Downtown at the Vanderbilt Theater
By Emma Redmer

She couldn’t believe they were actually going to tear it down. The Vanderbilt Theater had been around for as long as she could remember. Her parents took her to her very first movie there, an afternoon matinee of one of the periodic revivals of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the 1980s. She saw her first movie without her parents there, too, and her first R-rated movie. She fondly remembered the electric thrill when she managed to sneak into a naughty movie at the tender age of fifteen. The seats were worn and uncomfortable, the floor sticky with spilled soda and dropped gum, and the camera made almost as much noise as the three teenage boys sitting in front of her, but she enjoyed every minute of it.

They were going to destroy the Vanderbilt tomorrow. It wasn’t part of the city’s new image, they said. It was an eyesore and would probably fall apart any minute. The city spent five years squabbling over whether or not the theater was restorable and finally decided a year ago it wasn’t worth the millions of dollars it would cost.

“It’s a sin, that’s what it is!” She looked up at the crumbling Art Deco brick and stone, the tarnished metalwork, and the faded, scruffy tiles. She ducked under the yellow tape that surrounded the building and pressed her nose against one cracked window. The windows were thick with smeared dirt and cobwebs, but she could vaguely see what had probably once been the concession stand and the stairs to the balcony. The rug was once fine plush, now frayed and much-trampled. The stairs and the concession stand both clung to their rusted metalwork. A pool of water stained the area in front of the swinging door that led to the theater.

“Hey you, get away from there!” She nearly jumped three feet. An old man shook a broom in her direction. He was tall and lean as a rail. He had a grizzled mop of hair and a beard that bristled like a silvery porcupine. His eyes squinted in the glare off the Vanderbilt’s metal stripes. “Have you no respect for the dead?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she explained, “but I just wanted to see it again before they tear it down.” She shook her head. “I loved this place as a kid. It was old and worn, but it showed the best movies in town.”

“I thought you were one of those hoodlums who tried throwing stones in the ticket booth window,” he muttered.

“Oh, no,” she said quickly, “I’d never do that.”

The old man didn’t seem to hear her. “Those brats wouldn’t know a good movie if they sat down and made one themselves.”

She looked wistfully back at the theater. “I’d give anything to have been able to see it when it was new. I love old movies. It must have been something else.”

“It was the most amazing thing in town,” the old man told her. “I worked here from the moment it opened to the day it closed, and there’s not a day goes by I don’t wish I still worked there.”

“What did you do?”

“Just about everything but work the concession stand. I couldn’t stop eating the popcorn.” He gave her an oddly toothy smile, but the teeth were too even to be his real ones. “I met my first wife working here. I was an usher and she was a ticket-taker. She loved the movies, too, especially westerns. She finally left me in the 60s and went to Hollywood to be a movie actress. Don’t know what happened to her after that. Probably did. She was a looker, that girl, and smarter than most of the star-struck chits who headed west.”

He leaned against one lichen-covered wall, his eyes focused on somewhere beyond the young woman and the ruined theater. “I’ve been going to the Vanderbilt theaters since I was four years old. Did you know this was their second theater at this location?”

“No, I didn’t.”

He nodded, the veins in his neck standing out like heavy cables. “I saw my very first movie in the original Vanderbilt Theater. I don’t remember what the movie was now, but I do remember that theater.” He sighed wistfully. “It was bigger and a lot more elaborate than this one, with an organ Lon Chaney would have given his wooden arms and scary makeup for. The whole thing was tricked out like the Roaring Twenties’ idea of an Arabian sultan’s palace. The ushers wore turbans with their tuxes. The balconies were gilded with gold and silver trim. The carpets were real Oriental imports, and there were feathers and strings of beads everywhere. They had velvet seats and a huge mural over the main seating area that showed scenes from the ‘Arabian Nights’. I got a real kick out looking for Aladdin and Ali Baba and the forty thieves before the program began.”

“The program?”

“In those days, honey, you didn’t just see one movie and the coming attractions. You saw one main movie, an ‘A’ picture with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn or whomever, and then a second, shorter, ‘B’ movie. There would be a cartoon, a newsreel, a few short subjects with Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges, and maybe a serial for the children.”

She shivered as a chilly wind blew across the street, adding more dust and dirt to the collection on the windows of the Vanderbilt. “You’re lucky. All they every show in front of movies now are commercials and the occasional cartoon.”

“When I was a kid, going to the movies was a way of life. We went every Saturday when I was a child. It was a ritual with us, like going to church was with the adults. We saw our gods and goddesses, just as they went to worship theirs the next day.”

She frowned. “What happened to the original Vanderbilt Theater? Did they tear that down, too?”

He shook his head. “Nahh, the place still did big business. There would have been a riot if they destroyed it on purpose. It burned down in 1944. I was in the service then, but I got back in time to see the ruins. According to the local papers, a popcorn maker caught fire during a showing of Cover Girl, with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. All those fancy trims and beads and gegaws were pretty to look at, but they went up as if they were made of nothing but paper. They got everyone out all right, but the theater itself was a total loss.”

“When did they build this one?”

