Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The loss of Ocean City's movie theaters, and what came after

When I read the article which started Sunday's post, and which stated that the Strand and Moorlyn Theatres on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk may have closed for good due to the cost of digital conversion, I found that I had to do a little more digging in my files, memories, and on the internet. I'd known that the Strand had been multiplexed, and I'd already researched the fate of the other Boardwalk movie theaters well over a year ago. But I wanted to know a little more - something wasn't sitting quite right. So here is what I've managed to dig up and my impressions of it all:

When I lived there, there were three other movie houses on the boardwalk. They were all pretty much big old barns, harkening back to the days before tv, when filling a thousand plus seats a couple of times a night wasn't all that difficult for a hot title - everyone went to the movies then. In the 1970's, the economics of running such places tended towards futility. Aside from the Strand, there was also the Moorlyn, the Village, and the Surf.

The Surf as it is today, with a small marquee to list its shops.
There isn't much out there about the Surf. The other three venues were owned by the Shriver family, but the Surf was owned by someone else. I can't even find pictures from its days as a movie house. I don't know what happened or when, but it seems like it was the first to go. Built as a venue for stage shows and vaudeville in the early 1900's, the building now houses a mini-mart of stores. It was where I saw "Woodstock" on its original release, projected on a screen so large that any of the three side by side panels the movie often used would easily dwarf most screens of our day. I seem to recall it being twinned early on, and that it stayed open at least one winter.

It was there in 1970 that I saw a double bill, a re-issue, of  'Gold Diggers of 1935', and 'Footlight Parade', two of those slightly insane black and white Busby Berkeley 1930's musicals. The Gold Diggers movie includes the stunning "Lullaby of Broadway" number, one of the all time great musical hallucinations. By the time I left the theater for my walk home along a deserted boardwalk, I expected the path before me, as well as the nearby buildings, to turn into hundreds of dancing girls swirling in geometric patterns.

If my memory about the Surf being twinned is correct, then it must have been owned by the Frank family as part of their Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey circuit of theaters. The Franks get the dubious credit for creating the first twinned cinema and the multiplex.

And I definitely remember that the Franks and the Shrivers did not get along.

The other three venues were all owned by the Shriver family. Shrivers Salt Water Taffy, as well as their fudge, and the factory store are a longtime mainstay of the boardwalk. In fact, it was the first buisness on the boardwalk. It is also the home of the best salt water taffy I've ever had to this day.  If you drive across the main bridge to the island and continue directly to the Boardwalk, on your right will be the Strand and on your left is Shrivers. The family sold off the taffy business in 1959, but kept the theaters, several other businesses, and a good deal of prime real estate.

The Ocean City Boardwalk in 1964

The last of the Shrivers was Mrs. Helen Shriver Schilling. She, more than anyone else, was responsible for maintaining much of the older more genteel character of Ocean City and the boardwalk. But Ocean City fell into the hands of people who changed zoning regulations that allowed high rises in, and etc. They destroyed Ocean City, and turned it into an atmosphere redolent of cheap honky-tonks. In 1989, Mrs. Schilling sold the theaters. Her one proviso was that they not be sold to the Frank family, but to someone who would preserve them. They sold for over three million dollars. The buyer did not show up at the closing It later turned out that the Franks had bought the theaters through subterfuge. When they trashed the Strand, it was one of the Frank family who personally ripped down the silk main curtain with the image of Poseidon, tore it to shreds, and threw it into a dumpster behind the theater.

Somewhere along the way the Moorlyn was turned into a twin. In my day, it had a glorious neon marquee, which was preserved even after the initial conversion.

In the 1920's and 1930's, the Moorlyn had an upstairs ballroom. It had a vaudeville stage where the likes of W.C. Fields used to appear. Eventually, the Franks tore it all down and replaced it with a multiplex, with expensive apartments where the stage and ballroom had been/ Here's the new building on the Boardwalk, with a type of signage Mrs. Schilling would have abhorred:

Saddest of all is the fate of the Village Theater. The Village started out as Doughty's pier, sticking out into the ocean. It had a bowling alley, and was home to vaudeville and silent movies. Over the years, the ocean retreated. In 1927, much of that portion of the Boardwalk was destroyed in a terrible fire - but the pier survived. The new boardwalk was built where the ocean had been, and the entrance to the pier was changed to what had been the building's rear. For the remodeling work the theater, now situated alongside a boardwalk off-ramp, had sound equipment installed. An ingenious facade covered the awkward fit of the pier and its new circumstances, designed to resemble the buildings of an old fishing village.

The Village interior made geart use of wood. It was the smallest of the Shriver's Ocean City theaters, but it was a prestige house. It operated continuously until the sale to the Frank family in 1989. In June of 1990, it burned to the ground.

When Mrs. Schilling died, she left the town land she owned on the ocean side of the boardwalk, with a proviso that it never be built upon. The town is now trying to change that. She also left several lots near the boardwalk that are used for visitor parking, and did it in a way that the town hasn't been able to build there yet. And, she had set up her her estate in such a way that executors were instructed to offer the long time tenants of her boardwalk store front buildings a chance to buy their spaces as a co-op. All but one did. They were thus  preserved and saved from the garish primary colors cheap plastic world that the boardwalk became; a gentle reminder of a time when people cared about their community, when life was about more than a quick buck.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The passing of celluloid dreams

Things change.

