By JASON CHIREVAS
The following was originally featured in the Review as part of an edition on places that ran March 15, 2013. It is reprinted here as a reminder of, and a memorial to, the Mamaroneck Playhouse movie theater, which closed on April 20.
Gloria Pritts was 8 years old in 1933 when she saw “King Kong” at the Mamaroneck Playhouse.
“It was a big thing. That was the movie to see at the time. Up there on the Empire State Building. That was a good movie.” Pritts, now the Village of Mamaroneck’s historian, said.
The movie didn’t scare her; even then, she said, she knew a movie was just a movie, but surely the film’s epic scale and fantastic spectacle would have thrilled, perhaps even galvanized, audiences in 1933. If it did, Pritts said, you never would have known it.
“What makes you think they made noise? They didn’t. Nothing,” she said.
In those days, Pritts said, audience decorum was governed by the stricter manners of the time and, perhaps, the respect one was used to showing a live theater performance.
Still, the wonder of the movies was not lost on Pritts.
She recalled the details and majesty of the Playhouse in its youth. The big, domed ceiling, the box seats for live performances, the tapestries above the stage depicting a clash of medieval armies and, of course, the balcony, from which Pritts remembers marveling at something that, some 50 years later, caught my eye in the movie theaters of my childhood.
“You would sit in the balcony and see the projected light go down to the screen,” she said.
The first two movies I ever saw in a theater were “101 Dalmatians” and “Star Wars,” both in 1977, though I’m not sure in which order I saw them. I do remember we saw “Star Wars” at Movieland on Central Park Avenue in Yonkers. For “101 Dalmatians,” it was a small, old theater called, I believe, The Kimball, which was set into a hill along
Neither of those theaters still exist today, but the Mamaroneck Playhouse has been right where it is now on Mamaroneck Avenue since 1925. I saw “Django Unchained” there two weeks ago.
In the beginning, the Playhouse was a venue for live stage shows as well as film, which at that time was still in its infancy as commercial entertainment. On Dec. 6, 1925, the Playhouse presented its first film, which was something called “Wild, Wild Suzanne.” While it would seem the details of that particular movie have eluded all modern day resources both paper and electronic, the Mamaroneck Playhouse would soon play host to some of the greatest movies ever committed to celluloid.
For 15 cents each, Pritts and her family would see a featured film, a B movie, a cartoon and a newsreel, which was significant because it was the only way people could actually see the news in the days before television.
But, times change. Eventually, a day at the Mamaroneck Playhouse would cost 25 cents.
That’s what former trustee and lifetime village mainstay Sid Albert used to pay when he went to the movies with his friends.
“I thought it was an absolutely phenomenal thing with its gold paintings and a great big, huge screen,” Albert, now 76, said. “I remember seeing things like ‘Quo Vadis’ and ‘Ben-Hur.’ As a little kid, when you go and you see those kinds of movies in a big theater like that you’re very impressed with it.”
By the time Albert was spending his childhood days enrapt in images of chariot races and Nero’s Rome, the Playhouse was almost exclusively a movie theater. Though there was an occasional rock and roll show there, gone were the days of regular visits from vaudeville entertainers, which were rumored to have included acts like Burns and Allen and Johnny Carson—then a magician—working under assumed names to maintain their New York City contracts.
By 1980, the Playhouse had moved into corporate hands and was in the midst of a renovation or, as Pritts and Albert more likely see it, a vivisection.
“They ruined it,” Pritts said.
The Mamaroneck Playhouse became a United Artists theater with four small screens instead of one grand one, two floors instead of a balcony. Many of the adornments that made the theater as much an attraction as the movies it hosted were donated to the Mamaroneck Historical Society.
As the 1980s drew to a close, a new generation of Mamaroneck’s children populated the Playhouse, but some of these were employees.
John Theanthong was a Larchmont resident when, at the age of 16, he took a job at what I noticed he always referred to as “the Playhouse 4.” The altered interior didn’t leave Theanthong feeling his experience working at the theater alongside his brother and two best friends was any less special. It was just a different kind of special.
“It’s an awesome job when you’re 16 years old,” Theanthong, who is now 39, said. “You got to see all the movies you wanted, all your friends thought you were the bomb.”
Cleaning the theaters meant using a leaf blower to blast debris out a back door. One summer, Theanthong and his fellow employees founded a good-natured fight club behind the screens after hours. Still, the Playhouse’s history was not lost on Theanthong during his time there.
“Behind the theater you can actually see ropes and pulleys; the way it would actually be for a Broadway stage,” he said. “Behind the scenes there were a ton of [old dressing] rooms. It’s spooky, it’s scary, but it’s also a virtual treasure trove. We found old posters there.”
Theanthong no longer lives in Westchester; his days at the Mamaroneck Playhouse long behind him. He lives a much faster-paced life in New York City now and, like Pritts and Albert before him, laments the current state of things when going to the movies. I asked him, given that, what the value of a place like his beloved Playhouse 4 can still be.
“There’s a towny feel to it,” he said. “It’s a place that you can walk to. You have your slice of pizza, you enjoy the day at Harbor Island, and then you come in for a movie and you go next door for dinner afterwards. You can’t beat that experience.”
The Mamaroneck Playhouse, now a Clearview branded theater, can still be a surreal experience for a movie nerd visiting it for the first time.
There’s a long, gently sloping hallway that leads from the front door to the main lobby. To pass through those doors is to leave the noise and aggression of our current world behind and move, descending just a bit, away from the street and back through time. You’ll pass the old box office window along the way. Of course there’s neon and credit card readers at the concession stand now, but, if you look past them, as John Theanthong did more than 20 years ago, you can still see Dec. 6, 1925. It’s in the wood accents all over the lobby, on the brick staircase up to what used to be the balcony and in the boarded-up viewing boxes along the walls of the upper levels.
Perhaps remarkably, elements of the theater that have always been there have withstood the passage of time better than some of the more recent additions. Some of the ceiling tiles on the upper level are water stained, and the boards covering up the box seats are more worn than the brick and stonework around them. Even if the Playhouse never returns to the single screen experience of its youth, its current custodians might do well to safeguard the unique atmosphere the theater still provides for future generations of moviegoers, whose memories of such experiences can last a lifetime.
I asked Gloria Pritts about the Mamaroneck Playhouse movies she remembered best. I mentioned “Casablanca,” my favorite film. She said she didn’t see what the big deal was at the time, but she may have been too young to appreciate it when she saw it.
I didn’t have to prompt Pritts at all to remember seeing Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” at the Playhouse.
She now owns it on DVD.
“I must think to show that to the little ones,” she said.
The “little ones” are Pritts’ great grandchildren. They’re all coming to her house for Palm Sunday, and now they’re going to experience something that first thrilled their 15-year-old great grandmother in a big, beautiful theater in 1940.