I can’t begin to count how many movie theaters I’ve been to in my lifetime. There have been spectacular ones, like Radio City Music Hall in New York City and the Odeon Leicester Square in London, and rinky-dink ones, like the little shoebox one (also in NYC) where I saw the Tower Records documentary, All Things Must Pass. But when I think of my fondest memories of movie theaters, I always go back to my hometown one, the Victoria Theater in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania.
I grew up in that small town, with a population hovering around 10,000 people in the 1960s, my decade of record. Tamaqua had faded a bit from being a coal mining town and a train center and was on a long, slow slide. But growing up there was, at times, wonderful (minus the usual angst and anger of the universal experience of growing up). And it was definitely there that I discovered the joys of going to the movies.
At one point, Tamaqua had two movie house, the Vic (as we called it) and the Majestic. The latter was a theater attached to a hotel, and I vaguely remember seeing a movie there right before it closed. I think it was the 1961 Disney film Babes in Toyland, with teen stars Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands, kind of a rough remake of the Laurel and Hardy classic March of the Wooden Soldiers, which scared the bejesus out of me as a kid when it aired on TV at Christmas each year. Once the Majestic closed, the Victoria became, by default, the movie theater of choice for us Tamquans. Besides, it was easier to get to … you didn’t have to try and cross the dreaded Five Points, an intersection at the center of town, where Route 209 crossed Route 309 and Broad and Center Streets converged, with a rogue Mauch Chunk Street branching off to continue 209’s passage out of town.
I don’t remember what the first movie I saw at the Victoria was, but I know they had Saturday afternoon kids’ matinees. It was there that I first experienced Agent 007 … Bond, James Bond. They say your favorite Bond is your first Bond, and I lucked out. In 1964 I saw Goldfinger and was blown away (and continue to be so even today) by Sean Connery in what is still—to me, at least—the best Bond movie ever. Thunderball followed a year later, and I saw You Only Live Twice at the Valley Drive-In with my parents in 1966. (Tamaqua had three nearby drive-ins: the Valley—long gone—north of town on the road to Hazelton; the Mahoning—still open with a cult following—in Mahoning Township, south of town on the road to Lehighton; and the Laurel—closed—near Hazelton). The drive-ins were always a part of summer movie-going.
But the Victoria looms large in my mind and always will. By the time the 1960s rolled around and my movie-going began in earnest, it was already a bit frowsy around the edges. I remember the balcony being closed off for safety reasons and you couldn’t sit in the seating section closest to the screen, supposedly due to rats (I swear that was the reason, although my mind boggles in this day and age how a movie theater with rats would be allowed to stay open). I also remember its soda machine. The Vic didn’t have a typical fountain system of serving sodas from behind the refreshments counter; instead it had a standalone machine in the lobby. You put in a dime and a paper cup crashed into the opening, sometimes landing perfectly, other times, flying to the floor. If you were lucky, the cup stayed put and a stream of carbonation poured in from one side, while a flavor poured in from the other, seamlessly mixing into the soda of your choice (or an approximation there-of). Looking back, there was a certain charm to it, I guess, even if you sometimes ended up with a sticky cup—or worse yet—watching the two streams empty into the machine because your cup failed to fall or fell out of the machine. The theater did, however, have a refreshments stand with fresh (or nearly fresh) popcorn and a selection of candy, usually manned by a team of indifferent and surly teenagers, in the grand old movie theater tradition.
Beyond the Bond movies, I remember seeing The Guns of Navarone on a warm summer weeknight with my buddy Bert. The film ran over two and a half hours, which put us in violation of Tamaqua’s curfew. The curfew, a fire siren that blared each night at 9:45, signaled a 15-minute grace period for anyone under the age of 16 to get the hell home. The movie let out just at 9:45, causing young Bert and me to panic and run home like two cowering prison inmates who just busted out of the joint. Bert lived close-by, while I had a bit of a trek to get home and a hard time explaining to my mom just what I was doing out so late. She definitely didn’t buy “the movie ran late” explanation.
The Victoria faded over the years and closed and opened and closed again, finally giving up the ghost in the early 1970s when the condition of the roof became an issue. I remember The Godfather playing forever in the theater’s final days and me being stood-up on a first-time date to go see it. And when they demolished it in 1983, after almost 70 years in existence, a huge hole was carved into the center of Tamaqua, both literally and figuratively. In my wildest dreams, I fancied getting into the theater before it was gone and finding stacks upon stacks of movie posters and lobby cards, including all my favorites: the Universal monster films, James Bond, and the Marx Brothers. I don’t know what they discovered before they tore it all down and what was kept and what was lost.
But I do know that a movie theater is a part of the heart of any community. Once you tear it down, you take that away forever. In this age of streaming and the comfort of viewing first-run movies on your living room couch, I don’t think many people get that.
For more on the Victoria Theater, check out CinemaTreasures.org