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WATERBURY THEATERS HISTORY
(This story originally appeared on the Waterbury Republican American website in November 2004, without the images, but is no longer available there)
In the early 1900s, Waterbury was not just the Brass City, but one of many "try out" towns where vaudeville actors cut their teeth. Because of that, the city saw a parade of Broadway legends who were apprentices on Waterbury's well-trod stages. The Palace Theater, which had stood unused and neglected for years but reopened to a sold-out crowd in November 2004 with Tony Bennett, was the largest of a robust crop of stages lining East Main Street and vicinity.
Anyone who lived in Waterbury during the 1940s or 1950s will recognize the lobby of the restored Palace Theater, which was known as the Loew's Poli then. Renovation of the theater required shifting the path of the Great Brook, an underground river that had flowed quietly beneath the structure and much of the city's center since the theater was built in 1922. More photos of the restored Palace Theater
The old Poli's Theater at 145 East Main St. opened on Dec. 19, 1897 near the Broadway Casino and saw such luminaries as the Drews, the Barrymores, Sarah Bernhardt and George M. Cohan traipse across its stage. The old Poli's, which closed in 1928, is not to be confused with the Loew's Poli, the site of the newly re-christened Palace Theater.
When the Loew's Poli Palace Theater, later the Palace Theater, opened Jan. 28, 1922, a song was written just for the occasion. Initially known as S.Z. Poli's "Million-Dollar Theater" the Palace was the city's largest with 3,419 seats. It now has 2,640. In its history it has hosted everything, from opera to vaudeville to Quicksilver Messenger Service (1972), Pink Floyd (1973), Genesis (1974), Bob Dylan (1975), and Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention. Many believed the Palace had the best acoustics in the state.
In a 1965 Waterbury Republican-American story, George V. Grady recalled the images of a thriving downtown theater scene: "All these and many more sent our young and old blood rollicking down East Main Street walking in the clouds for a quick collation at Hodson's Restaurant or a hot bean or trilby sandwich at the Maryland or Crane's or a soda or college ice (sundae) at Dexter's, all with an alert eye out for the last trolley for the day, which left Exchange Place promptly at 12:07 a.m."
1939 theater ads in the Waterbury Republican. New Year's Eve 1940 ads
The Palace is not Waterbury's oldest known theater. That was Jacques Opera House, pronounced Jake's, which opened at the corner of Phoenix Avenue and East Main Street in 1885. The burlesque house gave way to a Waterbury Savings Bank parking lot in 1954.
But neither hosted the city's first movies with sound effects, a distinction that went to the Garden Theater, built in 1909. (Talkies came to the State Theater 20 years later.) Sound effects were produced behind the screen as demanded -- cocoanut shells pounded together for hoof-beats courtesy of Jack Fitzgerald, pistol shots and other effects designed to intensify audience awe. The Garden also introduced Waterbury to Amateur Night and the "hook," a device to yank those who failed to excite audience interest abruptly from the stage.
Arguably the most infamous appearance was the one Waterbury native Rosalind Russell gave at The State Theater on Aug. 18, 1955. The "Today Show," hosted by Dave Garroway, was aired live that morning from the Elton Hotel downtown. Waterbury-born movie star Rosalind Russell had come home for the world premiere of her new movie "The Girl Rush" at the State Theater on East Main Street, and her return was being treated as a grand occasion.Throughout the day there were events honoring Russell, all of which led up to the showing of her new film at what had been renamed The Rosalind Russell State Theater. An estimated 10,000 residents lined the streets to get a glimpse of the glamorous Russell and her co-star, Gloria De Haven. As the stars exited their limousines, powerful Hollywood searchlights shined into the low-hanging night sky. It was truly a magical evening. It was also the night the Great Flood of 1955 began.
Mayor Raymond E. Snyder, Rosalind Russell, Gloria De Haven, and Police Chief William Roach on the night of the premiere
Here are a few tidbits from Waterbury's theatrical history:
Jacques Opera House / Jacques Theatre
owner: Jean Jacques
location: Phoenix Avenue and East Main Street
date opened: 1885
demolition date: 1954, for the Waterbury Savings Bank parking lot.
use: movies, burlesque
Jean Jacques had been owner of the Diamond Bottling Corp. in Waterbury for twenty years when he opened Jacques Opera House. John M. Fitzgerald operated Jacques' first movie camera and the film was allowed to spin out of the machine and into a paper bag. After the show, the film was tediously rewound by hand. Fitzgerald was a stage manager at Jacques and the old Poli's. He was one of the first to operate one of the hand-cranked projectors of that era, lighted by live current which arced between two sticks of carbon. The film was celluloid and highly flammable, so that the heat generated by the carbon arc lamp posed a constant threat of fire.
