Is This the Reel Life?

Remembering Cleveland’s Movie Houses

The Riverside Theater back in the day. This photo was taken a few years before I took my son there to see "Star Wars” — about five godzillion times!

The Riverside Theater back in the day. This photo was taken a few years before I took my son there to see “Star Wars” — about five godzillion times!

In the previous post, I mentioned a movie theater on the West Side of Cleveland where they were still showing serials well into the ’60s. This was the Garden Theater on Clark Avenue.

It’s gone now, as are most of the movie theaters I frequented as a kid and young adult. Multi-screen theaters and home theater gadgetry rendered them obsolete.

From time to time, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing my life story based on the cars I’ve owned or all the restaurants where I’d hang out and socialize with my extended family. Yes, there are times in your life when you prefer the company of cranky short-order cooks, bitchy waitresses and derelicts skilled at wearing out their welcome over a cup of coffee.

The movie houses also played a major role in my life. Please indulge me while I stumble down memory lane and revisit some of them — at least, as many as I can recall.

I went online to jog my memory and found a great source: Cleveland and Its Neighborhoods. It has a comprehensive list of old movie theaters complete with dates and, in some cases, a brief history.

The Garden Theater is among them. It opened in 1925 and closed in 1968. The Garden reopened briefly as the Pussycat Theater. I don’t suppose they named it that because they were showing “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.

That was a common scenario for a lot of theaters in town.

The Lyceum, which was at Fulton Road and W 41st Street, showed skin flicks in the 1970s. These were much milder than modern pornographic films, which have strayed far from the realm of subtle titillation. Apparently, sometime in the ’90s, pornography evolved into what could best be described as gynecology for laymen. Not that I’ve ever watched any of it, mind you.

The Lyceum was less than a mile and a half from home. In the early ’60s, my sister and I would walk there and watch movies — mostly of her choosing. This included the Tammy series, which featured a lot of corny love songs. My sister would make me stay and watch part of the movies when they replayed so she could listen to the songs again.

Ironically, the Lyceum, born-again porn theater that it had become, was razed and replaced with a branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

The Lorain Theater on the 4600 block of Lorain Avenue also resorted to screening skin flicks. The name was changed to reflect the transition to “art theater.” (I don’t recall what the new name was.)

This was common practice among porn-again theaters, claiming that the new fare was “art.” Theater owners did this, if you’ll forgive the pun, to cover their asses. They’d claim that their fare was protected free speech and not pornography under standards established in the Miller vs. California case. They had to demonstrate that their “artistic works” passed at least one of three prongs established by the ruling. The most notable prong was whether the work, taken as a whole, had literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Call it poetic licentiousness.

At any rate, the Lorain Theater, commonly known as the “Little Lorain” never drew much of a crowd. We didn’t go there even though it was only five blocks from home, mostly because of the horror stories about rats running across patrons’ feet during the movie. That would have been a real scream during the showing of “Willard.”

The Lorain opened in 1923 and closed in 1969.

Another reason we didn’t bother going to the Lorain was, for several years, we lived in the alley behind the Lorain-Fulton Theater. Built in 1921, it was another product of the golden age of movies. Unlike the Lorain, it was spacious and clean.

My parents took us there when we were very young. It was just around the corner, so we were allowed to go there on our own once we reached school age.

Like the Garden, the Lorain-Fulton was a holdout from a bygone era. It was one of the theaters in the late ’50s and early ’60s that still had “bank nights.” This was a franchised lottery game in which theatergoers could win a little cash. I still have a silver dollar my father won one night. I also recall that, as a grand prize, they had what looked like a go-cart without a motor. I think it was powered by pedals or a sail. I wanted so badly to win it.

I remember watching Tarzan movies there as well as “King Kong” and a bunch of ’50s horror films. Sometimes, when I didn’t have a quarter to get in, I’d go around back, press an ear against the steel exit doors and listen to the dialogue.

The Lorain-Fulton closed in 1963. A Pick ’N’ Pay supermarket replaced the theater and the house in the alley where we had lived. The supermarket later became a junk store.

In the mid to late ’60s, my sister and I occasionally ventured out to the Madison Theater. Our cousins, who lived on West 94th Street, would meet us there. We probably saw dozen films at the Madison including our first James Bond movie, “Goldfinger,” and the Beatles movies, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”

The theater opened in 1915 and closed in 1969.

By the later part of the ’60s, my family had moved further out on the West Side. Our house was a short walk from the Variety Theater, which is on Lorain Avenue near West 118th Street.

Of all the movie theaters I went to as a youth or young man, only the Variety and one other movie house remain. The Variety closed in 1984. At last report, a group called Friends of the Historic Variety Theater  and Westown Community Development Corporation were in the process of restoring the 1927 vintage theater.

Interior of the Variety. Copyright 2014, Matthew Lambros & After the Final Curtain: http://afterthefinalcurtain.net/2012/07/06/the-variety-theatre/

Interior of the Variety. Photo copyright 2014, Matthew Lambros & After the Final Curtain: http://afterthefinalcurtain.net/2012/07/06/the-variety-theatre/

The times they were a-changin’ and so was I when started going to the Variety. During the years I lived in the neighborhood, I saw a few mainstream movies and several counterculture films, including the Beatles animated feature “Yellow Submarine.” One fellow became disgruntled because the projectionist decided to show something a little less to his liking before screening “Yellow Submarine.”

