Notes of a Footnote – 5 – The Nabes
Little Red in Spaldeen City
When I was growing up in the West Village during the late ‘40s and early ’50 there were eleven movie houses within what I considered walking distance of my home on Bethune Street. They were, from south to north, the Waverly; Hudson Playhouse; 8th Street Playhouse; Art; Loew’s Sheridan; Greenwich; 5th Avenue Playhouse; Elgin; RKO 23rd Street; Terrace; and Chelsea. I also made movie-going forays to Forty-second Street where in those days there were ten movie houses in the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues – the Laff Movie was my favourite – but these usually entailed a bus or subway journey. Between the ages of about eight and twelve, finances and sporting commitments permitting, I attended at least two of these movie houses every Saturday and Sunday, seeing an average of six to eight films per weekend along with a commensurate number of cartoons, short subjects, serial episodes and newsreels. In retrospect I should have followed the example of a friend of mine – an equally addicted moviegoer – who took carrots to the flicks and ate them instead of popcorn in accordance with the then-prevailing theory that they were good for the eyes.
Finding the price(s) of admission to the various movie-houses was often a challenge. I had an allowance in those days but it was not princely – our family was never poor but we never had much money either. I supplemented my allowance with the usual shoe-shining, car-washing and errand boy odd jobs. Another juvenile method of raising the wind was rather ingenious. The Eighth Avenue IND subway tracks are not very deeply underground and spaced along the Avenue there are gratings above the subway’s air vents, each with a concrete shelf about six feet below sidewalk level. Careful examination of these often revealed that coins had been dropped through the gratings. The method of recovering these was to tie a piece of string to the shackle of a padlock, stick a wad of used chewing gum to the bottom of the lock and go fishing. A sharp Saturday morning eye and a bit of patience could yield a couple of dollars in change, enough to enable one to help top up Louis B. Mayer’s profits.
Of the eleven movie houses named above three, the Waverly, Art and Greenwich still exist as cinemas. One is an off-Broadway theatre; another is a performance space specializing in dance productions, and one, the RKO 23rd Street, continues as a movie-house, although at a slightly different location, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1960.
In style and atmosphere the eleven varied widely; the largest and most luxurious were the Loew’s Sheridan and the RKO 23rd Street, both second-run houses. The smallest and least elegant was the Hudson Playhouse, locally known as The Dump, a name that did the establishment perfect justice. To call The Dump a fleapit would be to insult the fastidiousness of the average Greenwich Village flea. The building stands at 121 Christopher Street, just east of Hudson Street, opposite the point where Bedford Street ends. It is now the Lucille Lortel Theater and was previously the Theater De Lys, most famous in the ‘50s and ‘60s as the home of a long-running revival of The Threepenny Opera. Until its demise as a movie house, circa 1953, The Dump was a third-run or grind house specializing in Universal Pictures double-features of Abbott & Costello comedies, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff horror films, Republic westerns starring the likes of Rocky Lane and Wild Bill Elliott and, occasionally, revivals of more respectable programmers. Movies I first saw at The Dump include the 1939 Beau Geste starring Gary Cooper; Each Dawn I Die, made the same year and starring James Cagney and George Raft; and a World War II morale booster called God is My Co-Pilot. Like most houses of its type The Dump had a Saturday morning kids’ matinee. This began at 8:00am and admission was fourteen cents, rising to nineteen cents at 9:30. For this sum the youthful cineaste saw a double- (sometimes triple-) feature, six cartoons, a serial episode, a short and a newsreel: the entire programme lasting three to four hours. In addition to this there were considerable diversions off the silver-(ish) screen. The matinees were noisy, and patrons in the orchestra seats were subjected to a regular barrage of objects thrown from the balcony, these including slug coins, popcorn bags filled with urine and Phebe, the house bouncer. This was not quite so traumatic as it sounds: the weekly procedure was that Phebe would rush up to the balcony to calm some particularly raucous outburst, be overpowered by three or four youths, hung by his arms over the balcony and dropped. The ensuing fall, shoe soles to aisle, being no more than six feet. I later came to wonder that Phebe put up with this weekly indignity with such apparent equanimity. He lived in the same house on Charles Street as did a friend of mine named Dennis Hanlon. This house is opposite the old fire station where I often spent non-movie-going Saturday mornings watching the firemen clean the hook & ladder apparatus. True to tradition, the fire station had a Dalmatian mascot and the firemen – who came to recognize their pint-sized audience – once took me up to their second floor bunkhouse and let me slide down the brass pole. One night several years after The Dump’s closure a few of us were sitting on Dennis’s stoop drinking beer when Phebe came down and started talking about his boxing career. We, remembering his humiliations at The Dump, were disbelieving. Our incredulity vanished when Phebe went back upstairs and came down again with his scrapbook. Sure enough, the old clippings attested that he’d been an upper-card lightweight in the ‘20s, not quite a title contender but good enough to be matched against fighters who were. In the light of this Dennis and I were less surprised than we might have been when we saw Phebe single-handedly beat the bejesus out of three Hispanics who lived in a tenement building on the west side of Hudson Street between Charles and Tenth Streets that in those days housed a concentration of Puerto Rican families. They had encountered Phebe in the aforementioned Sally O’Toole’s I(O)deal Bar & Grill, opposite the White Horse, and started breaking his chops. Although over 60 at the time and small, Phebe thrashed the three down Hudson Street for two and a half blocks. He refused any help from us and we had to conclude that he had countenanced the weekly chaos in The Dump out of good-natured forbearance rather than lack of prowess. In justice, it should be said that The Dump’s patrons had their softer moments. On one occasion some chivalrous young locals tore out the armrest between to two seats, the better to accommodate the comfort of a girl known around the neighbourhood as Fat Mary.
