First Reader and I took a trip on Saturday to an Antique sale being held at the old Stanley Theater in Utica, NY. It was our first time at the Stanley, but probably not the last, since these days it’s a venue for concerts and special events. It started out as one of the grand movie palaces of the earlier days of motion pictures, back in 1928. The first movie ever shown there was a silent picture titled Ramona, starring Delores del Rio, fairly appropriate since the style of the theater itself is described as “Mexican Baroque.” The exterior (which, alas, I didn’t get a shot of) is sort of a cross between the Alamo and a papal palace.
While the theater started as a movie palace, it didn’t stay that way exclusively. Concerts and special appearances started very early on, as it hosted everyone from Jeanette McDonald to Gene Autry. The Stanley narrowly avoided destruction when all the movie palaces in the theater district were bulldozed in urban renewal projects of the 1960’s and 70’s, owing to the fact that it had been built four blocks away. It was later taken over by a local arts group and now serves as host to the Mohawk Valley Ballet and Utica Symphony, among others. Its stage has seen everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to George Carlin, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Third Eye Blind.
Maybe I was more impressed with the Stanley than I should have been. After all, in the early days of motion pictures nearly every theater was a grand palace. I have vivid memories of the old Temple Theater back in Merdian, MS, which was still showing movies when I was a kid and was designed to resemble an Egyptian palace. It’s still there, I believe, though taken over by the Shriners as a meeting place years ago. It’s just that there are so few of them left, and with modern mutli-plexes and narrow seats it’s hard to remember what an event going to a movie actually was back in the day. It’s good to have these reminders, especially when they serve as arts hubs for entire communities.