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Anthony LaCamera Remembers Our Movie Houses
Anthony LaCamera
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 For 30 years, Anthony La Camera was the distinguished dean of American television critics, writing for the Hearst-owned Boston newspapers. Dorchester born and bred, he was Boston’s best known television writer and critic from the days of TV’s infancy until 1980. His daily column in the Boston Record-American and the Boston Herald American was one of the paper’s most popular features. He retired with his wife in Winthrop, where he wrote a weekly column for The Pilot, Boston’s Archdiocesan weekly newspaper.

“Movies, Movie Houses Were Everywhere One Time in Dorchester” in Dorchester ’83 Supplement to the Dorchester Argus-Citizen, June 2, 1983.
By Anthony LaCamera.

We are living in what psychologists, sociologists and the media repeatedly refer to as the television generation.

Goodness knows, nobody has to keep telling me that. I’ve been working within the television generation for some three-and-a-half decades, first as a daily TV critic for the old Boston Record American and Herald American and now as a weekly media columnist for The Pilot. So what else is new?

Even though I continue to toil within a media milieu dominated by television, however, I still look upon myself as a charter member of the movie generation.
I mean, the old and original movie generation; not today’s chic world of cinema, film-making, self-indulgent directors and flicks (a term boldly lifted from our affectionate description of shimmering silent movies as flickers).

Several weeks ago—on Channel 25, no less—I caught a 1932 movie of domestic conflict, A Bill of Divorcement, which held up surprisingly well. Anyway, it reminded me of Dorchester where I grew up in the 1920s and 1930s.

No, it wasn’t set in Dorchester or anything like that, because of course, domestic conflict never existed there. The point is that I first saw it in Dorchester—at the old Hamilton Theater on Bowdoin Street. (Our affectionate term for The Hamilton theater—when we weren’t calling it The Hammy—was The Hash House.)

So how or why do I remember something like the preceding? Because A Bill of Divorcement not only co-starred John Barrymore and Billie Burke but also introduced a dazzling, sophisticated, un-Hollywoodish newcomer named Katharine Hepburn. Discovering a Hepburn at The Hash House was reason enough for anyone to remember.

Truth is, I often think of Dorchester when television unreels honest-to-goodness movie oldies. Chances are that I saw them the first time around (and sometimes the second and third) in any one of 11 local movie theaters we attended in those bygone days. That’s right 11—and I’m not even counting The Oriental and The Mattapan, which we deemed out of our territory.

Since I lived on Cameron Street, just off Kane Square, the theaters most convenient for me and my movie-going pals I the triple-decker neighborhood were the aforementioned Hamilton, The Strand at Upham’s Corner, and The Winthrop (which we called The Winnie and which later would become The Uphams) across the street.

We didn’t confine ourselves to these three, by any means. If we had seen the double bill at any of them or if there were special pictures showing at other Dorchester spots, we walked to them—like The Rialto Theater at Fields Corner, The Dorchester (later to be re-named The Park), a few blocks beyond at Dorchester Avenue and Park Street, or The Shawmut on Blue Hill Avenue.

If our huge movie appetites still needed nourishment, we walked even farther—to The Magnet on Washington Street, The Franklin Park Theater on upper Blue Hill Avenue, The Codman at Codman Square, or The Adams, far down on Adams Street. In a real emergency, we hiked to The Ideal on Dudley Street our 11th theater, which we never did determine was in Dorchester or Roxbury.

Yes, we walked a lot in those days. When we weren’t walking “to the show,” we walked to Ronan Park, The Town Field and Savin Hill Park to play baseball and football teams in those areas. We walked to Malibu, Tenean, Savin Hill and Carson beaches. We even walked, but NOT often, to Red Sox baseball games at Fenway Park. And that was when the team dwelt in or near the cellar, as they say in the sports pages.

We walked for any of several reasons, including:
1. We couldn’t afford to buy tickets and spend car fare, too, except maybe for one way.
2. Nobody would drive us, except once in a while.
3. Walking was fun—at least at our young age—when a recreational reward was waiting at the finish.

How could we afford the movies? Well, as long as we looked reasonably juvenile, we paid only 10 cents a ticket for matinees. To accumulate the required 10-cent pieces, we stinted on our allowances, did odd jobs, and cashed a lot of empty milk and tonic (as soda was then known) bottles.

Once in a while, when we got very, very lucky, we managed to wheedle a free pass or two from those shopkeepers who displayed theater placards of the week’s movie lineups in their windows. Sometimes, if we had an extra nickel, we treated ourselves to an ice cream cone. (Making decisions was easy then; ice cream came in just three flavors—vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.)

If you’re wondering what happened to the 11 theaters which once were within youthful walking distance, let me say sadly that they became victims, like their counterparts in other communities, of changing times: the advent of television, the mobility of ost-World war II society, the growth of shopping mall cinemas (excuse the expression) with more realistic seating capacity. Neither “bank nights” nor “dish nights” could rescue the ld houses.

The Strand, still standing, has been transformed into a theater for special state and community events. I should note that in its prime it featured vaudeville as an added attraction.