The movie houses that I frequented most like The Dump were the Elgin and the Chelsea. The Elgin, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Nineteenth Street, was markedly cleaner and less anarchic than The Dump but it was also a third-run house and did a Saturday kids’ show. The Elgin also ran Spanish language programmes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, catering for the growing Hispanic population in that part of Chelsea. Most of these films were made in Mexico and starred people like Pedro Armendariz, Cantinflas, Pepe, and Lola Beltran. The building was latterly The Joyce Theater. The Chelsea, furthest a field of my regular movie houses, stood on the east side of Eighth Avenue between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Streets. It was nearer to The Dump in ambience and programming than the Elgin, though it also showed Spanish-language films during mid-week. It was torn down in the mid-‘50s and became a parking lot, which the site remains to the present day.
The Terrace, on Twenty-third Street just east of Ninth Avenue, was also a third-run house but quite commodious. I saw there many first feature westerns and costume pictures that inspired in me – an only child with artistically inclined parents – a habit of re-enacting scenes from these movies while dressing up in outfits that were as meticulously and realistically reproduced as the materials to hand would allow. Many are the battles I fought from the fire escape outside my bedroom while got up as Hawkeye (Randolph Scott), Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) or Captain Blood (Errol Flynn or Louis Hayward; I wasn’t fussy about actors). This predilection for dressing up and playacting helped give rise to the ultimately abortive notion (welcomed by my stage-struck parents) that I might become an actor.
Five of the other movie joints I knew as a child had some claim to being ‘art’ houses. The 5th Avenue Playhouse then located on the west side of the Avenue between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets – a site now occupied (I believe) by a School of Eastern Studies – was almost a parody of the concept. In another of S.J. Perelman’s stories a character writes in his diary: “Saw a tip-top revival of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Potemkin last night at the 5th Avenue Playhouse; they are having their annual film festival. Enjoyed them both, though most of Caligari was run upside down and Potemkin broke in three places, necessitating a short wait. Next week they are beginning their annual Potemkin festival, to be followed by a revival of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Always something unusual at the 5th Avenue.” As far as I can remember the first of my infrequent visits to the 5th Avenue, circa 1949, was to see A Night at the Opera, my initial exposure to The Marx Brothers. Although it marked the beginning of a life-long devotion to Groucho, the scene I recall most vividly is Harpo sliding down and tearing the scenery flat. Odd, because Harpo’s silent antics always left me rather cold in comparison to Groucho’s verbal cut and thrust. And as for those harp solos, donnez moi un break!
It was at the Art, 8th Street, Waverly and Greenwich that I first became acquainted with British and Continental European films. The Greenwich – at the corner of Greenwich Avenue and Twelfth Street and now styled the Art Greenwich Twin – particularly where I often visited with my mother (a serious anglophile) was where I jumped with fright when Finlay Currie popped up from behind the gravestone as Magwich in David Lean’s version of Great Expectations; revelled in Alec Guinness’s virtuoso versatility and Dennis Price’s impeccably polished homicides in Kind Hearts and Coronets; and saw Orson Welles emerge from the shadows to zither music in The Third Man. It was also at the Greenwich, in those pre-ratings days, that I first got a load of Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman. I thought she was pretty cute but I liked Gina Lollobrigida better, especially with Gerard Phillipe in Fan Fan the Tulip at the 8th Street Playhouse. The 8th Street opened in 1928 as a consciously avant-garde cinema with a minimalist design by architect Frederick Kiesler. The basement of the building houses the Electric Ladyland recording studio.
