21. The Wesley Lake Section, Part 12

The Saint James Theater

 

The Saint James Theater was built in 1917, ten years before the Mayfair. Originally, it seated 2,300 people. Renovation, thirty years later, reduced its seating to 1,500.

Image 1.21.1 A 1963 photograph of the Saint James Theater, Cookman Avenue.
The Mayfair is at left. (Photo: Dorn's Photography Unlimited, Red Bank.)

The Saint James was right next to the Mayfair, practically joined to it. It was a white building with elegant deco-like flourishes, mostly in the form of scalloped pilaster-wedges. In contrast to the Mayfair, there was nothing especially elaborate about the exterior of the Saint James; but its whiteness, for me, held a certain appeal. The "color" was interesting because of the building's location. The theater stood on the corner of Cookman Avenue and Saint James Place, the latter a short side street. The shady quality of the side street created, at certain hours, comforting tones in the whiteness of the theater.

More specifically, the building provided a kind of storybook whiteness, reminiscent of certain castles. That's the feeling in recollection. I believe that the thrill in the memory of this shade is related to what was just down the street: blue and sun-glorified Wesley lake. I love standing in the shade of one location and viewing a distant sunny area of another. The side street was a good spot for such observation. And with the Mayfair right next door, how could one's impression be anything less than magical?

The whiteness of the Saint James was carried over into the theater's entrance hall. I believe it was of granite. In retrospect it retains its marble look (I call it mental marble). In the above photo, the ticket booth appears on the outside of the building. It seems to me that it was also accessible to patrons from the inside, though I may be wrong. (Perhaps I'm recalling a gilt door or window on the back of it.) The entrance hall was fairly wide; and patrons walked up a few steps to the lobby. To the left of this raised area, before the lobby doors, there was a small curved white granite or marble counter with a black top.

My memory of the Saint James' interior is less definite than my memory of the Mayfair's. Still, everything I relate seems clear. The mind can play tricks, however, in surprising ways. I will do my best to squeeze out as accurately as possible what my vision tells me.

The long, dim lobby ran north to south and was heavy with old-fashioned rugs and draperies. The long glass candy counter was at left and followed the north-to-south length of the lobby. Behind your left shoulder, as you walked in, was a dark grand staircase that led to the higher regions of the theater. Another such staircase was at the opposite end of the lobby. Draped entrances to the auditorium were at right.

All the theaters smelled the same: buttered popcorn plus that salty-mustiness blended with the very slight scent of cigar smoke. Ah, such was the aroma of Real Life and of Worlds beyond! The perfume of Eternity!

A long mezzanine parlor was at the top of the stairs. Again, everything - the drapes, the sofas, the fixtures - was richly antique, pregnant with cultural depth. The feeling in the Saint James, as in the other theaters, was that of a European opera house. Every night was opening night!

I can say little about the auditorium other than to tell you that you sat facing west. In my mind, it is large and ornately weighted in the fashion of other movie palaces. The proscenium was white and rectangular, I think, with marble effects; it may have echoed the theater's entrance. I'm almost certain that the ceiling boasted a giant rosette of lights. To be sure, the Saint James was one of those magical pools of colored darkness in which an alternate reality thrived. What I wouldn't give to go into them again!

Sometimes the fantasy spilled out. When the 1957 movie Bridge on the River Kwai opened, the Walter Reade company built a $250,000 replica of the bridge used in the movie. It spanned Cookman Avenue from a parking lot to the theater.

Yet another movie palace shares the same general location as the Mayfair and the Saint James. It was called the Lyric, a very interesting little theater. Let's cross shady Saint James Place and walk up half a block. The Lyric is right next to the north side of the Palace Amusements.

 

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