Who killed the Genesee?

It was 10 years ago today that demolition operations commenced on the Genesee Theater in Westvale. A week later, it was gone. But hey! We got a Pep Boys and some McJobs.

Oh, wait…

But while I like to engage in the ritualistic kicking of Pep Boys as much as the next person, Pep Boys ultimately did not kill the Genesee — home entertainment did, and so did a certain complacent community blindness of which everyone was part. In some ways it’s amazing that the old place hung on as long as it did. The first movie I can remember seeing there was Benji (I think). Even by that time, there were no ushers working who could have prevented anyone from hiding in the convenient restrooms located inside the theater itself, at the back, to sneak into a second showing. (Yeah, yeah, I did it a couple times, and you did it too.)

(A historical note: Although the newspaper says the theater opened in December 1949, I can’t find any advertisements for screenings in the Herald-Journal until mid-February 1951, where it is referred to as “Kallet’s new Genesee Theater.” Was it called something else before Kallet acquired it?)

This brief photo tour of the old Genesee is sure to send some down Memory Lane. (Study this slightly odd photo carefully and you may understand the sort of excitement that used to be associated with going to the movies.)

I can’t remember the last movie I saw there, but I went there to catch something second-run maybe twice a year, and one time when I went in winter, there was very little heat and I noticed the water stains all over the ceiling and the tears in some of the sprung-out red velvet seats. But had anyone really been concerned about the Genesee’s condition? Not that I can recall.

The outcry over the decision to demolish the theater was noble but came too little, too late. And excellent things were said, but too soon — maybe people would have listened to them, now. But sadly, the battle had been quietly lost years before. “If only” folks hadn’t settled for it being a “great old movie house” and had seen clearly that it needed support years before the fateful decision to sell the property. Up until the summer of ’96, when the plan to sell and demolish was first announced, the Genesee was simply seen as someone’s business enterprise. And then there was a sudden, admirable, yet ultimately doomed scramble to claim it as a cultural and community asset. (The faint but lingering bitterness over what happened is evidence that it was one.) There’s a lesson in that. You have to begin to claim your culture before the vultures start circling. Maybe we need an annual list of the 5 or 10 most endangered local haunts, of the places most likely to become the next Genesee Theater if community engagement doesn’t start now. We can’t go back in time, but we can make sure that this whole sorry episode meant something. (Below: the theater in its final days.)

It wouldn’t be too late (in theory) to create a New Genesee Theater, since the property remains stupefyingly vacant. (Although I don’t know what you’d serve up at such a theater in this age of home theater systems and gaming.) At the time of its demolition there was some talk that certain furnishings from the Genesee — which were relatively modest by movie palace standards — were rescued in hopes of being used elsewhere, and maybe that some went to a theater in New Hartford. I’ve never found out what happened to the luminescent purple clock from the back of the theater. I am curious to know if it was saved.

However, I would like to end this retrospective with some bitter gall — all toward the good cause of another ten years of fierce remembering. Click here (or here), and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

29 thoughts on “Who killed the Genesee?

  1. Brian Cubbison

    I guess the Brennan buildings would be beyond the endangered list, but I’m wondering about other at-risk buildings that need community support while they’re still active but neglected.

    The Little Gem? The NiMo building? Are there others?

  2. NYCO

    (Sorry my new spam filter was so mean to you, Brian… hopefully I’ve fixed it.)

    Here’s part of the problem with becoming conscious of endangered buildings (I like to call them “haunts” because it’s usually not just buildings, but businesses and experiences that are endangered)…

    People talk about how we need to move from a manufacturing economy (and all of the businesses that made business off of that) to a more touristy one, the sort of economy where you preserve lovely old buildings or experiences and use them to sell your community and create local business. They talk about this, but they are still in denial about the process and what they must do to take charge of it.

    The Genesee was part of a community (Solvay-Westvale) that had the heart ripped out of it when Allied left a decade earlier. Nobody ever gave that community a blueprint for reframing itself as anything other than a “company town.” Nobody ever thought of Solvay or anything in it or near it, as a potential attraction. So, what was being said and done in the six months or so before the demolition became a “done deal,” was very worth doing and saying, but if it had been done five years earlier, seeing the writing on the wall, things might have turned out differently.