The period in which I saw these films, coinciding as it did with the onset of puberty, witnessed a marked alteration in my ideas about feminine beauty. As a child I remember nursing a callow devotion to Binnie Barnes, followed by a fleeting gradh for Barbara Hale after seeing her in Lorna Doone. (When I wasn’t shooting it out with imaginary Native Americans, I was climbing that damned waterfall in emulation of Richard Greene.) I found my ideal when I saw the 1952 MGM version of Scaramouche. Even at age eleven I couldn’t for the life of me see why Stewart Granger (whose costume films of that period – Beau Brummell, The Prisoner of Zenda &c – were my absolute favourites) would dump a stunner like Eleanor Parker in preference for Janet Leigh who I considered insipid and colourless in comparison. In fact, I never went much on blondes in the movies or out. This may have been the reaction to my unrequited passion for a golden haired little girl named Lesley James with whom I went to the Goat Hill Farm summer camp when we were both ten and eleven. Her father was English and had a red MG to prove it. She lived in a very up-market apartment house on Central Park West and, in the accepted moony Tom Sawyer manner, I spent hours sitting on the Park wall opposite hoping for a glimpse of the beloved. Ten or so years later my father and I were backstage after a performance of the original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum having arranged to have a post-curtain supper with my parents’ old friend, Jack Gilford, one of the stars of the show. I recognized and said hello to Lesley who was one of the dancers. She, needless to say, didn’t know me from Adam.
One exception to the anti-blonde prejudice was Virginia Mayo, especially opposite Gregory Peck in Captain Horatio Hornblower, another of the costume epics I loved. It may also have been the Empire-style frocks that I’ve always found becoming; although the glut of Jane Austen film and television dramatizations over the recent past have rather blunted my taste for the mode. No, it was Eleanor Parker, with some help from Maureen O’Hara, Rita Hayworth and, to a lesser extent, Rhonda Fleming, that led me to the Redhead Revelation and it is a predilection – to both my joy and my sorrow – I have maintained to this day.
Miss Parker and Miss Mayo were both performers who tended to appear in the higher quality films I generally saw at the two more luxurious second-run movie houses I attended regularly: the RKO 23rd Street and Loew’s Sheridan. The RKO 23rd Street was particularly sumptuous for a neighbourhood movie house. It stood on the corner of Twenty-third Street and Eighth Avenue and had been built originally as the Grand Opera House, a theatre owned during the Gilded Age by Jay Gould and Jim Fisk. Among the many films I saw there were the large-scale 20th Century Fox musicals of the day. Not all of them featured Dan Dailey and Betty Grable: it only seems that way in retrospect.
All told I’d say the Loew’s (invariably pronounced Low-ee’s by neighbourhood people) Sheridan was my favourite of the Lower West Side and Chelsea ‘nabes’ of my childhood and youth. Although no vestige of it remains the Sheridan took up the entire triangle formed by Greenwich Avenue, Seventh Avenue and Twelfth Street. It was torn down during the ’70’s, the site having been acquired by St. Vincent’s Hospital. There were plans at one time, I believe, to build a nurses’ residence on the plot but nothing came of that, and the area has long been covered by a decorative garden of sorts and a goods receiving depot attached to the hospital. The ticket booth of the old Sheridan was at the Greenwich Avenue/Seventh Avenue point of the triangle and the highest admission price I can remember paying was 75 cents. After that formality one entered the foyer and encountered the characteristic movie house smell of plush, hot dogs, buttered popcorn and contiguous humanity. The Sheridan, being one of the Loew’s theatre-chain connected with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had a high proportion of that studio’s films in its programming. In addition to the Stewart Granger films, others I enjoyed were Robert Taylor costume extravaganzas like Ivanhoe and The Knights of the Round Table, the rather routine westerns and adventure films of Clark Gable’s later career, and more musicals, most notably Singin’ in the Rain, which I think I saw three or four times in its first run at the Sheridan. Until 1955 I watched these movies from seats in the Children’s Section. As previously related, both of my parents – with widely differing degrees of trauma – had left the Roman Catholic Church in consequence of which I never received either First Communion or Confirmation and, unlike my many Jewish schoolmates, I wasn’t eligible for Bar Mitzvah. Nor, I might add, for the considerable loot that for many of my friends went with it. The result being that the nearest equivalent occasion I had for saying “Today I am a man” was when I was able to cross the aisle, sit anywhere I wanted to and watch the movie with the grown-ups, away from the watchful eye and flashlight of Matron. The next few years saw me move upstairs to the back of the balcony, sometimes but not always in the company of a redhead. But that’s another movie altogether.
