Monday, September 27, 2010

Commentary: The Atmospheric State

A friend once confided to me that a major goal he hopes to accomplish after he retires is to visit every baseball park in the United States.  I understand his enthusiasm for the sport, of course, but I’d choose an alternative route.  I would tour all the movie palaces that have been left standing, preserved and, in most cases, restored.  My passion for these theaters began at an early age when I lived in the Bronx, and a fast subway ride took me to midtown Manhattan.  Whenever the feature (and stage show) changed at Radio City Music Hall, the Strand, Paramount, Roxy or Capital, I’d be on that train to the city.  I was visiting those theaters as much to gawk at the elaborate architecture as to watch the Rockettes or Frank Sinatra on stage or a vast image of Greer Garson or Tyrone Power on the huge screen.  Of those majestic auditoriums, only the Music Hall, which received a last-minute reprieve several years ago, still stands and thrives.  And it’s comforting to know that the Rockettes continue to kick those shapely legs for cheering audiences in that grand showplace.

But other movie palaces across the nation have been saved and restored too.  The Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, where I ushered one summer during my high school days, is an apt example.  The theater, a perfect illustration of architect John Eberson’s “heavenly atmospherics,” boasted a grand, magnificently cluttered design.  Busts of notables were set in individual recesses along the side walls, stone pigeons assembled around the statues, and vines trailed down the plush separators.  The designer’s masterstroke was a ceiling of moving, puffy white clouds and twinkling stars.  It’s understandable that it was sometimes difficult to keep your eyes on the screen in such a romantic setting.

I was shocked to discover that this grand auditorium had been turned into a tacky multiplex.  And yet this story has a happy ending.  The theater was saved and restored (except for those twinkling stars) to its former grandeur and now functions successfully as a cultural arts center. When I learned that a similar tale could be told about the State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania, I decided to make a visit.

The State’s outer lobby, with its historical appointments and marble floor, is an impressive introduction to the inner, larger vestibule.  In the main foyer, you can visit the Alvin H. Butz Gallery that houses  paintings and sculptures.  Then, of course, there is the meticulously renovated Italian baroque auditorium, where fifteen hundred ticketholders can be seated.  The large stage is flanked by luxuriously appointed boxes.  And the sightlines appear to be excellent from anywhere in the house.  Although I was there primarily to see the theater, the evening provided a bonus.  On the program that night was Steve Martin, an extraordinarily gifted entertainer, who was performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers, an acoustic bluegrass quintet.  The musical numbers were consistently accomplished and (no surprise here) Martin was extraordinarily hilarious: “I walked away with the Grammy for best bluegrass album,” he said, “and then I found out that I actually won it.” It was certainly gratifying to see Martin and his team receive a standing ovation.

Among the performers, shows and acts that are to appear at this grand theater later in the season are Bill Engvall, Jack Hanna, Peter Cincotti, Judy Collins, Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin, Avenue Q, The Kingston Trio, Madama Butterfly, Bobby Collins and The Four Freshman.  And that’s just a partial list.