Going to the Movies
by Steve Wolfe
If you wanted to go to the movies in Sunnyside, you had a choice of four theaters. You had to pick from the nominees which follow:
The Bliss Theater. The Bliss was located on Greenpoint Avenue at either 43rd Street or 44th Street. It was the only theater, as I recall, that had a smoking section upstairs, referred to either as the loge or the balcony. I never understood the difference but the loge was always more expensive just as paté de foie gras is more expensive than goose liver. The French acute accent adds considerably to the price.
The seats were reasonably comfortable and none of them had obstructed views. Every week or two there arrived in the mail a small brochure listing all the coming attractions for the next several weeks. It contained still photos from the movies and may have also listed movie times which varied from weekday to weekend. I do not recall if it described the movies themselves but told you the stars and somehow, you were able to determine whether or not you wanted to see it. I recall seeing the stills from “Mildred Pierce” and deciding that it was not for me. It came out when I was six years old and a story about a mother-daughter conflict held little interest for me. I have seen the movie since and think my initial judgment was not far off. I never liked Joan Crawford after seeing the movie although I was then an adult. Maybe I was convinced that there was truth in the daughter’s version from the book “Mommy Dearest” but lately I have read the Joan was a wonderful mother and her daughter was just bitchy. But who cares?
My very first date with a girl was taking her to the movies at the Bliss. She was Sheila Feldman who was in my class from the 4th to the 6th grades and I dreamt about her constantly. During the movie, I briefly put my arm around her and that was the high water mark, at that time, of my liaisons with members of the opposite sex. Ultimately, it did get better but it took a while.
I know we saw a musical but am not sure which one. It might have starred Debbie Reynolds – but then again it might have starred the Andrews Sisters. My group of friends and I always had disagreements about which one of the Andrews Sisters was the best looking. It was the biggest source of disagreements except when it came to the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry.
On Saturday afternoons, my mother gave me thirty cents to go to the movies. Admission was 25 cents and a candy bar was five cents. Then, judgment day arrived. I bought my ticket and went in only to discover that the price of candy bars had risen to 6 cents. Not one of my friends had the extra penny and the salesperson at the candy stand would not acknowledge my plea to sell me the candy for what was now last week’s price. I did not know enough then to threaten litigation.
I saw many movies at the Bliss; it was generally my theater of choice because the films it showed, if not first run, arrived there shortly after the Broadway theaters’ run. I definitely saw “King Solomon’s Mines” there and loved it because of the nature shots. It was filmed on location in Africa which was a rarity in those days. I was eleven years old and instantly developed a crush on Deborah Kerr but, alas, another instance of unrequited affection.
I think I saw “Moulin Rouge” there when I was 13 or 14. I have a recollection that I had started smoking and I see myself sitting in the balcony enjoying the film. I knew enough about women to not have to ask my mother what a prostitute was but, of course, had no firsthand experience. More of the same.
I also recall walking to go the Bliss Theater during a warm day. It had a large wall facing East on 43rd or 44th Street. I looked at the wall and it had thousands, no, tens of thousands of insects on it. It must have been a year in the life cycle of the cicada when they all come out. I was transfixed by the site of this huge wall totally covered by these creatures.
The Sunnyside Theater. This theater was located on Roosevelt Avenue at about 49th or 50th Street close to “the Boulevard”. If you have to ask which boulevard, you are not from Sunnyside. It had seats on only one level, the main floor. The main floor was enormous and probably had close to 70 or more rows from front to back. If there was a smoking section, it was located in the rear of the theater but I cannot be certain of this. I saw lots of movies there including a coming attraction for “Mourning Becomes Electra” with Michael Redgrave (whose last name fascinated me). I was only eight and understood that Electra was a person’s name but could not understand how mourning would turn into or become Electra. The Sunnyside Theater was near the Sunnyside Pool, a private pool which was open only during warm weather. I went there with several classmates of both sexes but one of the girls said she could not go into the water that day. I asked “why not?” and she became unresponsive. A couple of years later I figured that one out. If they had given a Regents exam on Women, I would have failed.
I also saw many movies at the Sunnyside but recall my most memorable experience there. I was 13 and went to see “Limelight”. I went with a friend, Freddy Glass and his older brother. We sat in the back. In the middle of the movie, there was a ballet scene. There was a male dancer or dancers dressed in tights. Some louts in the audience sitting up front started laughing and jeering at the sight of a man or men in tights. Suddenly, Freddy Glass’ older brother stood up and bellowed “If you don’t like the movie, then get the hell out of here.” It was a most impressive performance and the boors shut up. The older brother may have been a nerd but he had a lot of admiration from me from then on.
I recall one other occasion when I went to the Sunnyside with friends. I do not recall the movie but know that we had all spent the day at the beach, probably Rockaway. Although the sun was not bright, the wind was blowing. We did not get sunburned but the wind apparently picked up tiny particles of sand and we all had windburn – but did not realize it until we were halfway through the movie. At that time, our feet began to itch uncontrollably. We took our shoes off but could not get them back on – our feet had become swollen. We left and limped home in socks.
The Center Theater. The Center was on the boulevard at about 43rd Street. As you walked into the theater, you were greeted by a sign in letters writ large “HOME OF PROVEN HITS”. Whenever I passed under that sign, I laughed inwardly. This meant that the tiny Center Theater did not get first run hits but old movies – but I learned to love those old movies – and they also ran all the movies in the postwar European movie boom. It was there that I first saw Alec Guinness playing eight roles in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, one of my all time favorites still, after perhaps 35 viewings. I also have the written screenplay. The dialogue is delicious. And it was in this movie that I first saw and fell in love with the delicious looking and sounding Joan Greenwood. Oh, you know how that romance ended, I’m sure.
But the Center had other advantages. It was not a “family” theater like the Bliss but catered to mature audiences. It did not censor its movies but showed all the films from Europe as originally shot. In particular I recall a Swedish film, “One Summer of Happiness”. It was not particularly good but it did have a woman or perhaps several romping nude in the water at the beach. At age twelve or whatever, that was a big deal. I think I had to lie about my age to get in. But I got used to that. I went to college at age 16 when the drinking age was 18 – and I looked 14. But in the college town of Ithaca, students ruled and I always got served. Then again, few students had cars so there was no issue about drinking and driving.
Other films I probably saw first at the Center were “In Which We serve” with John Mills – his daughter Hayley was, for one small project, a client of mine; “Great Expectations” directed by David Lean; and numerous other Italian, French and English movies. It was also the home of subtitles and was small but I loved it.
The 43rd Street Theater. There was a fourth theater, the 43rd Street Theater, located unsurprisingly on 43rd Street near the Bliss. It was a tiny theater and showed films of little distinction. I recall my father taking me there, on a school night no less, to see a war movie entitled “40,000 Anzacs”. FYI, an Anzac is not a unit of currency but a member of the Australia New Zealand Army Corps. The film was so poor, which I appreciated at the time, that it cannot be found anywhere, not even on Google.
And the winner is – open the envelope please – the Center Theater. Yes, the bandbox little Center is the only one of the four to have survived. It still shows only old films – but the films of our childhood were the best ever. Who would dare to remake “Casablanca”, “Gone With The Wind”, “The Maltese Falcon”, “Pride and Prejudice” or even “Captain From Castile”. Don’t even ask about that last one. And it starred, in her film debut, the beautiful Jean Peters, later the wife of Howard Hughes. Oh, Jean, why didn’t you wait for me?
Steve Wolfe is a partner in the law firm Eaton and Van Winkle. His interests include amateur photography, philately, tennis, card playing, reading history especially about World War II and the Holocaust, and world travel which has taken him to four continents.