Our private tours of New York City will take us past some of my old haunts: Theaters where I toiled as a movie projectionist, long before I found my calling as a guide.
Before Forty-Second Street became what it is today, it contained row after row of theaters with illustrious histories and lavish appointments. Most are gone; some have been restored to their original glory. On a NYC tour I can show you where they stood, and tell you stories that no one else can.
Come on a private guided tour of NYC with me. Journey back through time!
By mid-afternoon I was crawling up the walls, desperate for human contact, my one and only option was a visit to the concession stand to buy a piece of candy. I’d look forward to a little chat with the geriatric candy lady, but she had zero interest in anything I had to say. She’d nod her head, go “um hum.” I tried it all; movies, current events, history, family, science. “um hum” was what I got. My other co-worker was her son, wasn’t much of a talker either; but was extremely protective of his mom, the candy lady. If he sniffed me downstairs he’d stick close to the popcorn machine to make sure I didn’t get out-of-line. Eventually, if I got too persistent he’s wander over and say, very formally.
“May I help you?” Like he’d never seen me before. He’d turn and bark at his mother. “Fix the candy ma!’’ “I said “fix the candy ma, it looks like your bedroom”
Her bedroom, Jesus! I fixed my minds eye on a sea of candy bars; I in visioned her getting out bed, putting on her bunny slippers on and shuffling to the bathroom, her feet moving through an ocean of tinfoil. I put that out of my mind. I realized that my two partners in time, the total population of my world were not going to throw out any floatation device for me to grab. I was on my own! I shifted gears and tried to engage the manager in some chit-chat, I poked him repeatedly, trying to make contact, to crack his shell, he wouldn’t even talk sports for god sakes!. I don’t know how he got through the day. But, he kept his head down, counting soda cups, taking the inventory one container at a time.
Rebuffed and disheartened, I slunk back up to my aerie. Briefly, I stood at the one window with a view of bustling 42nd Street, I saw a sliver of the sun shining brightly in a brilliant blue sky, the sidewalks full of people going about their business. I don’t remember if I sighed, but I probably did.
This particular place where I toiled, the Harris, had opened in 1914 as a legitimate theater, but over the years had seen many changes. In 1922 the esteemed actor John Barrymore played Hamlet for a hundred and one nights in a row, beating out the prior record of one hundred performances set by Edwin Booth. It was owned in partnership by George M. Cohan and Edwin Harris and was very successful until around 1934 when it was converted into a movie theater. It was’t as lavishly decorated as some of the other 42nd Street movie palaces, but it could seat twelve hundred people.
Edward Lamb was the architect, he would later design the Empire State Building. The Harris contained two balconies, brocade curtains and fairly ornate chandeliers. But it was the backstage that fascinated me, stuck up in the projection booth, behind the second balcony that had long been closed off was a wonderland of ancient theater equipment; Huge dimmer banks for the stage lighting, motors that raised and lowered scenery, dressing rooms, spot lights, generator sets. It reeked of the past, it had no future, it was torn down in 1994.
So, it got to be about four o’clock, I’m up in the booth, the projectors are grinding away, everything is 100% normal. I’d finished reading the Post, (and you’ve got to be a real New Yorker to remember when it used to be a actual newspaper) my third newspaper of the day. The Post was for those desperate moments of my fourteen-hour shift when the clock seemed broke, and suicide felt like a viable option.
I had eight hours to go, what was I gonna do? I was going to go mad, then I remembered that on a previous reconnaissance expedition I had discovered a series of rooms off a catwalk that ran above the ceiling of the theater. So packing a flashlight, and knowing I had a nineteen-minute window I headed up. I climbed down through the second balcony, past the red torn seats, the shuttered concession stand, that still smelled faintly of popcorn, then down a long dark hallway. If you were ghost hunting, this was the place to set your traps. If the ghost of Ole” George M was anywhere, it was gonna be here.
I climbed up a vertical metal ladder that was mounted to the wall and passed through the oddest door I’ve ever walked through. How many doors are half-way up a wall. It lead directly out onto a catwalk above the theater ceiling. I had to step very gingerly, because if I walked too fast my feet made a ringing metallic sound that could be clearly heard down in the auditorium below. I began to explored the rooms one by one, I remember feeling a shiver of delicious fear each time I creaked open a door. But, like Al Capone’s vault, the rooms yielded nothing but peeling paint and dust.
Disappointed, I began to close the door on the last room, but for some reason I was drawn back inside. I swung my flashlight up, and there on the opposite wall was a black oblong switch box mounted at eye level. In it’s center, glowing like a little bulls eye, was a bright mushroom shaped red button. And I have to admit now. I am a chronic and uncontrollable button pusher. This little device spoke to me so seductively and so sweetly, it said “push me Freddy,oh push me, please”
So without further ado, I pushed it!