In the first part of this nostalgia piece, I recounted how a famous, Oscar-winning director — Elia Kazan, the man behind such all-time classics as "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" — and his wife, the actress and filmmaker Barbara Loden, visited the Irving Theater one night in 1970 to watch a reel of her movie "Wanda." Loden was shooting the picture in the area, and I was at the theater that night — as I was so many other nights back then — with my uncle Gerard, who was the projectionist.
This was in the days of what is now commonly referred to as "Old Carbondale." To many city residents today, that entire era is but a distant memory, if not completely unknown. But I lived through it, so as Maurice Chevalier sang in the MGM musical "Gigi" — "Ah, yes, I remember it well."
As you get older, you find that you remember the people and places of your past quite fondly, and I remember those days as a wonderful time in the Pioneer City. The town was bustling back then, so much so that we had a taxi station in the center of town with a dispatcher on duty and several cabs coming and going at any one time. Today, that taxi station is an abandoned, boarded-up building (located next to Price Insurance on Salem Ave.). But I can't walk by that building without remembering sitting inside as a kid on one of the benches drinking a Coke that I had gotten from the soda machine and waiting for the dispatcher to tell me that my taxi had pulled in.
Across the street from the taxi station was Newberry's, the big downtown department store. That's where I got to see Santa Claus every Christmas season, along with all the other children of Carbondale, in long lines sort of like the one Ralphie and his little brother ended up in for one scene of a favorite film of mine, "A Christmas Story."
Around the corner (where Rite-Aid is now) was the Big Chief food market, where my uncle Jim worked as a butcher and would always give us the choicest meats to sample. Further down the road from Newberry's and the taxi station was the Salem Diner (across from where Manhattan Manor now stands), where we got great burgers — my dad worked there as a short-order cook for a time when I was a child. Just around the corner, where there is now a doctor's office, was the place where the huge City Christmas Tree was erected each yuletide season. And, of course, further up Dundaff St. — at the railroad crossing — is where the viaduct towered over the tracks (since my family lived on the West Side in the earliest part of my childhood, I walked or rode over it countless times before it was finally torn down).
Page 2 of 4 - But the center of my world was the Irving. Not only did my uncle work there as the projectionist, but my great aunt Kay worked in the ticket booth and my aunt Carol at the candy counter. To this day, I still find it strange having to pay money to get into the movies, since for the first half of my life I never did — not at the Irving, nor at any of the other theaters where my uncle worked after that, such as the Capitol in Honesdale, the Strand and Comerford in Scranton, and the Viewmont Mall cineplex on the highway. Those theaters are all gone now, but I remember them like it was yesterday.
I started seeing movies at the Irving in the late 1960s. Mom used to take my sister Kelly, brother Jimmy and me to see movies there all the time. We saw a number of Disney live-action films, which were very popular back then, like "Snowball Express" and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones," as well as Disney animated movies like "The Jungle Book" and "Sword In the Stone."
The movie that made the biggest impression on me, as an eight-year-old boy, was a Disney feature that was shown there in 1972 called "The World's Greatest Athlete." The film starred Jan-Michael Vincent as a jungle boy with superhuman abilities who single-handedly revives the entire sports program of a small college with a long history of losing. It played for seven nights at the Irving and I went to see it all seven nights.
The Irving is where I developed a lifelong love of movies, and also the Capitol because that's where I saw some classic movies like W.C. Fields in "My Little Chickadee" as well as the new releases. Thanks to my uncle and these theaters, my love for movies went mostly toward the classics (the ones made in his youth, not mine). That can be traced back to when he first started working at the Irving and honed his own passion as an avid movie buff.
He began as an usher in 1955 when a Fred Astaire musical "Daddy Long Legs" was showing, but it didn't do much business at all. The Farrells owned the theater at that time, and they knew their customers — so when Gerard couldn't understand why people weren't showing up to see such a wonderful picture, he asked them about it.
"This isn't a Fred Astaire town," Joe Farrell said of Carbondale.
"It's a Randolph Scott town," he said of the Western star.
When I wrote a classic film book on 1939, still considered the greatest year ever for films, I included in it a chapter on the Irving and did a great deal of research at that time on the theater where I had spent (some would say misspent) a significant part of my childhood. That's when I learned that it had been named for Washington Irving.
Page 3 of 4 - The theater was built in 1922-23 by the Comerford Theaters chain and, like so many "movie palaces" of that time, it was lavishly decorated. In its early days, vaudeville and live performances took place on its stage — the great actor Lionel Barrymore played there as did comic Milton Berle (although his material was considered "too risque," so he was asked by management to leave). That was before he became famous as "Uncle Milty" on TV in the early days of that medium during the '50s.
Yes, vaudeville was very big in the area back when the Irving was built, and that's where Berle and so many other comedians, even silent film stars like Buster Keaton, got their start. That's why the town of Scranton often came up as a gag line in the films of former vaudevillians like Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis (the people of Scranton had a reputation as a particularly tough crowd among the comedians who performed there).
Then came the Golden Age of Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s, which was a golden age for the Irving and so many other community theaters across the country. During that era, the studio system was still in place so the number of motion pictures being produced annually was far greater than it is today. Thus, movies would play one or two days at most. Only the big blockbusters (like "The Ten Commandments" or "The Sound of Music") would play four days, an eternity back then! And it usually took at least two years for those movies to make it to Carbondale. For instance, "Gone With The Wind," which was made in 1939, didn't play at the Irving until 1941.
Yet with the collapse of the studio system, the movie theaters fell on hard times and the Irving was no exception. By the end, it was showing some abysmal movies like the long-forgotten "Tomb of the Blind Dead" (the last film to play there in 1973) which ran for an astounding eight days!
The Irving was demolished in the spring of 2003, and I went inside to take one last look at the dilapidated structure with a gaping hole in its roof before they razed it. That brought back a lot of memories, looking at the broken-down and weather-beaten staircase I had run up and down so many times as a kid, going up into the balcony and all the way to the top of the theater and its projection booth where my uncle worked.
I had asked Gerard that spring if he wanted to go in with me and take one last look, but he declined. He said it would have broken his heart and that he preferred to always remember the Irving the way it was, back in its heyday.
Walking out that day in 2003, I had to agree with him. And now that the Pioneer Plaza is standing at that same site, and the decline of the 1970s which started Carbondale on a downward spiral is being slowly replaced by a renewed commitment to development on Main Street, it remains ever more true.
Page 4 of 4 - For those of us who lived in "Old Carbondale" and loved the Irving, the structure itself and that particular period of time are gone for good.
But the memories will last for as long as we live.