With the kind permission of Brian Bukantis (Arena Publishing) and the author Dr. Vollin (Freddie Poe), I'm happy to be able to reprint Dr. V's article, They Tore Down Paradise...And Put Up a Parking Lot, which originally appeared in the May issue of Movie Collector's World, No. 683, 2005. Here's Part 3.
THE PARK - Corner of Park Ave and Webster Square - Seating Capacity 750
Not to be confused with the Park Theater located on Front Street, this theater sat at the end of Main Street, on the outskirts of downtown. After a 22 year run as the Park, it was the first theater in this area to be bought by the Redstone Company. It was closed in 1961 and slated for renovation. The name was changed to Cinema One and it was the first modern movie theater in the area (circa 1963).
In the late 1990s Redstone closed all of its interests in the Worcester area and combined them in a giant 18 film megaplex theater called Showcase North located on the outskirts of Worcester. The theaters being closed were the Showcase Cinemas, Cinema One, and the White City. The original Park Theater building is now a vacant lot.
THE PLYMOUTH - 261 Main Street - Seating Capacity 2,700
The second largest movie house in Worcester was the Plymouth Theater. The Plymouth, a grand old theater heavily detailed in Egyptian architecture, made its debut in 1928. It had a huge stage and a proscenium to match. It played to both film and live acts. You could hurt your neck looking up at the ceiling. The projectionist booth sat 60 feet above stage level and boasted a 46 x 95 foot screen. In the late 1950s Boston millionaire Elias Loew purchased the Plymouth and it became known as Loew’s Plymouth Theater.
The last movie I saw at the Plymouth before it closed for renovation in 1965 was Monsters Crash The Pajama Party featuring a live spook show. When they were ripping down the old Plymouth marquee in 1966, a ghostly voice from Hollywood’s past spoke out from beneath it, reading “ Worcesters Newest And Most Modern Playhouse- Talking Pictures And Sound Films-Vitaphone”. Kind of eerie, eh? I wish I was wise enough at the time to have asked for that sign as it was just discarded.
While awaiting the completion of the renovation, the Plymouth moved its staff to the vacant Philip's Theater on Front Street. The Plymouth re-opened with its new doors in 1967, sans the old Plymouth sign. It now read E.M. Loew’s in yellow and red neon.
In 1973, E.M. Loew's closed once again due to the more modern cinemas opening up on the outskirts of Worcester. The Loew’s reopened again in 1975 featuring Earthquake in Sensurround, only to close a short time after. Earthquake was the last big rumble the Plymouth ever made as a movie theater.
The Loew's went through another renovation once more, ripping out the movie screen and changing the format to a rock club venue. This was pretty cool at the time, since I personally was in to the rock scene in the 1970s. I got to see artists and acts that I probably never would have gotten a chance to see elsewhere.
At Loew’s I got to hear Eric Burdon, Alvin Lee, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Kay & Steppenwolf, The Outlaws, The B-52s, and I got the catering contract (via my father’s Italian restaurant) for Frank Zappa’s gig. Zappa wanted one tray of veal cutlets, one tray of veal parmigiana and one tray of pasta.
No longer owned by the Loew family, the building that housed the Plymouth Theater still stands on its original site and is now a night club called The Palladium. Thrilling.
THE FAMILY - 156 Front Street- Seating Capacity - 1,000
Originally called the Majestic, then later the Family, the once famous Front Street theater closed in the late 1950s and reopened in 1964 as the Philip's, also part of the E.M. Loew chain. The Philip's was located just across the street from my father’s restaurant and bar. When the Philip's reopened for business, the seating capacity had been reduced from 1,000 to 450. This was due to removing the first 12 rows of seats and the complete balcony. I saw Fireball 500 and Hot Rods To Hell there in the mid-1960s.
Rather than have me hanging around the bar all day listening to drunks or sitting in the booth building Aurora monster models, getting glue and paint on his tabletops, my father would give me a dollar and send me off to the movies. This is how I became a movie fanatic. Being just a stone’s throw from five or six movie theaters, I spent the better part of the 1960’s in these “old dark houses”.
In the late 1960s, the Phillips Theater, like my father’s restaurant, became the hideous victim of a massive redevelopment. The city decided to tear down Front Street and erect a Galleria that would supposedly boost the city’s wealth and prosperity. It broke my heart to see Front Street torn down. I was always against it. Of course, who was I? I was only about 12 at the time and my opinion didn't carry much weight.
This was the beginning of the end for downtown Worcester and the movie theater palaces as I knew them. Today, in 2005, thirty years later, the city has finally come to the realization that the Galleria, now called the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets, was a mistake of giant proportion and are now ripping it down and restoring Front Street back to its original state.
I wonder, do you think the neighborhood movie theater will ever come back?
THE ELM - Corner of Elm and Main Streets - Seating Capacity 2,200
This is another historic theater that served as the inspiration for this article. The Elm was one of the classiest movie houses of its day, showing films like Gone With The Wind to sellout audiences in 1939. Archive photos show patrons lined up on Elm Street, extending around the corner all the way down Main Street, waiting to enter. Bob Hope once played the Elm as an unknown vaudevillian.