    There has to be a way to stay conscious of the health of the businesses behind these beloved places, also the health of the people who are running them (how many nice places around here have closed because the owners got old and retired and sold out to a corporation like Pep Boys?) and of course, the health of the buildings themselves (which is a big part of why the Genesee was doomed). It has to be done with the assumption that these places WILL go under in five or ten years unless the community starts contributing in some way and making some form of commitment to identify these places and be watchful.

    Yes, it’s depressing and perhaps a blow to the pride to know that things have to change and you have to market your community in new ways to outsiders in order to survive (like they did in Vermont communities where people had to give up some of the rural character to start catering to wealthy outsiders by selling an image). But realistically, what’s the alternative? Empty Pep Boys.

    I don’t know what you would put on a local list, but it could be that the Little Gem deserves an investigation – what is the physical condition of the building, how is business doing, what are the development pressures surrounding the diner. This sort of information, obviously, can’t just be looked up in public records. It requires some on the ground sensitivity too.

    As for the NiMo building, it doesn’t appear to be in any physical danger at present, but when National Grid banished the name “Niagara Mohawk,” that’s the equivalent of beginning to chip away at the masonry of the actual building. There’s not much you can do about something like that (name change) except squawk long and loud, to warn them that they won’t be allowed to do anything ELSE to that building.

  3. Robinia

    Ellen– don’t you think that if economic development departments were not so totally focused on “luring” out-of-town or out-of-state big companies, that they might have some time to do some of the “check-ins” that you are suggesting? It (business visits or check-ins) is actually a respected business-retention model…. but, business retention does not have the sparkle of job “luring.” So, nobody does it.

  4. George Read

    The Kallet Genesee Theatre in Syracuse, NY died the second week of February in 1974, the date that CinemaNational bought the Kallet Theatres. Robert Rodman, the general manager for CinemaNational Theatres did everything in his power to cheapen the building and never spent another penny on the place. During my tenture at the theatre from January 1959 to February 1974, the Kallet’s would never refuse to spend money in the place. If something need fixing, it was done immediately. I think during that time, I painted every inch of paintable area, except the auditorium ceiling, which never had any leaks while I was managing. Simple maintenance, like checking roof drains prevented this problem. During my time, the theatre went from three changes a week, of second run films, to two, then one and extended runs; then to first run MGM product for about a year until Doctor Zhivago, when a new ten-foot wider screen and stereo sound was installed. Zhivago ran for 39 weeks as road show. After that, many road show pictures were presented and the theatre was re-seated with 42″ back-to-back rows. Capacity was reduced from 1077 to 935 seats. When I was hired by the Kallets, I was told to run the theatre like it was my own and I did, proudly.
    Immediately after the CinemaNational takeover, they transfered me to one of their undesirable theatres in hoping I would quit, as with the takeover, they had to pay the Kallet managers the same salary as they were getting with the Kallets. (That was about half again as much as they paid their own managers) I lasted about nine months until I found better employment. Even then, I think I was about the “Last Kallet Manager” to survive. I did return to Carrols Corporation, (CinemaNational’s owner) about a year and a half later with their theatre and Burger King restaurant advertising department until I retired in 1998. They had sold all their theatre properties off in the early 1980’s.

  5. Ellen

    Hi George,

    Nice to hear from you. As you can see, I enjoyed the photos you took. Unfortunately I only remember the Genesee during its CinemaNational days.

    Wasn’t CinemaNational (because it was Carrolls) basically a local company?

    Ellen (NYCO)

  6. tom

    we used to live across the resevoir from the Kallet– who remembers the days of bringing a can of food on a sat. which got you in to watch the movies– my mom loved it, she was able to sleep in & the Genesee babysat us for a while(sorry, I’m sure myself and 2 brothers were angels). they were absolutely great days then!

  7. TJ

    I grew up with a passion for movie showmanship, influenced a great deal by how George read ran the Genesee. On CinemasSightlines.com we’re building up a feature about the Genesee, and eventually one about George himself, because he was a real showman. PS if anyone has photos of any other Syracuse area theatres, please let me know. Thanks NYCO for giving the Kallet Genesee some well deserved remembrance.