Movies at Jacques were relatively short lived, and were replaced by vaudeville and burlesque in the 1920s.
The Strand Theater
owner: John J. O'Neill, later leased by William Fox, prominently linked to the theatrical world and eager to challenge the Poli empire in New England
location: 77 East Main St.
date opened: 1913. Known as Fox's for one year. Became The Strand again in 1915.
date closed: Demolished in 1951 for the F.W. Woolworth and W.T. Grant stores.
use: Vaudeville, summer stock and popular second-run movies and re-releases.
Justine Johnston, who went on to fame on Broadway with the Ziegfeld Follies, performed at The Strand. The theater was located on the site of the new UConn-Waterbury Campus courtyard, said Fran Brennan, UConn Waterbury director and Waterbury history buff. Brennan believes the theater became part of the original Immaculate Conception Church, originally built in 1893. Movies were 25 cents.
"It was small and uncomfortable with a pitched balcony," Brennan said. "Your chin would be on your knees. If you didn't have much money, that was the only place left to go on a date."
The Broadway Theater / Bijou Theater / Rialto Theater / State Theater
location: 137 East Main St.
date opened: 1909, near Poli's Theater on the site of the former Broadway Casino.
In the early days of the 1900s, The Broadway Theater hosted a production that featured the famous Ben Hur chariot race. The chariots were drawn by a pair of horses racing on an oval-shaped moving treadmill. The treadmill was fastened to a track on the stage floor. While the race took place, a panorama of the Coliseum flashed before the audience. At the time this was considered the greatest achievement in stage technique.
The Broadway, which had Waterbury's first theater organ, became The Bijou Theater in 1914. The Bijou became The Rialto Theater in 1917. The Rialto became a popular wartime spot - not too long-lived, only until The State Theater arrived in 1929.
There was no doubt about The State's elegance when it opened at the former Broadway Theater in 1929. The theater featured 2,600 seats, decorated in a Spanish motif and a classic foyer. It was the first Waterbury theater to bring the new sound films to the city. Its organ cost $40,000 and Jimmy Colgan was the first organist.
The State contracted with Paramount, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures for first-run shows, which then went to the Plaza, Brennan said. The Poli contracted with MGM and 20th Century Fox for first run shows, which then went to the Strand.
Julia Smith, the first woman theater manager in Connecticut, came to Waterbury in 1924 to revive a struggling Strand Theater. She was later the first woman manager for Warner Brothers in its New England chain when it took over The State.
The State Theater became Waterbury's "Civic Center" in the '70s.
The State Theater became Waterbury's "Civic Center" in the '70s.
Lyric Theater / Dreamland Theater
owner: Max Chotzianoff
location: 87 East Main St.
date opened: 1906, renamed The Dreamland in 1907
Max Chotzianoff and his brothers contributed much to the early days of film entertainment in Waterbury. The Lyric/Dreamland was in what was then known as the Camp Building.
a second Lyric Theater, (later The Lido Theater)
owner: Robert Molzon
location: 236-242 South Main
date opened: 1911
use: Vaudeville, movies
This second Lyric Theater in Waterbury became The Lido Theater in 1935 with the Quatrano family in charge, followed by Billy and Johnny Sirica, until it went dark around 1962. The Sirica brothers then became owners of the Watertown Drive-In.
Empire Theater / Auditorium Theater
owner: F.I. Frayne. Built by Jean Jacques
location: 286 South Main St.
date opened: 1908
date closed: The Auditorium was vacant in 1922, was occupied by a dry goods store in 1923 and by Albert's Furniture Co. in 1924.
The Auditorium had a year of movies under F.I. Frayne, but later had roller skating and roller polo, boxing and basketball, along with the tenor tones of Enrico Caruso in 1920. Movies were shown beginning in 1910. The theater may have been called Foti's after World War I, for manager Samuel S. Foti.
The Garden Theater / New Garden Theater / Plaza Theater
Owners: the Chotzianoff brothers
location: 164 East Main Street, between Spring and School Streets
use: movies, stage, Vaudeville
The Garden, built by the Chotzianoff brothers, was leased and operated by the great theatrical impresario of the early 20th-century, Sylvester Poli. The theater was only a part of the business block the Brothers Chotzianoff built, which has been demolished for an arts magnet school. This was Waterbury's first real moving picture theater, 500 seats, upstairs and down, orchestra pit, one of the city's great entertainment palaces during its long history as The Garden, New Garden and The Plaza.
The theater showed second runs from the State Theater and catered to Saturday children's matinees, Brennan said.
"You could stay from 1 to 5 o'clock and not see the same thing twice -- for a dime," he said.
