Silver Threads: Theater hopping
Only a couple of weeks after I came here to work for The New Orleans States-Item, the city editor handed me a plum assignment: to review two blockbuster movies opening on Canal Street. I’d see one of the shows, then cross the street to the other and return to the newsroom on Lafayette Square to write about them.
The entertainment editor must have been on vacation. It was I who got to spend my working day seeing Gigi and another highly touted movie I can’t remember.
Other reporters would have relished trips to City Hall or perhaps to a police station to cover an important investigation, but I’d long ago established my preference for the movies and a certain amount of expertise in reviewing them for papers I’d previously worked for.
Beginning when I was little bitty, my mother established a routine of going to the picture show as soon as we’d come home from church and eaten our lunch. We saw every tear-jerker that the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Lana Turner ever made. Every battle field that John Wayne, Clark Gable and Henry Fonda ever trod.
Taking three little kids to the movies wasn’t risky in those days: When the leading man and lady went to bed, the only indication that something interesting may have been going on was the big fireworks display flashed on the screen. And the sole profanity uttered had been the “damn” spoken by Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.
I got to thinking about all this last week when I read a piece in one of our newspapers about plans for restoring the Orpheum Theater, once my favorite place for movies here. I saw Witness for the Prosecution there right after I got to town.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1,800-seat theater was built in 1918 and opened for business in 1921 as a venue for Vaudeville. Soon it became a movie house and remained so until the Louisiana Philharmonic began playing there in the 1980s. However, damaged by Katrina, it’s been closed for a while.
While the Orpheum, with it’s perfect sight lines, steep balconies, curtained boxes and proximity to a parking garage has been my favorite, New Orleans certainly has other great movie venues.
Not as “cozy” feeling and seating twice as many as the Orpheum, is the now defunct Loewe’s State Palace Theater, which opened in 1926 and truly deserves the description “palatial.” I got lost on the mezzanine floor one time, trying to take my little daughter to the ladies’ room during an Elvis Presley movie. The big halls were mostly empty then, in the ‘60s; everybody probably was at home watching Wagon Train. (By that time, even my mother had been seduced by television.)
The Saenger Theatre, with its 4,000 seats and a star-studded ceiling, opened in 1927 and then -- in the ‘60s -- the balcony was enclosed to form the small Saenger Orleans, where Charlton Heston, in town to shoot The Pro, turned up in the audience of a re-run of The Sound of Music.
It was 1947 when the Joy Theatre had opened across the street, and what I recall most vividly were the pink-smocked ladies with flashlights who helped you to your seat. I saw Anne of the Thousand Days there and remember that the loud-mouthed man sitting next to me couldn’t figure out the identity of the little, red-headed girl who appeared at the end.
But my memory -- good as it is for events and places long past -- couldn’t put a name to the small Canal Street movie theater where I first saw My Fair Lady. I e-mailed former T-P co-worker David Cuthbert, who has covered just about every entertainment event in town and once served as TV editor, and he came up with Cine Royale. Yesss! It was on the Uptown side of Canal Street, going toward the river from the big movie houses.
“… there was the Center, near Walgreen's, torn down for expansion of Walgreen's, but not until the ‘80s or ‘90s. When I was a kid, they showed 'nature' films of people frolicking au natural …. And 'bad girl' films, featuring girls with the biggest boobs ever, pre-silicone and implants.
“They had a very spacious second-floor balcony lobby with couches, chairs, drapes …. later it was renovated and became a first-run house, called -- I think -- I'm pretty sure -- the Cine Royale.”
First-run films died the death of a dog at the Cine Royale, says Cuthbert. “For the next 20 years or so it was strictly porno."
And so, it never got on the Register of Historic Places.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]