Movie Theaters of my Youth

It is time to fire up the Way Back Machine.

As we celebrate the waning days of summer (somewhere that’s not the southwest where we have summer for another two months), I thought it might be fun to take a look at the movie theaters that were scattered around the Las Vegas Valley when I was growing up there back in the day. Back then, movie theaters were one of the recreational places we had on a hot summer day.


The Cinerama Theater -there weren't very many of them built-but, surprisingly in Las Vegas, we had one.  Located on Viking Road just off Paradise, this was a terrific theater.  It opened on January 13, 1965 with the John Wayne potboiler, “Circus World”. In 1967, MGM studios re-released “Gone With the Wind” in 70mm and my mother took me to this theater for the first time. I fell in love with it. I dragged my friends there to see many a film, including "Fantasia", "The Hindenburg" and "The Three Musketeers". For a time, between the Cinerama’s Dome, the Convention Center Rotunda and the Landmark Hotel that section of Paradise Road was mid-century modern nirvana. Like all great things in Classic Las Vegas, it was not to last. The Rotunda got torn down and replaced with the larger, low-rise Convention Center and the Cinerama was sold to a church and the ultimately demolished. I still miss it. Many people often confuse this theater with the Cine-Dome multiplex that was located on South Decatur Blvd. back in the 1980s and 1990s. They aren’t related.

 

courtesy of the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas

courtesy of the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas

 

 

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 The Fox Theater was located in the Charleston Plaza Mall.  It was a large and elegant theater located in the first mall in Las Vegas.  On East Charleston, just south of downtown, this theater had a sign that could be seen for miles.  It opened on March 5, 1965 with the Jack Lemmon comedy, “How to Murder Your Wife”. We saw "The Sound of Music", "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "The Hot Rock" and on New Year's Eve, "The Poseidon Adventure".

It was torn down to enlarge the mall. The Fox Theater sign is now in the Neon Museum’s Boneyard.




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The Stardust Drive-In began life as the Motor Vu and was the first drive-in in town. It originally openedon March 25, 1949 with Jon Hall starring in “Kit Carson”. It closed in 1956. After the hotel opened, it changed hands and names to become the Stardust Drive-In and reopened on March 20, 1959 with the Disney comedy, “The Shaggy Dog.  We saw "Viva Las Vegas" there.  My parents were big Elvis fans and my dad was working at the Golden Gate when they were filming the movie and stepped outside of the casino to watch the filming of the race. It closed for good in 1968 and was demolished.


Courtesy of Allen Sanquist

Courtesy of Allen Sanquist

The SkyWay Drive-In.  After the Stardust Drive-In closed, we used to drive out Boulder Highway to this great Drive-In.  It opened on June 9, 1954 with Joan Crawford in the cult classic, “Johnny Guitar” I remember on summer early evening, my dad got the old station wagon ready and took us to see "Night of the Living Dead" after my mother brought home a Reader's Digest that had an article, "The film you don't want your kids to see".  My dad had a wicked sense of humor. The Sky Way closed in 1981 and the theaters of the Boulder Station were built.


 

courtesy of Allen Sandquist

courtesy of Allen Sandquist

The Huntridge Theater at East Charleston and Maryland Parkway was the closest theater we had to an old- fashioned movie palace.  It was designed by famed Los Angeles architect, S. Charles Lee. It opened on Oct. 4, 1944. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was known around town for being non-segregated. Complete with soundproof "cry room" for unruly babies, the theater was home to Disney films and Saturday afternoons the theater was filled with kids.  In addition to the Disney films, my friend Allen and I saw "Kelly's Heroes" and "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" there. It closed in 1977 and was divided into two theaters. The new owners just built a dividing wall down the center of the auditorium. That didn’t last and it closed as a movie theater in 1989. In 1993, it had a new life as a concert hall and performing arts venue. The auditorium was restored to a single space and all the seating was removed. Before a concert featuring the Circle Jerks, the roof caved in. It was sold to the Mizrachi family in 2002 and finally closed for good in 2004 where it was used as storage for the family’s matress store next door.

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Other theaters I loved were the long-gone MGM Grand Theater in the original MGM Grand Hotel (now Bally's).  This theater had plush love-sets and a cocktail waitress that brought your drink order to you.  You ordered just by pressing a button on the cocktail table in front of you.  They only ran classic MGM films but I was already a big film buff by the time the hotel opened in 1973 and they changed the bill every week.  You got a handout with a synopsis of the film and the cast listing.  They showed a cartoon, newsreel and then the film.  It was old-fashioned and it was beyond great.