He scratched his head. “It went up about 1946, I think. The Vanderbilts were riding high then.” He nodded at the square granite newspaper office across the street. “The Vanderbilt family had their fingers in just about every pie possible in this town. If it could be owned, they owned it. Restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, the local newspaper, nightclubs, amusement parks, and the old Vanderbilt canning factory – you name it, and they had at least a small piece of it. They were the richest family in this area, if not in the state.”

“How did you end up working here?”

He shrugged. “I needed a job for college. I’d always been a movie fan, and I figured it was better than waiting tables or sweating at the canning factory, which is what most of my friends were doing.”

She smiled. “One of my first jobs was working as an usher in a movie theater. It wasn’t the greatest pay, but I got to see every movie that summer for free.” She pulled her heavy coat closer to her body. It was a cold winter day, the gray clouds almost matching the gray building, both for color and mood. “That was one of the best summers I ever had.”

“I was sweet on Fanny Vanderbilt, the youngest girl in the family, at that time,” he admitted. “She was such a lovely little thing, all dainty and graceful. She was training to be a ballerina, but she went to the movies a lot. I talked George Bartlesby into giving me the job because he knew my dad, but what I really wanted was to get close to Fanny.”

She watched him, a small smile playing on her lips. He was lost in his reveries. “Did you ever meet her?”

He blinked his eyes, as if just coming out of the theater where his former dreamboat was sitting. “Fanny? She didn’t want anything to do with a normal, middle-class guy like me. She went to the Vanderbuilt because her folks owned it, but she otherwise refused to be seen with such low company. I knew it was hopeless, but I had such a big crush on her I didn’t care at the time.” He shrugged. “I liked the job so much I stayed, even after Fanny married some big-shot lawyer and moved to Washington DC. She made babies and managed his career instead of doing pirouettes.”

She sighed again, staring wistfully up at the theater. “It must have been wonderful to be able to see all those old movies in a theater like this. I loved coming here. There were nicer theaters in town when I was a kid, but coming to the Vanderbilt was special treat.” She puffed on her cold hands before continuing. “I guess I’ve always been a little in awe of it. It’s so big and elaborate. It’s kind of overwhelming to a kid.”

“You should have seen the fuss they made when this place first opened!” the old man told her. “They called in minor celebrities and local politicians, rolled out the red carpets, and had us all wear tuxes.” He laughed. “I borrowed my tux from my old man. It was about ten years out of fashion and three sizes too large. I spent most of that night pulling my pants up and praying that important audience wouldn’t get a good look at my boxers as part of the double feature.” He stood as straight as he could, as if he was still that nervous young man. “Thank goodness my belt held out! The other theater employees made fun of me for that for years, though. I was really happy when we all got regular uniforms.”

He clapped his hands together and blew on them. “Darn cold weather,” he muttered. “I knew I should have moved to Florida, like Rudy said.” He joined her gaze at the old theater. “You know, I even remember the movie they played that night. It was Ziegfield Follies, one of MGM’s big Technicolor musicals. Seemed like every other movie MGM released in the late 40s and early 50s was a musical, and they were all good ones.”

“Oh, I know that movie,” she exclaimed. “I saw it in college, on a cable channel one night when I was flipping around. They had everyone in that movie, didn’t they? Judy Garland, Fanny Brice, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly…”

“...Hume Cronyn, Keenan Wynn, Red Skeleton, Lucile Ball, Lucile Bremmer, Kathryn Grayson, and a cast of thousands,” he related. “I must have seen that one eight times. It was a real spectacular show. All the other studios did musicals, but none of them went all-out like MGM.”

She finally looked away, toward the former parking lot, where two cranes sat ominously. “What happened to this place? Why did they let it go? I mean, it wasn’t in great shape even when I was little, but it wasn’t as bad as this.”

He shrugged again. “A lot of things happened. TV happened. They installed all those fancy wide-screen processes, but that idea died once the novelty wore off. Then the 60s happened, and people had more things to do than spend all day at the movies. When old man Vanderbilt finally died, the family re-evaluated their holdings and realized that they couldn’t afford to keep everything. They closed the cannery and the amusement parks, sold the restaurants and the paper, and let the rest go to pot. They started laying people off in the early 70s. I was damn lucky I wasn’t one of them. I had my children to support after their mother left us.”

They were silent for a moment, both lost in their own thoughts. She went on quietly. “I know how you feel. I went away to college, and when I came back for my first Christmas break, I heard that they shut this place down. I was devastated. I was hoping to someday take my children to see their first movie here.”

“They can tear this place down, they can let the movies go to seed, but they can’t take our memories.” He nodded at the deteriorating movie palace. “Sometimes, memories are all we’ve got.”

She sighed. “That’s true.” She winced at the sound of a police car in the distance. “I think we’d better get out of here, before the cops find us hanging around a condemned building.”

He shook her hand. “It’s been nice talkin’ with ‘ya, hon, but I’ve really got to go home. My daughter manages the diner next to the newspaper office, and she’ll have a fit if I don’t finish sweeping the front stoop.”

She watched him walk stiffly across the road, then took one last look at the doomed movie theater and headed off herself.