Fairly recently I reestablished contact, after nearly 50 years, with a friend from my grade-school/cub-scout/college days, Ted Bacino. I have often said that the mark of a true friend is the ability, after not having been in contact for years, to effortlessly pick up where it left off. Such is the case with Ted, and I have him to thank for reopening long-closed doors of memory.
We’ve been, for the past couple of exchanges, talking about our home town, Rockford, Illinois, and what we remember of it in the 1940s?1950s. We got to talking of Rockford’s movie theaters, and the nostalgia, for me, is almost palpable.
When we were growing up, Rockford was an industrial town of 90,000; the second largest machine-tool producer in the country, which was a source of civic pride. (Machine tools are the machines that make the parts for other machines.) We had ten movie theaters: The Coronado, Midway, Times, Palace, State, Rex, Capitol, and Rialto, with the post-WWII additions of the Auburn and, in the suburb of Loves Park, the Park. Both the Auburn and the Park were modified Quonset huts.
The Coronado was the city’s flagship movie house in the Grand Dame lush tradition of Movie Palaces.
By far the largest of Rockford’s theaters, it had a Moorish theme, with a grand, red-carpeted staircase sweeping up to the huge balcony. The walls of the auditorium were made to resemble a Moorish town, with small balconied building facades extending out above the seats. The ceiling was painted an evening-sky blue, with stars.
It and its closest rival, The Midway, showed nothing but the biggest, first run movies. The Coronado was on the west side of the Rock River, which cuts the city in half, and the Midway…which had elements of San Simeon in its exterior design…was on the east side, across from the city’s largest hotel and tallest building, the 12-story Faust.
The Times, just a block south of the Coronado, had an art deco facade and, while probably only a third the size of the Coronado or Midway, was one of my favorites. It played the less-than-blockbuster first-runs and occasionally a second run of a popular film which had first played the Coronado or Midway.
We had a vaudeville theater, too: the aptly named Palace. I don’t know what circuit it was on, but I’ve read and heard that Rockford was a really tough town to play and was noted in vaudeville circles for the audience “sitting on its hands.” (When I was growing up, Rockford was at least 75 percent Swedish, a nationality not known for its bubbly good humor.) The Palace had seen much better days by the time I came along, but still had vaudeville shows on weekends, between showings of not-quite-stellar films. Ted reminded me that they even had their own version of the Rockettes: the Palace Theater (pronounced “Thee-A-ter”) Adorables, and the orchestra was under the baton of Paul Walker. You could time it to go in in time for a vaudeville show, sit through the movie, then see another vaudeville.
The State, on the west bank of the Rock River and on State Street, Rockford’s main drag, was actually two buildings. You entered the lobby, then went down a long hallway to the auditorium in the other building. The State was very popular with kids, since it showed lots of westerns, and on weekends featured cliff-hanger serials like “Sheena, the Jungle Princess” and Gene Autry adventures. One of the first times I was allowed to go to the movies by myself, my mom was furious with me when I sat through the film, short subject, newsreel, and cartoon twice without telling her in advance. Hey, I didn’t know I was going to do it!
The other theaters were in a descending order of importance to me, and were largely undistinguished. I don’t think I ever went to the Rex, which was far off the beaten path on the city’s east side, and the Capitol and Rialto, on the west side south of downtown, were within a block of one another and had a reputation for being rather sleazy.
So, you see how a simple mention of just one movie house so many years ago opened up a floodgate of memories? Oh, yes, and next to the Times was a small Caramel-Corn shop. I can still smell it, and both my mouth and my mind water at the memory.
This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, "Short Circuits," available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com.