The Red Rock Theaters located on West Charleston.  We lived in Charleston Heights and this was the theater closest to us.  Started as a single screened theater, and it ultimately expanded to 11 theaters.  The theaters in the back were placed around an old-time Main Street -like square from the turn of the previous century.  There were two snack bars. One was located in the center of the Main Street square area and the other was located up front by the original entrance. We lived at this place, it seemed, when I was in high school.  Between this and the MGM Grand theater, my weekends were spent at the movies.  We saw "The Sting", "Billy Jack", "The Godfather”, “American Graffiti,” and every major (and minor) film that came out in the early to mid 1970s. It was demolished in 2002

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The Guild Theater, the El Portal and the Fremont Theaters were all located downtown.  The Guild was originally named The Palace and had opened in 1932. By 1943, it had been renamed the New Palace Theater. It was located on 2nd Street (today Casino Center Blvd). It was remodeled in the late 1950s and renamed The Guild in 1960. By the time I was going to the movies, it was more an art house back then.  I saw "Next Stop, Greenwich Village", "The Passenger" and other art films of the 1970s there. It was demolished and a parking structure replaced it.



The El Portal had been built in the late 1920s. It had originally been an outdoor theater called the Airdome. It opned in June 1928 wiith a pre-release of Clara Bow’s film, “Ladies of the Mob”. Built by Charles Alexander MacNelledge, the hacienda style building was an immediate hit. There was no front signage, just the marquee. The theater was successful enough that it had the first air conditioner in town installed The only signage originally was a roof-top sign. All that remains of the original theater are the interior beams and the exterior facade. The theater had a balcony and a strict segregation policy. Unlike Lloyd Katz, Cragin did not believe that blacks and whites should sit together in a movie theater.  In the early days there was a mighty Wurlitzer organ, luxury box seats and chandeliers. The El Portal also pioneered late, late screenings to accommodate the men and women who worked swing shift and could not see the movies during regular business hours. Frank Sinatra's film "The Joker is Wild" premiered at the El Portal in 1957. Ernie Cragin was the mayor of Las Vegas during the 1940s

It was segregated until the Civil Rights Act was passed. By the late 1970s, it was closed and turned into a gift store and then Indian Arts & Crafts store. That store was closed a few years ago and now it houses a tavern.

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The Fremont Theater was attached to the Fremont Hotel and Casino. The Fremont Theater (approximately where the FDC Feeds Garage Dry Sign is today),  was owned by the Nevada Theater Group and run by Lloyd and Edythe Katz.  They also ran the Huntridge Theater on East Charleston at Maryland Parkway.  The Fremont Theater opened in 1948.  The seating capacity was reported to be 800 with a small balcony.  Katz had come from Los Angeles after World War II.  Katz had many Hollywood connections and a flair for showmanship.  Unlike the El Portal, the Fremont was not segregated. Katz loved to bring out the kleig lights and have old-fashioned movie premieres.  “The Las Vegas Story”, “Suddenly” and “Ocean's 11” all premiered at the Fremont Theater.  The “Suddenly” premiere had the added bonus of Frank Sinatra working the box office. Locals crowded into Fremont Street to see the men in tuxedos and women in fur coats and evening gowns going into the theater for the evening.  The “Ocean's 11” premiere was held on August 3rd, 1960 with the stars of the film in attendance.  After the premiere, the party continued as the revelers took over the Copa Room at the Sands for the Rat Pack's dinner show.  By the mid-1970s, the theater changed hands and became the place to see low-budget horror and Chuck Norris karate films.  It was cut up into a small multi-plex before finally being annexed when the Fremont Hotel expanded.

The Parkway Theater across the Maryland Parkway from the Boulevard Mall.  It opened as a single screen theater in February 1970 with the Barbra Streisand musical, “Hello Dolly!”  Five years later, The Parkway became a triple screen theater and was renamed The Parkway Cinemas.  We saw "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Wars" there. The theaters closed in 1995 and were converted to businesses.

How about you, which theater was your favorite? 



















This Thursday, Aug. 1st, "The Las Vegas Strip We Once Knew" and Book Signing

Don’t forget, this Thursday, August 1st, I will be giving a free presentation at the Clark County Flamingo Library at 7:00 pm.

My presentation will be on the “Las Vegas Strip We Once Knew” at 7:00 pm. The talk will feature rare and wonderful images and cover the early years of that famed boulevard, the hotels, the stars, the glitz and the glamour!

Both before the presentation and immediately afterwards, I will have copies of my new book, “Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip 1930-1955” for sale (along with the companion DVD) and will gladly be autographing them.

So, we hope to see you there!!!!!