1952 ad for The Plaza Playhouse
The Scenic Theater / Rivoli Theater / Diorio's Theater
owner: Joseph Berg
location: 204 Bank St.
date opened: 1910
The Scenic had a decade of picture entertainment and a series of owners, including Rocco Diorio, before he became a restaurateur. Diorio ran what was probably the city's first open-air theater at his East Main Street restaurant. In the rear was an open area that faced on Brook Street. Movies were shown there. Abe Fandiller, one of Waterbury's top projectionists, used to come down from The Garden and set up the projection machine for the night's showing.
The Scenic became The Rivoli Theater in 1918 and the following year it was Diorio's and then again in 1922 it was back to The Scenic, all the time a part of Diorio's holdings. He had moved his family's restaurant business from East Main Street in the early 1920s and after a brief period at 221 Bank St. moved down to 231 Bank Street.
Footnotes not to be forgotten include The Majestic Theater, opened in 1907 by M. D'Agostino at 148 East Main St. It closed around 1908. The Family Theater, which opened in 1908 at 902 Bank St. in the Brooklyn section, became the Brooklyn Comedy Theater in 1910. The Gem Theater, at 285 Bank Street was owned by F.E. Brown. It became The Roma Theater in 1910.
The Eden Theater, a vaudeville and movie house, opened in 1911 in the Brooklyn section at 1046 Bank St. The Alhambra Theater, owned by B. E, Hausdorf, was built at 733 North Main St. in 1912. This vaudeville and movie house closed in 1957 and later became New Opportunities for Waterbury, Inc. The Concordia Hall Theatre opened in 1912 at 305 Bank St. M. Mele was the proprietor.
The Washington Theater opened on Washington Street around 1922 and closed in 1926. The Capitol Theater at 854 Bank Street opened as a movie-house in 1925, and was still there during the 1955 flood, which lapped at its doors.
The Princess Theatre at 53 Center St. opened in 1913. Calvin Martin, the Princess' manager brought the first movie serials to Waterbury. They included "The Perils of Pauline" and "The Million Dollar Mystery."
The Olympic Theater, at 289 Bank St., closed in 1913. The Carroll Theater ("Where The Big Pictures Play On The Square") in the North Square was built by Patrick H. Carroll in 1913. It was owned by Roger Mahan when it closed in 1959. WWCO disk jockey "Wildman Steve" Gallon hosted live shows featuring prominent black recording artists at the Carroll in the late 1950s. The Tower Theater on Watertown Avenue, which opened in 1940, withstood the Flood of '55, but fell to the new Route 8 expressway in 1961.
The Star Theater, built in 1913, was at 314 Baldwin St. It became The Cameo Theater in 1933, The Win Theater in the 1950s, then The Spanish Theater, which became The Caribe Theater in 1964. It was demolished in the 1990s.
The Colonial Theater, on South Main Street across from Scovill Street, was owned by prominent Bank Street realtor John J. Sheehan. It was run by the Berger brothers in 1917 and closed in 1918. The building was later moved to Bank Street.
The Hamilton Theatre, which opened at 1758 East Main St. in 1921, became the Park Theatre in the 1950s and is now the site of the Rafael Jimenez Pentecostal Church.
The Ville Theater at 1606 Thomaston Ave., the facade of which was demolished in September 2004, was owned since 1981 by Coyne Textile Services, Inc. The theater closed in 1979 after 40 years. The company will use the building for storage. The small movie-house opened in 1948.
The Lido Theater at South Main Street and Grand became Mini Cinema in 1969, with the LaFlamme brothers.
The Cameo Theater was on Main St. in Watertown.
The Community Theater on Main St. in Oakville became the Oak Theater in 1954.
WATERBURY DRIVE-IN THEATERS
Waterbury had two single screen drive-in theaters in the 1950s and 1960s
The Pine Drive-In Theater was located on Wolcott Road (Route 69) (see map) and was demolished in 1967 for the Naugatuck Valley Mall. It was replaced by the nearby two screen Pine Twin Drive-In Theater which was demolished for a condominium development in the late 1980s.
The Lake Drive-In Theater was on Meriden Road (Route 6A, now Route 322) on the Waterbury/Wolcott town line with the theater grounds in Wolcott (see map). It closed in the late 70s or early 80s for a retail development that never materialized. The location is now an overgrown vacant lot.
The Southington Drive-In was a short drive from Waterbury on Route 6A at the bottom of Southington Mountain. It remained in business until 2002.
The Watertown Drive-In on Route 8 proclaimed itself as "New England's Newest and Finest" in 1957.