A few of the old theaters have been converted into buildings for non-theatrical enterprises. Others have been torn down; the old site of the Winthrop-Upham’s, for example, is a parking lot adjoining The First American Bank for Savings. Gone, too, are the alien Mattapan and Oriental theaters.

The Park Theater, I’m told will re-open soon as a twin cinema with a couple of hundred seats in each segment. That will make exactly two (2) movies in all Dorchester, the sole other being a twin cinema in a small Morrissey Boulevard shopping mall.

For me, the vanished theaters live on in fond memories, sharpened by occasional television revivals of old movies and old stars that we could hardly wait to arrive from downtown for belated suburban engagements. It was at the local theaters, particularly The Strand, The Hamilton, The Winthrop-Upham’s and The Rialto, that we watched the magic artists of the screen and their patented vehicles.

There were the pioneer “big three”: Swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the derring-do we awkwardly imitated; Mary Pickford and her unchanging portrayals consistent with being “America’s Sweetheart;” Charlie Chaplin, “The Little Tramp,” who mixed comedy and pathos with stirring effect, especially in the marvelous “The Gold Rush.”

There were other great comedians: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers.

Just as in the television medium which was to follow, our movies of yesteryear fell into specific categories.

There were spectaculars like the first Ben Hur, The Big Parade, the first What Price Glory? Cimarron, The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse, The Pony Express, The Vanishing American, Wings, Hells Angels. The epics of our day, you might say.

There were the early gangster movies: Public Enemy, in which James Cagney mushed that grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face; Little Caesar, in which Edward G. Robinson could dish it out but couldn’t take it; Paul Muni’s Scarface, in which George Raft was gunned down while flipping a coin.

There were the classic horror movies: the original The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, Sr., who left me scared and sleepless for a week; Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi in Dracula, and then the first King Kong. (Just as the once-busy Mae Clark is remembered mainly for her grapefruit reception, Fay Wray lives on as King Kong’s would-be victim—despite some two-score other pictures I which she appeared.)

There were the hundreds of cowboy pictures (we never called them westerns) with their impeccable, omnipotent heroes: William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, John Wayne, Randolph Scott.

There were the ground-breaking musicals: The Broadway Melody, with its now-standard title song and You Were Meant For Me; Golddiggers of Broadway in which guitar-plunking Nick Lucas introduced Tiptoe Through the Tulips; The Jazz Singer, in which the hyperactive Al Jolson sang the sudsy sonny Boy to little Dave Lee; Forty-Second street, which gave us Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and overhead choreographer Busby Berkeley.

There were the romantic teams: Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

There were the character actors of major stature: muni, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Emil Jannings, Lewis Stone, George Arliss, Adolphe Menjou, Charles Laughton.

There were the leading ladies of varying types: Clara Bow, Collen Moore, Louise Brooks, Nancy Carroll, Gloria Swanson, Sylvia Sidney, the young Bette Davis, Garbo, Claudette Colbert, and three who gained attention in Lon Chaney pictures of the 1920s—namely Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Loretta Young.

There were the leading men: Rudolph Valentino, who motivated the “Sheik” fad, Ramon Novarro, Fredric March, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, whose 1930 movie, Up the River, also featured Humphrey Bogart; James Stewart, who first appeared n Tracy’s 1935 picture, The Murder Man. Not to mention Gable, who impressed in his 1931 film debut as a laundry deliverer in the Constance Bennett Feature, The Easiest Way. And Cary Grant, originally billed as Archie Leach.

Just as in television, finally, there were film series (not to be confused with the peril-laden, cliff-hanging Saturday-afternoon serials). Series consisted of successive, full-length movies focusing on the same principal characters. There’s nothing new, you see, about The Godfather I and II, Rocky I, II, and III or the Star Wars packages.

Offhand, I can recall a veritable parade of series, to wit:

Tarzan, portrayed by Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott and almost a dozen others.

The Dead End Kids, following the success of the Dead End play and movie with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell et al.

Andy Hardy, Mickey Rooney’s long-time box-office bonanza and a vehicle for fellow teenager Judy Garland.

Doctor Kildare, another winner, with Lew Ayres, Lionel Barrymore and Laraine Day.

The Thin Man, the slick comedy-mystery series with Richard Powell and Myrna Loy.

Philo Vance, variously portrayed by William Powell, Basil Rathbone and Warren William.

Sherlock Holmes—Basil Rathbone and Warren William.

Charlie Chan, enacted by Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, among others.

The Lone Wolf, first with Melvyn Douglas and then Warren William.

Perry Mason, again Warren Williams.

Mr. Moto—Peter Lorre almost all the way.

When I see the old pictures and the old stars on television, fleeting thoughts tell me that some of them aren’t quite as wonderful as we believed way back then. Recurring doubts indicate that not all the old movie houses were palaces of glory.

Such thoughts and doubts must be dismissed peremptorily. What good are memories if they don’t concentrate on the positive and deny the negative?

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Created: February 2, 2011   Modified: February 2, 2011