The dissatisfied patron shouted, “Put on the good movie; I came high!”

I believe the last thing I saw there was Frank Zappa’s “The Dub Room Special!” in the early ’80s.

We also lived close to the Memphis Drive-In. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was the best movie I never saw there. My date and I took a break from our mutual grooming ritual long enough to watch part of the movie. I had gone to the refreshment stand for popcorn and a drink. After I got back and settled into the car seat, I reached over for a handful of popcorn and dipped my hand into her drink by mistake.

Things went downhill from there. After the movie, we stopped for a snack at the Red Barn on West 117th Street. There was a sign saying “Bad Bills — $5.” Wow, I thought, for five bucks that must be a hell of a sandwich. So I ordered one. The girl behind the counter rolled her eyes at me and explained that the sign was meant as a warning to watch out for counterfeit bills.

The Memphis Drive-In once made headlines when a patron filed a lawsuit after being beat up by a railroad cop. Rather than walking to the concession stand to use the restroom, the patron slipped to the back of the lot and urinated off the edge of an embankment overlooking the railroad tracks. A railroad cop happened to be walking by and got doused. The cop scrambled up the embankment and throttled the pissing patron. As I recall, the lawsuit was tossed out of court.

I don’t know about him, but I think I would have cut my losses with the ass-kicking and left it at that.

The Memphis Drive-In closed for good in 2006. For many years, the owners managed to keep the theater open by hosting flea markets during the day on weekends.

My former father-in-law, rest his soul, was quite a horse trader and managed to make extra money selling things there — mostly stuff he’d scavenged. Keenly cognizant of the fact that, as a breadwinner I left much to be desired, he suggested that I try my hand at it. I gave it a go, but I wasn’t much of a wheeler and dealer. However, one weekend I salvaged about a dozen furnace blowers and motors from an apartment complex where I worked. They were replacing all the units and pitching the old ones. I jammed them into the back seat and trunk of my 1961 Comet, took them to the drive-in and instantly unloaded the whole lot for $150. That was more than my weekly wages at the time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the downtown theaters in my life. I could probably count the number of downtown theaters I’ve been to on one hand and have a couple of fingers left over. To the best of my recollection, I went to two of the palatial downtown theaters when I was a kid and the infamous Roxy Theater when I was about 16 or 17 years old.

The Roxy was a burlesque house. According to information posted on the website Cinema Treasures, it originally opened in 1907 as the Family Theater. The name was later changed to the Orpheum, but it continued showing mainstream movies until 1929. It reopened in 1931 as the Roxy Theater and quickly became one of the country’s top burlesque venues, attracting big-name comedians and strippers.

By the ’60s, the Roxy was pretty run down — as were the strippers. When I went there with a couple of buddies, I felt more embarrassed than titillated. I felt sorry for the women on stage, who were older than my mother. Between acts, which included a lame old standup comic, they would show porn films — pretty much the same fare as the stuff I described in the account of the Lyceum Theater.

When we were elementary school age, my mother and maternal grandmother would take us to see movies downtown. I don’t recall which theaters we went to, but they were on Euclid Avenue and very large.

One time, when my maternal grandmother took us to a movie, we asked if we could sit in the balcony.

“No,” she responded. “That’s nigger heaven.”

Grandma wasn’t the most enlightened member of the family. Fortunately, the rest of the family — my father in particular — had very healthy attitudes about race relations. Dad made it a point to instill those values in us.

When my son was growing up, I had moved to the east side and took him to see “The Wiz” at the Colony Theater on Shaker Square. “The Wiz” was an African-American adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.” starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. People in the auditorium were settling in and waiting for the movie to begin. My son, who was four or five at the time, stood up on his seat, looked around the theater and announced, “Gee, dad, we’re the only white people in here.”

People were still laughing 10 minutes into the movie.

The theater, now called Shaker Square Cinemas, has been renovated and is showing first run, foreign and indie films.

“Star Wars” was huge when my son was growing up. He insisted on going to the theater to see reruns of the first “Star Wars” movie every chance we got. For a while, it was running pretty much constantly at the Riverside Theater on Lorain Avenue near Riverside Drive. By then, the theater had been split into a duplex and the Star Wars audience continued to dwindle. It had come to the point that, on one occasion, my son and I had a private screening of the movie.

Like most neighborhood theaters, the Riverside succumbed to market pressures from multiplexes and home video rentals. The theater was razed in 1994 and replaced with a Walgreens store. Wonder if there’s a Redbox kiosk in front of it.

Postscript:

On Jan., 8, 2015, I received the following update — and welcome news — from the Friends of the Variety Theater:

We (The Friends of The Historic Variety Theatre) are working on a long-range plan for the building (which includes the attached apartments and storefronts along Lorain Avenue to W. 119th). The intention is to bring the entire building back to productive use. Plans for the theatre space, while not finalized, we are looking to utilize the space as a combination (ie Variety) entertainment/restaurant space. More information to come here as plans for the building begin to “gel”. The best news is that we intend to save the entire building for use by future audiences. 

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