Bridgeport Theatres Take a Curtain Call at Fairfield Museum
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Sun, Bridgeport News & Monroe Courier)
Fairfield, CT -- A recent presentation at Fairfield Museum and History Center, focused on the history of Bridgeport’s Palace and Majestic Theatres, revived not only quaint memories from seniors in attendance but an age-old discussion about how to preserve or repurpose these once grand, now deteriorating and long-abandoned showplaces.
Early Sunday afternoon November 6, Mary Witkowski, Bridgeport’s City Historian and the head of the Bridgeport History Center housed at Bridgeport Public Library, presented to a full house gathering a projected slide show of old postcards, photos and scans showing the theatres from construction to recent times and provided a narrative along with it. The talk was part of the Museum’s current exhibition “Bravo! A Century of Theatre in Fairfield County” and was supplemented with a gallery installation of 19 framed photographs of the interiors of the theatres that were shot 20 years ago by Monroe-based commercial photographers Jay Misencik and Geralene Valentine of Misencik Photography.
Italian immigrant builds empire
Sylvester Zefferino Poli, founder of the Palace and Majestic Theatres, was born in Italy in 1859 and emigrated to the United States in 1881. He worked as a sculptor at Eden Musee, a wax museum in the heart of Manhattan’s entertainment center when he first arrived. Soon enough, he opened his own “dime” museums in upstate New York, Canada and New England. Gradually, he supplemented these venues of wax figures and curios with small stages offering vaudevillian acts and “wholesome family entertainment.”
Poli grew his empire to become the largest theatrical chain in the East, with 34 venues from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. In particular, Connecticut became a favorite location, with elegant theaters in Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury and New Haven. Poli’s first in Bridgeport was the Park City Theater, which he renovated in 1901. From that first foothold, he built or re-built six Bridgeport theatres between 1901 and 1922. Ultimately, Marcus Loew and William Fox bought most of his establishments for their movie theatre chains.
Using Italian craftsmen and the services of architect Thomas W. Lamb, Poli began to build the Palace Theatre, at 1325 Main Street, in the early 1920s. Lamb was also an émigré, born in Scotland in 1871. He earned his reputation during the boom of movie palace construction from the 1910s to 30s. He designed not only the Palace, but the Majestic as well, at 1347 Main Street, and the adjacent 101-room Savoy Hotel.
Lamb created large stages to accommodate live vaudeville performances as well as silent films, known as “photoplays.” His hallmark was glamorous, lavishly decorated edifices, gilded moldings, red velvet seats, crystal chandeliers and high-arched ceilings. It was said that these environments made the average citizen feel like royalty.
Based in Manhattan, Lamb’s firm designed over 300 theatres worldwide. In New York City alone, he had over 48 theatres to his credit, including the original Madison Square Garden and Ziegfeld Theatre.
Historic theatres rise
The Palace, which is structurally intact to this day, was built with 3,600 seats and 25 miles of electrical wiring. It featured a 1,700-pipe organ with 40,000 fine electrical wires controlling it. The organ was an integral part of the design scheme in the days of silent film when the theatre organist was the mood setter.
A proscenium arch was created and, under it, a silhouette panel – a depiction of a setting in France that Marie Antoinette would have known, of a French lady strolling in a garden. The Palace also features a Byzantine-style, gold-leafed central dome measuring 250 feet in circumference that held 650 lights. Around it were several ornamental medallions, all hand painted.
The Palace opened to the public September 4, 1922 and featured Chief Caupolican, a Metropolitan Grand Opera star. Singer Eddie Cantor gave the opening address, telling the audience, “This is your theatre Mr. and Mrs. Bridgeport, be proud of it.”
Other early performers were high-caliber world talents like Sergei Rachmaninoff and John McCormack, who were featured in the 1922-23 Concert Series.
Eighty-eight-year old Virginia Regnery Foster, a Fairfield resident who was born at Bridgeport Hospital and lived in the West End of the Park City for her first 21 years, until she was married in 1949, recalled the Palace. “It cost 10 cents for a ticket for children; adults paid 25 cents,” she said. “If you didn’t get caught, you could sneak in behind an adult and sit downstairs in the orchestra. Otherwise, you would have to sit up top in the balcony. I remember Eddie Cantor singing ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo” in the 20s when they still had silent movies. My cousin, Edna Regnery, played the piano along with the films.”
