Beginning a new series here on Innocent Bystander: Tamaqua Memories chronicles my own recollections about growing up in a small town in coal country in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1960s and '70s.
My love of movies probably began at the Victoria Theater. It was in a prime location on Broad Street in downtown Tamaqua, just opposite the intersection with Hunter Street, and just up from our own little shopping nirvana, J.J. Newberry's, a knock-off of Woolworths 5 and 10 Cent Store. (We had one of those, too, but it closed in the early sixties...for the record, I preferred Newberry's.)
We didn't really know it back then, but Tamaqua was beginning a long, slow slide. The coal that made coal country famous had pretty much disappeared; the trains that brought people to and from the town had, too. The train tracks that ran behind my grandparents' place on Rowe Street were torn up and the familiar sound of a train slowly moving behind their houses, running from Pottsville to Tamaqua and all points beyond from the town's station, was gone.
The Victoria was one of two theaters in Tamaqua. The other one, the Majestic was also on Broad Street, a block east from the Five Points, the center of town. It closed when I was very young. I have a very dim recollection of seeing a movie there as a child. I think it was Disney's version of Babes in Toyland, with Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands. (IMDb lists it's release as 1961, so I would have been just about six years old). It closed soon after that and the Vic, as we called it, became our only theater in town, save for the summer season drive-ins (the Valley, on the road to Hazelton to the north, and the Mahoning, on the road to Lehighton to the south, which may or may not still exist, according to this website; tune in next summer, I guess).
I spent many a Saturday at the Victoria. I remember some of the movies I saw there, but I also remember its frowsiness. It was a bit rundown by the time my generation started going to movies on our own. There was an old soda machine in the lobby that cost a dime (I think). You put in your ten cents, picked a flavor or brand (orange, Coke, Sprite) and a cup tumbled down and you watched both the flavor and the carbonated water mix together. Sometimes you got the right mix; sometimes just syrup or carbonation; sometimes the cup spilled out of the small door and you scrambled to get it back inside to get at least some of your drink. The snack bar was almost always run by bored looking high school students; the outside ticket booth, too.
I remember seeing Goldfinger there, probably in the summer of 1964, and Thunderball the following year. I remember seeing an awful spy spoof with TV comedians Allen and Rossi (probably this one), and a re-release of Bambi (wait...did Bambi's mother just die?!). I also saw The Guns of Navarone one summer night, soon after Tamaqua had instituted a curfew. At 9:45 at night the siren would sound and you had 15 minutes to get home. Anyone caught out after curfew was subject to the police taking you home or even hauling you in and calling your parents. Navarone ran late, over 2 and a half hours or so, and I remember my friend Bert and I leaving the theater right when the curfew sounded and running home like criminals after a heist, hugging the walls, waiting for the long spotlight of the law to find us. My mom was super-pissed...where was I so late (I was like all of 9 or so), and when I said the movie was long, she didn't believe me.
The Vic got frowsier as the years went by. After a while they closed the balcony, which was fine by me. Many kids at the Saturday matinee used the balcony to throw things at the kids in the main seating area. They also closed the front section (it may have always been closed all the times I went there; as this recent article by Donald Serfass--who I went to school with in Tamaqua--attests, the theater was severely damaged by Hurricane Diane in 1955; in addition to the discovery of the Vic's original organ in Allentown, Donnie has a good article here, too, about the history of the theater), and the rumor was because there were rats down there, under the stage. I remember when the Saturday matinee would get really boring, some of the kids would run down the aisles and slide under the two-by-fours the management had rested on either side from seat to seat to keep people out, then get up and run out as if they were being chased by alligators. The almost always kid-filled matinees offered not only a movie, but a floor show, too.
The Vic closed a couple of times in my teens, only to have some enterprising person reopen it, with promises to fix it up. I remember The Godfather playing there forever in the early '70s. I remember its wide, neon-lit marquee (featured in the photo above, which is circa July 4--or some similar patriotic holiday--in 1965, when Bus Riley's Back in Town was released), it's tiny ticket office out front between the double glass doors, the vestibule behind the doors which had posters lining either side, the carpeted lobby, rundown and somewhat smelly, and the long refreshment counter between twin doors that led into the auditorium (which held either 700 or 1,200 seats, depending on what you read on the Internet). Photos of the theater are hard to come by. The Facebook group, Tamaqua Then and Now, has an occasional photo of the Vic, including one from inside. The inside must have been amazingly beautiful when it was built. I remember the boxes on the sides of the auditorium, off limits in my movie-going days. The theater was originally built for Vaudeville and repurposed as a movie theater, when the picture shows killed the live ones.
The Victoria is one of those time travel things for me. If time travel was available, I would go back and photograph it, and try to go through its basement or storage areas. I don't know if this rumor is true of just wishful thinking on my part, but I vaguely recall someone mentioning that the theater was filled with old posters and memorabilia when it was torn down, all of it either ruined by a leaky roof or just destroyed in the demolition (I tend to think that's some kind of fnatasy on my part: discovering the Holy Grail of movie posters locked away in a vault somewhere).
But as it is, the Vic is its own little time capsule, locked away in my memory in a very fond place. Despite its rundown condition, despite the rats who didn't pay to get in and the over-carbonated beverages from the rinky-dink machine out in the lobby, I spent many an hour there. All that time, all those movies, contributed to a life-long love of film that will never end.