Monday, June 01, 2015

When Movie Stars Came to Patchogue

Here's a local history article I wrote on Patchogue's theatre heyday for the Long Island Advance, May 2015.

Here's the full article text:

It’s a July afternoon in 1929 and you step inside Patchogue Theatre to see a premier showing of Clara Bow in “The Saturday Night Kid.” A young man dressed in a crisp uniform greets you; his hair is slicked back with Brylcreem. He extends a white-gloved hand to take your ticket and direct you to a seat. You see the movie followed by live entertainment for less than a dollar.

Out of the several show venues that existed in the village in the past, The Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts on Main Street is the lone survivor. Local author and historian Hans Henke uncovered newspaper article evidence of the village’s oldest recorded performance hall, a Lyceum that was located on the east side of South Ocean Avenue in the late 1800’s.  

Also at that time owners of the more grand homes, some on Main Street, would host recitals at their houses. Henke has a 19th century advertisement the size of a calling card, inviting the public to a “piazza recital” of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the residence of Judge and Mrs. Wilmot Smith. The 1880’s Lyceum on South Ocean was a converted roller skating rink.

The next Lyceum was in the old Congregational church on Lake Street where New Village is now, across from Reese’s Restaurant. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article dated July 4, 1897 announces the performance there of husband and wife acting/producing team Elmer and Eva Grandin. The Grandins, both Broadway stars, owned a home they named “Restful Nook” that still exists today on Main Street adjacent to West Lake. Elmer appeared in two early films: a 1923 silent picture titled “Daniel Boone,” and a 1929 talking picture called “The House of Secrets.”

“The House of Secrets” played at Patchogue Theatre in ’29. A Patchogue Advance advertisement featured Grandin and promised “special vaudeville.” However, there is no hard evidence that the Grandins performed live at the film premier. That was also the year Prudential Theatres took over management of Patchogue Theatre from Ward & Glynne. In 1930 they installed a “magnascopic” screen “that covered the entire stage opening” and weighed four tons. A March 11, 1930 Patchogue Advance article recorded the public’s reaction to the new screen:

“The curtains parted … the entire house burst forth with applause.”

The Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts started its life in 1923 as Ward & Glynne’s Patchogue Theatre, with seating for 1,330. Encapsulating all that was 1920’s art deco fabulous, it was called “magnificent.” As a premier theatre for Suffolk County, it hosted first-run feature films, Broadway productions, vaudeville and the best in burlesque entertainment. As early as 1925, Patchogue Theatre was a place to escape the hot summer sun, having installed the “largest theatre-cooling plant on Long Island.”

Henke has documented several notable stars that performed live at Patchogue Theatre in those early years: Rudolph Valentino, Sophie Tucker, Pat Rooney, Paul Whiteman, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri and John Phillip Sousa. Every film included live vaudeville entertainment. The vaudeville performers weren’t listed on purpose, explained PTFPA Executive Director John Ashline.

“They kept the acts a surprise in order to draw people in,” he said. Prudential Theatres was able to bring Broadway performers to Patchogue, like Isabella Patricola, a classically trained singer and violinist who, a century ago, was slated as one of “the best known vaudeville stars” of her time. Patchogue Theatre advertisements of the past boast Manhattan theatre quality entertainment at reasonable prices. Ashline said that this idea is still part of the theatre’s mission today. He has complete records of past acts spanning back to the 1990’s, which includes Art Garfunkel, Brenda Lee, Bret Michaels, Connie Francis, Eddie Money, Patti LuPone, Hanson, Judy Collins, Kansas, Rita Coolidge, Ronan Tynan, Sandra Bernhard, and Taylor Danye to name just a few.

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland came to Patchogue in 1965 for the premier of their movie “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” at the Rialto Theatre, also owned at the time by Prudential, who had purchased it from Ward & Glynne. Built in 1920, The Rialto was located on South Ocean Avenue, just north of the United Methodist Church. Davis and DeHavilland, both Oscar winners, were presented with a key to Patchogue by Mayor Robert T. Waldbauer, who promptly took it back after the photo op. Years later, Ashline, who was working as a local real estate broker, was asked to sell the Mayor’s home. He spotted a replica key to Patchogue hanging on a nail in Waldbauer’s garage.
“I asked Mayor Waldbauer’s daughter what she planned to do with it,” Ashline recalled. It turns out the family planned to throw out the key. Ashline took it and now it can be preserved in Patchogue Theatre. 

Mastic resident Tony Raiona was a high school kid working at The Rialto from 1964 to 1966. He remembers Davis and de Havilland’s arrival and the chaos that surrounded the event. 
“Somehow the word got out that they would be there and the place was crazy,” he recalled. In fact, Raiona, who was busy serving popcorn, couldn’t even take a lunch break.

“Olivia de Havilland was waving to the crowd when people called her name, but Bette Davis was more aloof,” Raiona said, adding that Davis “showed up in a house dress,” while de Havilland looked more the part of a movie star.

Raiona has so many memories of working at The Rialto. One in particular is his favorite.

“In 1966 there was a movie showing [at The Rialto] with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford called ‘This Property is Condemned,’” Raiona recalled. “When the name of the movie was put on the marquee, the phone would not stop ringing with people calling asking if the theatre was still open!” 
he said. 

The Rialto met its demise in 1978, when it was destroyed by a blaze that took local firemen eight hours to put out.  Ironically, at that time “Saturday Night Fever” was listed on the marquee.
When things got busy at Patchogue Theatre, Raiona, an Army Vietnam War veteran who graduated from Patchogue Medford High School in June of 1966, would be sent over from The Rialto to help out. He remembers doorman Charlie Fezler, an old-timer by then, who worked at theatres in town his whole life. Fezler was born in 1923 and grew up in a home at 11 Bay Avenue. His father was a taxidermist by trade and a 1940’s songwriter.

“Even after Patchogue Theatre closed, Charlie would sit inside and tell passersby stories about Patchogue,” Raiona said.

Fezler was a life-long collector of Patchogue post cards, and he used the cards to share memories about the area. No doubt Fezler had a post card in his collection of The Star Palace Theatre that stood on West Main Street about 100 feet from North Ocean Avenue. Henke confirms that in 1920 famous silent film stars performed at The Star Palace, including Charlie Chaplin, newlyweds Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge and Alice Brady. Ashline’s great-great grandfather owned The Central Hotel, which was situated on Main Street next door to The Star Palace.

Down the road from Patchogue Theatre and The Star Palace was The Granada Theatre. Built in 1928, it was a popular movie house located on West Main Street near where the courthouse now stands. A large pipe organ provided entertainment during films. Charles Fezler worked there until it closed in 1947. 

Ashline remembers when Patchogue Theatre was remodeled; “the plaster walls were cheaply covered in fabric” he said, “which preserved them.” As a child, he recalls going there in the 1950’s at Christmas time for free kids’ shows.

“They would give us boxes of animal crackers and we would watch four hours of Looney Toons,” he said, explaining that parents could do all their Christmas shopping in the Village in the meantime, a win-win for all.  

Today, Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts board member Christopher Capobianco loves giving tours of the theatre. Since fires over the years were contained in the lobby, the theatre itself was saved and is now restored to its former glory. Capobianco, along with other members of the board, is trying to compile artifacts that can eventually be displayed in the lobby.

“Even now, we haven’t fully unearthed the history of the theatre,” said Capobianco. When in Patchogue, check out the memorial plaque dedicated to Charles Fezler near the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts entrance.

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Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


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