The family portrait from years ago is torn at the corner; it has lost color and is yellowed. The details, however, of how the family lived are still clear. The father sits in a high backed chair, his legs cross at the ankles, and his hands rest on the heavily carved wooden arms. From behind the round shaped wire-rimmed glasses, he stares intently at the camera lens; no smile breaks upon his lips. He wears a dark suit, a high collared white shirt and a somber dark tie with a diagonal stripe. Beside him, on his right and slightly behind, stands his wife and mother of his children. Her dark hair is pulled back away from her face. She wears a black dress with a lace shawl draped across her arms; a single strand of pearls encircles her neck. The children are arranged in order of age and importance to the family. The boy stands beside his father apart from the mother and is dressed in a miniature jacket, he wears short pants and a tiny plaid bow tie, his hair parted and slicked back much like his father’s. The two girls, one taller than the other, are arranged in front of the mother, they are clothed in starched white dresses with satin waistbands; their hair in long curls parted on one side and brought up in a ribbon at the temple. They wear white ruffled socks and white leather shoes tied in bows. In the background a potted palm perches on a pedestal and spreads before a tapestry backdrop of vines and acanthus leaves, deep fringe trims the edges. The fabric is draped and pulled to one side to reveal a source of light, perhaps from a window obscured. The portrait is a composition of shadow and light, carefully composed to reveal luxury and achievement, the story of a family from years ago.
The photo captured an old, cinder-block wall stripped of decoration, purpose and history. The façade had been eradicated and only the bones remained. It was a tall wall, at least fifty feet in height. On three levels there were rectangles of recessed empty spaces – doorways without doors. The wall was part of an abandoned theatre. The photo revealed where ornate box seats once hung. Vestiges of the wall's beauty – faded by age, ruined by water – were hard to find.
When new, these box seats held celebrities, producers, high society, ladies in fine evening clothes and jewels. Seating in these boxes assured that anyone who was anyone would be seen. Enter a private door, pass through a luxurious curtain and be seated by a uniformed, gloved attendant. From red-plush cushioned seats, the theatre is revealed resplendent in its carved, gilded and reflective surfaces. A polished brass railing secures you in this elevated site with unobstructed vision of the stage; but more importantly, the railing does not obstruct the rest of the audience from seeing you.
The movie theatres of the twenties and thirties were palaces of exotic fantasies and opulence, where glorious adventures unfolded each day. Xanadu and Shangri-La came to life, if only for a little while. These theatres were twentieth-century cathedrals where people came to abandon worldly reality and indulge in a cine aesthetic. Even today these movie palaces are our Rheims and Chartres Cathedrals. The ruins are reminiscent of the ravages of war; but in our country, they are the result of cultural, urban and economic neglect.
The facade, once covered in exotic woods and marble, adorned with plaster murals and carved images, burnished or gilded in gold and silver leaf, draped in plush brocaded velvets, has been stripped bare. The boxes have been sheared of their adornments. Broken segments of a Palladian Arch surround three levels of private portals. At the foot of the wall rubble abounds – fragments of history abandoned.
I joined Writers Bloc, a group of writers from Monmouth County, NJ, whose styles are as diverse as their backgrounds and interests. Here are some of my writings from our meetings.