatial lobby, I grew taller and my bearing became regal. Like a princess, I floated above the royal red carpet, thick and plush as fresh-sheared wool. I glided past walls covered in silks and brocades, all in shades of red and gold. Enormous mirrors with curlicue gold frames lined the lobby, reflecting my royal self. Marbled columns soared to the gilded ceiling, directing one’s eye to the magnificent, sparkling crystal chandelier that looked as big as our entire dining room.
At the far end of the lobby, on either side of the entrance to the stage, stairs led to the box seats and to the balcony. At times a thick, red velvet rope cordoned off these alabaster staircases which gleamed as if bathed in moonlight. Ascending the steps, I became a moonlit sprite in a fluttery toga, my fingers running over the smooth and cool banister which felt as smooth as rose petals. Elegance and opulence embellished every inch of the Palace.
The Ladies’ Lounge, we never called this grand place the “rest room,” was a study in grandeur. It was furnished with red velvet settees, red and gold brocade chairs, gleaming mahogany tables, antique bronze statues and extravagant floral arrangements. Fine old oil paintings, some life-sized, covered the walls. I dreamed of lounging on the plush settee, one arm thrown over my forehead, the other waving about a foot long cigarette holder. “Hell-oo, Dahling,” I’d say to everyone who entered, lowering my eyes and using my deepest Marlene Dietrich voice. As I grew older, my movie star persona grew younger, and I became a young sophisticate in the ilk of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly; I always aimed high in my imagination. It was great fun to pretend to be a Hollywood star or a princess in this glorious picture palace. Sometimes, I almost forgot about the show.
When it was time for the movie to begin, the doors were opened, the velvet ropes were removed and red-uniformed ushers wearing pillbox hats and white gloves helped us find seats. After the lights were dimmed, they used flashlights to guide late-comers into the theater. Golden box seats, carved with whirls and tendrils, lined both sides of the velvet-curtained stage and a monumental Wurlitzer organ, a holdover from the days of silent movies, stood majestically against one wall. The mahogany seats with red velvet upholstery felt as soft as my mother’s mink coat; I wanted to pet them.
Once seated, everyone spoke in low tones, the combined voices sounding like a purr. Then as the heavy outer curtains parted, a hush fell over the crowd of almost three thousand people. A thrill ran up my spine. It was show time.
We sank into our seats and munched on Jujubes, Dots, Goobers and Raisinets as we watched the cartoons, which always came first. Grown-ups and children alike howled with delight at the antics of Tom and Jerry or Elmer Fudd as he was confounded time and time again by “that cwazy wabbit.” Then we all grew somber as we watched the RKO Pathe News and saw images of struggle and triumph from around the world. And then the first strains of Hollywood music drew us in as the opening credits appeared on screen. By now, we were rife with anticipation and eager to be drawn out of our world, our imaginations unfettered, ready to be transported to distant places and far-off times.
All too soon, the movie ended; it was time to leave the gilt and the grandeur, time to return to the real world. Sighing, we rose from our seats, our heads aswirl with romance and adventure. We padded slowly across the plush carpeting, savoring our last few moments in the picture palace before stepping out onto the hard concrete of reality.
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The magnificent RKO Palace Theater, which opened on Christmas day, 1928, was Rochester’s most beautiful movie theater. It was demolished in 1965 to make room for a parking lot, the same fate that befell the Loew’s. Today, the parking lot is gone and another movie theater, a modern multi-plex, stands exactly where the glorious Palace once stood. Pauline Chand
illustrated by Betty Auchard