Thursday, August 1st, 2019 at 7:00 pm

Clark County Library

1401 E. Flamingo Rd.
Las Vegas NV 89119

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50 Years Ago Today

“But the world all stopped to watch it, yeah, on that July afternoon,

They watched a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon"  John Stewart, "Armstrong"

 

Has it really been fifty years?  It doesn't seem that long ago.  But the calendar and the television specials all say that fifty years have passed since that fateful day on July 20th.

On May 25th, 1961, President Kennedy had said "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

America rolled up its sleeves and got out its slide rules.  We had put Alan Shepard into space and John Glenn was slated to go next.  The Mercury Astronauts caught not only the imagination of the country but of the world.  Every little boy and girl it seemed wanted to either be the Beatles or an astronaut.

I wanted to be an astronaut but slide-rules and math confounded the crap out of me.  And they still do.

We rolled out of bed in the early, early hours of the morning to watch the launches, breaths held as the countdown went down to zero and the button was pushed.

Televisions were rolled into schoolrooms around the country, including Las Vegas, so that we could track their progress.

The Mercury astronauts gave way to the Gemini Project and Ed Whitebecame the first American to walk in space.

Each step brought us closer to the goal of going to the moon.  All of this during a decade of turmoil and conflict the likes of which this country hadn't seen in a hundred years.  The Civil Rights movement, the loss of JFK, the Vietnam War, the youth movement, free speech, the anti-war movement, the silent majority are part of our history of the 1960s.

But through it all, even in the dark days (and we had our share of dark, dark days back then), the resolve to complete JFK's dream of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade stayed strong. 

We lost Mercury astronaut Virgil "Gus" Grissom, the beloved Ed White and Roger Chaffee on the launch pad in the  Apollo One fire in 1967 and for a brief moment our resolve wavered.  But instead of scraping the idea, NASA and the country moved forward determined to solve the problems and hold the course.

In December of 1968, Apollo Eight with Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Williams Anders became, not only the first Americans, but the first ever to orbit the moon.  That Christmas Eve they read Bible passages to the world from outer space.

As the 1960s were coming to a close, the decade seemed to be imploding on itself.  What had once seemed like a shining, optimistic beacon had become the very opposite.  Death, violence and drugs had taken over and the decade seemed like it was spiraling out of control.

But on a July afternoon in 1969, that shining optimism was recaptured and reborn as the Lunar Module with Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin landed on the moon.

Around the world, people stopped what they were doing to watch history being made.

In Las Vegas, it was a Sunday afternoon/early evening..  At our house in Charleston Heights, we stopped and watched.

In the casinos on Fremont Street and on the Las Vegas Strip, gamblers were doing what they do best, gambling away.

Televisions had been set up around the casinos on both Fremont Street and the Strip so that patrons could watch if they wanted to.

Growing up in Las Vegas, we all know how difficult it is to get gamblers away from the tables and we know the stories of how it is next to impossible to get people to leave slot machines.

But on the Sunday up and down Fremont Street and up and down the Strip, they did just that. 

They stopped gambling to watch Neil Armstrong descend from the lunar module and "take one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" before erupting in applause and tears.

It was a shared historic moment felt the world over and that included Las Vegas. Over a half million people shared the moment.

I know what you're thinking.  They could have gone upstairs to their rooms and watched.

But it was one of those moments in history when you wanted to be with other people and share the experience.

The Space Race which had begun twelve years earlier with the launch ofSputnik One by the Russians ended with Americans landing on the moon.

We had completed the dream that President Kennedy had set forth eight years earlier with slide rules, mainframe computers and American ingenuity.

And the world held their breath and then cheered with delight as Neil Armstrong set foot upon the moon, July 20th 1969.

The 1960s would all but officially come to a close two and half weeks later with the Manson Family killing spree in Los Angeles.

But, for a brief shining moment on that fateful July afternoon/early evening,, we reminded ourselves and the world of what the best of America could be.



Credit: Airboyd and NASA





Presentation and Book Signing August 1st!!!!

I am thrilled to announce that I will be returning to the Clark County Library on Flamingo on August 1st for a new presentation and book signing.

My presentation will be on the “Las Vegas Strip We Once Knew” at 7:00 pm. The talk will feature rare and wonderful images and cover the early years of that famed boulevard, the hotels, the stars, the glitz and the glamour!

Immediately following the presentation, I will be signing copies of my new book, “Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip 1930-1955”.

So please save the date and we hope to see you there!!!!!

Thursday, August 1st, 2019 at 7:00 pm

Clark County Library

1401 E. Flamingo Rd.
Las Vegas NV 89119


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