WATERBURY ON BROADWAY AND ON SCREEN
Waterbury was on stage in Take Me Along, Bob Merillís 1959 musical version of Eugene OíNeillís play Ah Wilderness, set in the early 1900s. Jackie Gleason starred as the boisterous Sid Davis, a reporter for the Waterbury Standard who returns to his small Connecticut home town near Waterbury for the 4th of July festivities. When asked by the townspeople about Waterbury, he tells them that the Waterbury "women are fat in the ankles, and they all kinda droop in the can" and that "the men are all boobs, a bushel of rubes" in the musical number Sid Olí Kid.
Waterbury was also mentioned on Broadway in the 1940s in Death Of A Salesman, written by Arthur Miller. Traveling salesman Willy Loman tells his friends ďAnd then I went to Waterbury. Waterbury is a fine city. Big clock city, the famous Waterbury clock. Sold a nice bill there.Ē
Fear Strikes Out, released in 1957, tells the Hollywood version of the life of Red Sox outfielder and Waterbury native Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) and his rocky relationship with his father (Karl Malden). Piersallís mental breakdown, his treatment and the recovery that allows him to continue to play professional ball are the focus of the film, part of which was filmed in Waterbury.
Stanley & Iris, starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda, was filmed in Waterbury in 1989. During the filming, Waterbury Vietnam veterans picketed the production, protesting Jane Fondaís controversial anti-war activities of a decade and a half earlier. During Fonda's time in the city, veterans organized to make her life miserable. They interrupted the filming by honking horns, waving flags within camera range, and picketing the old Waterbury button-factory building where the filming took place. Although they did not stop the film production, Waterbury vets considered their campaign a success as an exasperated Fonda finally appeared on ABC's 20/20 to publicly apologize to all of the veterans she may have offended during the war.
Waterbury native Nick Apollo Forte had a starring role as Lou Canova in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose in 1984. The legend goes that he didn't audition for the role, and that he'd never seen a Woody Allen film in his life. Supposedly one of Woody's casting agents, in search of someone to play "an overweight, over-the-hill lounge singer" happened to spot Forte's picture on an LP in a record store bargain bin. Forte was sought out and deemed perfect for the role. Broadway Danny Rose was his first and only film appearance.
Shirley Grey was born in Naugatuck CT and moved to Waterbury in 1917. She graduated from Wilby High School in 1919 and began her acting career with Sylvester Poli's stock theater company, The Poli Players', shortly thereafter. While with the Poli Players, she performed in weekly stock performances throughout Poli's chain of theaters, and performed with the Poli Players until 1924. Grey performed in more than 45 films during her brief movie career from 1930 to 1935.
WATERBURY THEATER MEMORIES
From Ed Duff (Kissimmee, FL): I was born and grew up in Waterbury and remember the Palace Theater well. The building took up most of the block it is in and housed, even in the 1940s many stores, including the old Record Shop. There was a shoe shine parlor near the theater entrance, a newspaper and candy store, where we would buy candy before going into the theater. In those days, there was little or no food available inside the theaters. As I remember it the theater had lights for the aisles, and they were a deep amber color, and had other lights which were designed, obviously, by the same person who designed the chandelier and the lighted concave area that it hung from. She was a grand old lady and I remember going to the vaudeville shows there, they were my first live stage shows, and the Plaza Theater that was up the street on the same side was where I first saw a stage play, "Arsenic and Old Lace." Can't remember the year, but there was an accident outside of town, where a vehicle ran into the back of a hay wagon with many high school kids on a hayride. Thanks for the memories.
From Louis Belloisy: I am quite familiar with the old State Theater and its wonderful manageress, Miss Julia Smith. Julia was a retired opera singer and every weekend before the first matinée she would play the house organ for one half hour and sing along with it. She lived in an apartment over the theater with her assistant manager/husband. At the time it was a badge of honor to have been fired by Miss Smith. I also had worked across the street at the Loew's Poli Palace before I came to the State Theater. The State was the Warner Bros theater and the Palace was the MGM theater. There was wonderful competition between both theaters. The State was torn down and a parking lot was put in its place. I attended the show where Rosalind Russell was awarded the key to the city only to have Waterbury torn in two by the disastrous flood of 1955.
From Jim Fleming (Naugatuck, CT): My 50-year-old ticket is yellow, torn and folded to the brink of disintegration. I found the premiere ticket under a rug in my home two years ago. On Aug. 18, 1955, when I was 19, I had a seat on the second balcony of the State Theatre in Waterbury to see the world premiere of the movie, "The Girl Rush." That's what everyone was thinking about. After the movie, a buddy and I chased the car carrying the film's star, Waterbury's own Rosalind Russell, and her co-star, Gloria De Haven. I was in love with Gloria De Haven, and she waved and blew me a kiss.