Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Proctor's Theater: 30 Years on Death Row

Reality is finally sinking in for the owners of the old Proctor's Theater building in the heart of downtown Troy, New York -- my old home town. The local paper reports that the city government wants a $15 million grant to redevelop the property, preserving the theater facade but demolishing the interior and replacing it with office and retail space.

I saw a building like that in nearby Schenectady, where the shell of the State Theater stood for years after the actual theater space gave way to a parking lot. It's a cruel illusion of civic vitality, but preserving the vintage facade of the Troy structure is probably the best that can be done, now. Proctor's has been dark since 1977, and experts say that the interior is unsalvagable.

As the name indicates, Proctor's was built as part of a vaudeville circuit back in 1914. It later became part of the RKO theater chain. After the government ordered the studios to give up their theaters, it was part of the local Fabian chain, and passed through other hands before the end. I don't recall whether it was the first theater I visited, but it was either that one or the long-gone Oxford up in Lansingburgh. Those were the only movie houses left in Troy when I was a kid, not counting the Cinema Art, which had evolved from the American Theater to an art house to a porno house. Most of what I saw at the Oxford or Proctor's was kiddie matinees, usually Disney cartoons plus second live-action features that I couldn't stand. I also remember seeing The Man Called Flintstone and Snoopy Come Home on the big screen.

The closest I ever came to a "grindhouse" experience was the Saturday night a babysitter took me out to Proctor's for an AIP double feature of At The Earth's Core and The Conqueror Worm (aka The Witchfinder General). I recall the attacks of pterodactyl-like creatures in the first film, but I slept through most of the other film. From that one I recall only a slow-motion gunshot and a recitation of the Poe poem that AIP superimposed on the British film.

If TV was the mortal blow for many theaters, the arrival of cable TV with HBO was probably the coup de grace for places like Proctor's. Once people could see R-rated content at home there was even less incentive to go downtown to the theater's dubious comforts. Once the place shut down, its location in a dense downtown limited the prospects for revival. It was built at a time when most people were expected to get there by streetcar, in an area that's never been very accommodating for cars. Schenectady has a Proctor's of 1928 vintage that's now the Capital District's prime site for touring Broadway blockbusters; it has a vast parking space in the back. Albany has the Palace, an RKO theater from 1931 that hosts concerts, "Chitlin Circuit" plays and classic films. Troy is a theatrical ghost town. Even the multiplex built into the city's ill-conceived downtown shopping atrium disappeared long ago, while the Cinema Art was finally raided and shut down just a few years ago.

It seems sometimes as if public life has been in retreat for the last 30 years or so, as if a concerted effort had been undertaken to privatize as much of each person's life as possible. Theaters like Proctor's went, the drive-ins went, and even the first generation multiplexes are disappearing. I don't think there was a conspiracy, though I'd make one up for symbolic purposes if I ever write my script or novel about the 1970s. It's most likely just the mindless "creative destruction" of the Market at work. I look at desolate landscapes like downtown Troy and I feel like a crime has taken place, even though I know better. But even if there was no crime, there was death just the same.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Yo, Sammy, it goes like this. I remember seeing "Snoopy Come Home" at the Oxford, too (I think either HSBC or Bank of America occupies that space now). "Man Called Flintstone"? Not so much. I only recall seeing it on TV at least a half-dozen times. Disney films at Proctor's? Definitely. The first thing that pops into my head is the relatively obscure "Charley & the Angel", with Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons, the original "Absent-Minded Professor") & IIRC Harry Morgan (Dragnet, M*A*S*H). I've also seen at least one of the Medfield College movies with Kurt Russell & Joe Flynn. You know Troy's all screwed up when they can't be bothered to consider putting a new multiplex in the city. Gutting a few abandoned buildings would be a good start toward changing all that.....