My first music reproduction device was a 78rpm kid's record player made out of tin.
As a child, I had a record player
exactly like this one.
Before long records changed to 45rpm, then to 33 1/3 long playing lps. Soon there was high fidelity and then there was  stereo. All that in the space of 10 years Flash forward past home tape recorders, cassettes and the birth of mix tapes (sigh), CDs with clean but cold sound, to mp3s which allowed thousands of songs to be stored on a device the size of a slightly thick playing card, to mp3s which must be paid for and which have licensing and copy protections in them so you can't share them with your friends. It's a wonder they haven't come up with a way to make you pay every time you play a particular song.

TV in my lifetime changed from a small (except we didn't know it was small then) black and white flickering picture to large 19 inch sets that were designed as furniture for the living room. Color arrived in the mid to late 1960's (now there's a loaded statement).

Sometime in the early 1980's, I can remember walking the streets of Greenwich Village the night the Public Broadcasting Service presented a Metropolitan Opera performance "simulcast" in stereo on local radio stations and hearing what was it, La Boheme?, wafting through the windows of every single block on my way home. Then ABC began simulcasting music videos late on Friday nights. It wasn't long before tv sets had stereo built in. Along the way, there was BetaMax, VHS, Laser Discs, DVDs, and now we have available very large wall sized flat screen high definition surround sound stereo devices that mimic and rival the quality of movie theaters. And there's the rub.

Over the years, film has come in many sizes and formats. But it was film, celluloid. The images would be projected onto large screens, 20 to 40 feet wide. Those images had a special kind of magic. They captured and inspired our imaginations. And those images have changed over the years. Film stock used to be nitrate, which gave a special glow.

35mm nitrate image from the silent German film "Metropolis"

Nitrate film stock was unstable and flammable. Safety stock came in, but the rich blacks and silver glow of the images were gone. Stunning technicolor images (also with rich blacks) gave way to more economical and less complicated Eastman stock and its imitators, in which the colors were more subdued and quickly faded. There have been any number of other changes, from the size of the film itself to special lenses for widescreen, stereo, multi-channel  stereo Sensurround, various 3D systems, and etc.With each change, the way we perceive the image itself, and the story we are watching, has changed. But the image was still on celluloid.

Image from a 1950s era 35mm IB Technicolor print
Image from the Blu Ray DVD "restoration"
(Thanks to David Bordwell's website on cinema from which I purloined these two images.)
Many movie theaters now project digital images. Celluloid is being phased out. This was all predictable. Indeed, the only surprise to me is that it took so long. When I was put out of a job in film distribution in the mid 1990's, I fully expected celluloid to be completely gone within 10 years. But the time is now. Movie theaters are already having problems getting 35mm prints. There is about a year left. Theaters must either pay about $70,000.00 per screen to covert to digital, or they will find themselves out of business.

I can't begin to estimate how many 35mm prints in
cans like this I've slung around over the years
Most film images wash over you at the rate of 24 frames per second. There is a momentary display of a picture in a concrete all there at once image, interspersed by moments of darkness as a flywheel blocks the light while the next picture is brought before the light source, aperture, and lens. Persistence of vision creates the moving image.  (Ingmar Bergman used to note that people seeing his movies were really paying to sit in 20 minutes of darkness. He wasn't talking about his themes.) Digital images, on the other hand, are based on a scan line. One line is filled in by electrons hitting a display, skipping a line, going on to the next line, skipping a line all the way down an image. The electron beam then goes back and fills in the missing lines. Even though this happens very rapidly, the display never has a complete image on it - it is a mental process which puts this picture together. That process puts the viewer into an alpha state, accepting what is shown in a much more uncritical and relaxed fashion. This was detailed in a mid 1970s book "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television", which claimed that tv was, therefore, lulling people into passivity ripe for autocratic rule. This effect is not based on content - it is based on the psychological effects of watching tv - the problem here is the medium itself.

Aside from those scary implications, part of the sadness I feel over this change concerns the auditorium experience of going to the movies. Once, there were giant screens fronting a sea of seats in "an acre of dreams". As television took hold, the theaters became smaller, there were less seats, the auditoriums were less grand. When I was a kid, one entered the theater to music playing softly in the background. There were curtains in front of the screen. At the appointed time, the house lights would dim, the music would swell, colored lights would engulf the main curtain which would open as images began to appear on the screen. An inner curtain would close after the coming attractions, newsreels, cartoons and short subjects and reopen for the feature. Movie going was an experience, a shared worship. Today's smaller auditoriums still offer a shared experience, but the ceremony, the ritual of presentation, is gone. Most of the big old houses have been multiplexed, losing their balconies, their size, their prestige and their showmanship in the process.
(Check out my post on one of the great movie palaces, The Roxy.)

I could go on, but I won't. This article started because I looked something up. I stumbled upon a news story that the Strand Theatre in Ocean City, New Jersey might close for good - unable to afford the cost of digital conversion. It currently has five screens and is a shadow of its former self. I saw many a movie there before it was multiplexed. It was one of the homes, nay, the temples, of my celluloid dreams.

The Strand as it is now.

Back in its glory days when the Strand was new.

One entered through those doors, walked down the hallway past illuminated pictures of movie stars (concession stand on the photo left, which would have been on the right as you entered.)

Even the back of the auditorium was a grand and huge space. Well, the Strand did seat 1,200 after all.

As you entered the auditorium, art deco lighting greeted you.

The auditorium
Close up of the design on the main curtain
The Strand Theater has been listed for sale. I want it to survive, but its time has gone and it really ceased to exist years ago. In memory (was it real?) I see myself saunter past on a rainy windswept night, the glow of light reflected on the wet boardwalk, lost forever in my own noir world of blue neon dreams.