Historian Bill Lee, 86, shared his own recollection. “I was there in 1929,” he said. “The first movie I saw was a silent. The stage shows, though, were fabulous. ‘Singing in the Rain’ was when the silents changed to talkies. The music and orchestra was all live. Gus Meyers, Sr. was the orchestra leader. Real ‘rain’ was sprayed. People got up and cheered.”
The Majestic takes shape
While the Palace was taking its place in Park City history, the Majestic Theatre was going up right beside it and, on November 6, 1922, it opened as well. It was the smaller of the two showhouses, with 2,400 seats, and featured some of the similar Byzantine decorations and hand-painted ceilings by Hans Lehman. The stage measured 79 feet by 32 feet with a 42-foot arch.
Sixty drops could be hung from sets of lines to fly scenery to complement almost any stage production. Walls were constructed of magnificent faux marble and beautiful custom fabricated iron balustrades lined the staircases. A two-story high stained glass panel, today boarded up to protect it, was located between the lobby and seating areas in the theatre.
The opening night featured Eddie Cantor onstage in the Broadway revue “Make It Snappy”. The Follies also appeared, incorporating talent from a local dancing school. The Majestic joined ten other theatres operating in downtown Bridgeport.
Original seat prices for a matinee were 10 cents and 23 cents. Evening prices were 10, 30 and 45 cents. Boxes, also known as loges, were always 55 cents.
The height of entertainment
In 1934, Loew’s, the parent company of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, bought Poli’s theatres to show talkies, often around the clock so workers could enjoy movies after shifts ended.
Frederick Graham, 86, a Wallingford resident who lived in Bridgeport for 75 years, recalled that period. “I had a paper route which ended in the area called Bulls Head, now where I-95, Route 8 and Catherine Street all meet,” he said. “It was just a few blocks from the theatres, so I would go, probably more than most as I had the change in my pocket. This was the late 30s, during the Depression. A movie was about 15 cents.”
During that time, Spencer Tracy, in “Captain’s Courageous”, was a highlight attraction. In 1937, it was Laurel and Hardy in “Way Out West” that headlined the marquee of the Majestic.
In 1939, the Majestic celebrated its 10 millionth patron, Mrs. Richard G. Rossbaum of Stratford. Her prize was free tickets for six months.
An Encore for the Palace and Majestic Theatres?
In the 1960s and 70s, when Bridgeport factories started to shut down and workers were more tempted to watch TV at home, the Palace and Majestic Theatres closed, and have stayed shuttered for more than 40 years. While both were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, funding for renovation has still not occurred. The once glorious edifices are empty, deteriorating structures. In contrast, Poli’s Waterbury Palace was fully restored in 2003 for $30 million and is a source of cultural and economic stimulus for the region.
“When I came here in 1987 from Michigan, and first walked into the Palace, I had the feeling of being in the ballroom of the Titanic,” said Bridgeport historian Mary Witkowski. “It was like time stood still. There was even a popcorn machine in there. The theatres are still intact and could be restored.”
“Intact”, perhaps, but in increasingly poor condition. Jay Misencik and Geralene Valentine of Misencik Photography undertook a project in 1991 to photograph people along Main Street and happened upon the theatres. “Barbara Jean Zanesky of the Joy Center Church Ministeries was running a daycare/ consignment operation at the Palace, and providing shelter for the homeless. We started photographing the interior and became friendly with everyone. But there was no heat and the roof leaked,” said Misencik. Zanesky was evicted in January 1992, the city took ownership of the complex, the doors were padlocked and the marquees were taken down as a safety precaution.
Misencik and Valentine returned for the first time in September 2011. The roof had been replaced but “the smell was horrendous,” said Valentine. “The cloth fabric had also been removed and brass railings cut away.”
Can these historic showbiz centers be saved and restored to the same grandeur as the Waterbury Palace? Time will tell... though it’s quickly running out.