My personal experience of films and filming has been generally tangential. I have an idea that I was an unwitting extra among a mob of kids around a Coney Island water fountain in The Little Fugitive, a 1953 low budget experiment in American neo-realism. My first experience of a film set/location came about through my old school friend, Jeff Albert. His father had been the stills photographer during the filming of The Hustler. One day during summer vacation Jeff was commissioned by his father to deliver a batch of contact prints to Ames’ Pool Hall around the corner on Forty-fourth Street and Broadway where scenes for The Hustler were being shot. The brief period we were on the set gave us an insight into two very disparate versions of how ‘an actor prepares.’ Between takes Paul Newman could be seen sitting on a stool in a corner, facing the wall with his head in his hands, intensely Methodical in centring his character. In contrast Jackie Gleason was laughing and joking with a small entourage of cronies, the Jack Daniels flowing freely. When the call “Places” came and with the camera rolling each was totally convincing: they were Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats although going about their work in such markedly differing ways.
I had been working at J.B. Rundle & Co. for about six months when I was made redundant following the firm’s merger with another advertising agency. My next two jobs were both movie connected. The first was as a messenger, expediter and print-breaker for WCD, a film production company at 1600 Broadway specializing in television commercials. I got the job through the good offices of a woman named Hortense “Horty” Geist, who was secretary to one of the directors and the mother of an on-and-off girl friend of mine, Dee Lambert, whose father was Dave Lambert, a member of the noted jazz singing trio, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. While I was at WCD I made my first verifiable appearance on film. Or at least my hands did. A regular feature of life at WCD was the procedure known as ‘hoopy-scoopy’. This involved filming at night with just a cameraman and no other (union) crew, some of the permanent staff looking after lighting and so-forth. One night a commercial was being shot for Wonder Bread that required a pair of hands to demonstrate the virtues of the product’s “stay-fresh wrapper.” A quick survey of those present revealed that mine were easily the most presentable. This, it should be noted, was during my Broadway sharpie phase when my hands were usually immaculately manicured. I was duly filmed twisting the “stay-fresh wrapper” and bending a slice of bread to demonstrate its efficacy. I received no model fee but I did get four hours of time-and-half. Not long after this commercial made the airwaves I was deputed to take an armful of film cans to an editing suite on an upper floor. Halfway back down the elevator door opened and a party including a noted Italian actress who was doing some dubbing in the building tried to push past me into the elevator. One of the actress’s flunkies brushed past me saying, “This is Sophia Loren! Haven’t you ever seen any of her pictures?” I said, “I don’t know. Has she ever seen any of mine?”
My hands made their screen come back some years later in Dublin when they featured in a television commercial for the Irish Electricity Board that was directed by the highly respected British film animator, Bob Godfrey.
The last job I had before my near-three-year stint as a dye transfer photographic printer was with the film laboratory Movielab. I was a print-breaker there, the idea being that I would eventually become a trainee film editor. I admire film editors enormously but I soon discovered that I’d had quite enough of cutting-and-splicing to be going on with, and that I did not have the temperament to enjoy spending my entire working day staring into a Movieola.
In later life I’ve written a half-dozen or so screenplays. Several of these were commissioned and (with one egregious exception) paid for but not produced. Another eventually reached the screen as four-part television police drama. Barry Wasserman, my collaborator on those scripts and on a couple of BBC radio plays was in his non-writing professional life a 1st Assistant Director with many feature film, television, music video and commercial credits. Sadly, Barry, a dear friend as well as co-writer, went under the wire in July 2014.
As I’ve said before, I realized early on that I wasn’t cut out to be a stage actor. In later years I’ve thought I might, with a different set of circumstances and bit more ambition have made a not-bad fist of film acting. Character parts only. If people are said to eventually come to look like their dogs, I’ve noticed that children often come to resemble the beaux ideal of their parents. My mother always admired the English or Irish slim-Jim, hawk-faced Leslie Howard type. As I’ve grown older I’ve come, facially, to belong to the lower orders of the category. A friend of mine once said to me, “Christ, Patrick, you’re starting to look like the head of the escape committee in a 1940s British P.O.W. movie.”
Note: Some people – and especially those reared on the east side of the Atlantic – may be puzzled by the title of the foregoing chapter, “The Nabes”. It is derived from the old editorial style of the show business newspaper Variety, in which “the nabes” was often used as headline shorthand for “neighbourhood movie houses”.
End of Part One