The Elm opened in 1912 with Silvester Poli in attendance, and continued entertaining movie goers until 1959, when it closed forever. The Elm, along with the Poli Palace and the Plaza, was originally owned by Sylvester Poli of New Haven Connecticut. In the late 1920s Poli sold his theater chain to Fox, and then Fox sold it to Loew’s of New York, an MGM subsidiary, who changed the name to Loew's - Poli. While he was no longer an owner, Poli's name was retained on the marquee by terms of the sales agreement.
Poli received 30 million dollars for his theaters, not a bad amount of money in the depression era. At one time, Poli owned 18 theaters in Massachusetts and Connecticut, three of which were in Worcester, making him the top theater man in New England. His Plaza theater, located across from City Hall, closed in 1941 to become the site of F.W. Woolworth's 5&10.
In 1961, the city planned to level the old Elm St. Theater to make way for a new motor hotel. Motor hotel was a fancy 1950s name for a parking garage. Why would you destroy a historical landmark to construct a parking lot? A real hotel maybe, but a motor hotel? The demolition crew got underway and quickly tore down the Elm. Silvester Poli, who died in 1937, would have been rolling in his grave if he had seen what Worcester did to his famed Elm St. Theater. After the demolition, the actual garage structure never materialized and the site is now a parking lot, holding a mere 15 cars at best.
I have lived in Worcester for almost 50 years. I never could stomach Worcester logic. It’s nauseating. Shame on me for never leaving this barren, god-forsaken place. They tore down a movie theater paradise to put up a parking lot.THE POLI PALACE - Franklin Square/Federal Square - Seating Capacity 3,200
My personal all-time favorite theater in Worcester was the Poli Palace, also known as Loew’s- Poli Palace.
Originally the home of the Franklin Square Theater and later the Grand, Poli purchased the building in the early 1920s with the intent of creating another one of his movie palaces. An Italian immigrant, he came to America in 1881 at the age of 23 and got his start in the business working at the Eden Muse theater in New York. Poli became famous for his grandiose-styled theaters. Richly decorated in Italian and old world architecture, the Palace featured bronze-framed doors, plush carpets, cut glass mirrors, crystal chandeliers, marble pillars and staircases, giant velvet drapery, and a massive and highly ornate domed ceiling. Poli's intent was to make the Palace the biggest and best movie house Worcester had ever seen. And that he did.
On November 15th 1926, the Poli Palace had its grand opening, playing to a standing room only crowd of 3,500. The opening night attractions featured George Coo’s Petite Revue which was a five act Vaudeville bill, followed by Adolphe Menjou starring in The Ace Of Cads accompanied by Cecil Bailey on the Palace’s monster-sized organ, and a 10 piece orchestra led by Fred Valva.
Opening night was a great success and the rest is history. All the big stars graced the Palace, both on the stage and on the screen. Milton Berle played there as did George Burns and Gracie Allen. Palace regulars included Trixie Friganza, Doc Rockwell and George Price, the Fred Waring Orchestra, Ina Ray Hutton and her all girl band, Pegleg Bates, Pat Rooney, Eva Tanguay, Hildegarde, Dorothy Lamour, Gilda Gray, and Belle Baker.
By 1939 Loew’s had bought the Poli theater chain and the Poli Palace shared its name with the Loew Company (not to be confused with Elias Loew of Boston, who later owned the Plymouth and the Fine Arts theaters). The old Poli Palace sign came down and the new Loew’s - Poli went up. It was still fondly referred to as the Palace until 1967 when the Loew family sold the theater to the Redstone Company (now National Amusements) for renovation. Redstone, which already owned the ahead-of its-time Cinema One at Webster Square (formerly the Park) was buying up Worcester theaters and modernizing them. In 1968, the totally revamped Palace opened as the Showcase Cinemas, now featuring 2 screens on split levels.
The Showcase premiered with a re-release of Gone With The Wind and William Castle’s Rosemary’s Baby playing to a mere 1,700: a far cry from Poli’s grand opening of 3,700 some 42 years earlier.
I remember running down to the Showcase after school one afternoon in 1973 to see the re-release of The House Of Wax In 3-D, the last great horror movie I saw in that theater, and The Exorcist. The “last picture show” for the Showcase Cinemas was held in 1998, when Redstone closed their downtown theaters and moved to the megaplex format.
The Poli Palace was where I fell in love with the movie poster format of advertising. No theater that I can remember boasted more poster art than the Palace. They put everything up: the one sheets, the lobby cards, the inserts, door panels, banners, and stills. They had all kinds of display frames in the outdoor lobby. Any time I left my father's restaurant, I was supposed to stay on Front Street, but I would often sneak across the Worcester Common and head down Main Street to the Palace, to stare in awe at the lobby posters, which are now a long lost art form.
Long live the Poli Palace!
Read Part 4 next Monday...