  8. George Read

    Lately, there has been a resurgence of minds in older Syracuse theatres. There is a new book by Norm Keim on Syracuse Theatres that will be published real soom now. They have asked me to sign a release for the pictures I supplied. Norm’s been working on it for years and I’m anxious to see what it will look like.
    To Ellen’s question, Through the years (20’s,30’s and 40’s, there were a few local theatre owners that had multiple second and third run theatres. The Kallet’s had the Regent and the Kallet Drive In Theatre in Camillus (one of the countries very first drive-ins). Sam Slotnick had the Acme, Globe and East. Slotnicks also built the Dewitt, North and Lakeshore Drive-ins. Then in the 50’s and 60’s, newer theatres were constructed. First Kallet’s Genesee in 1951 and the Shoppingtown in 1956. Slotnicks (father Sam and son Herbert) built the Cinema North, Cinema East, Mini One, Bayberry, Shop City, Westhill and took on leases on the Riviera and Eckel and Studio (Westcott). The Kallet houses were more prestiges and usually came up with the hightest overall grosses. The Kallet Genesee was a great Walt Disney house. On it’s second week of “The Aristocats,” we grossed over $32,000 in the boxoffice at a $1.00 and 2:00 admission charge and the great majority of admissions were the children’s $1.00. I remember that we would get four or five concession truck-load deliveries each day and I personlly lost over 15 lbs. Well, with the two companies running the town, (the downtown movie palaces had all closed), Slotnick’s corporate name as Carrols Developement Corporation. They also ran about a 150 Carrols franchise restaurants along with the theatres,now spread out over New York State and beyond. About that time, merger talks were coming into play. I guess Bob Kallet’s health problems led to perhaps to sell to Carrols, which finally did happen in the middle of February 1974. Bob Kallet was hoping that his sons would carry on with the theatres like he had from his farther, but it didn’t come about. One son went on to be president of the Oneida Savings Bank and another president of Oneida Limited Silversmiths. Carrols has redesignated the theatre division to the CinemaNational Theatres name and had built several twin theatres in Michigan, Idaho and North Carolina, eventuality in the early 80’s sold the New York State theatres to Robert Smerling of Connecticut then to USA Cinemas, then to Loews, then Hoyt’s and new Regal. and the out-of-state ones to United Artists. Today, none of the mentioned Syracusse area theatres are still standing, except for the Westcott, operating as a “art” house and the Cinema North, just a shell of a building

  9. Ellen

    Ha! You must have gotten my dollar because I know for a fact my mom took me to see the Aristocats! (I don’t remember it, but I know I was taken to it)

    I can’t believe the Cinema North is still standing. You could probably sneeze on it and it would fall over. I think the last movie I ever saw there was a horrible 3-D Western called “Comin’ At Ya.”

  10. Chris

    Love the post. I was vocal through some letters to the editor back when the Genesee met its demise. I grew up in the neighborhood and saw my first movie at the Genesee, “The One and Only” starring Henry Winkler. As I recall, the people that ran the theater opened a similar business in Madison County. Is it still running?

    I currently reside in Chicago but would love to see a Top 10 Endangered list for CNY. The Mortuary Chapel at Oakwood Cemetery should be at/near the top of the list.

  11. Greg Wolf

    I just wanted to take a moment and say what a great forum this is to remember some of the great theaters of Syracuse. I was born and raised in Syracuse and some of my earliest recollections are of going to the Genesee Theater and seeing a double bill of “Scandalous John & Sleeping Beauty” in 1971, $1,000,000 duck in 1971 and “Arnold” in 1973. I am also partial to the Westhill, Cinema East and Cinema North theaters.

    Is there a book out there with pictures of some of these old Syracuse theaters? I would love to see them, if only for my own amusement and a walk down memory lane..

    Does anyone remember or have a copy of the old CinemaNational music theme? Or a transfer of the coming attractions or opening on video? Does anyone know the name of the music? It sounds like a piece of “Library Music” that was used back in the day. As a music supervisor / producer in L.A. these days I would love to find out some info about it..

    Once again, great site and thanks for the insight.

  12. Greg Wolf

    Sorry it took so long to write back to you. Hope it’s OK. Above you will find my email address.

    I want to say thanks so much for all the fine work you did at the Genesee and all the other places you put your hear and soul into. I will forever remeber fondly my memories of these theaters and all the love and care that went into them.

    -Greg Wolf

  13. Greg Wolf

    Sorry it took so long to write back to you. Hope it’s OK. Above you will find my email address.

    I want to say thanks so much for all the fine work you did at the Genesee and all the other places you put your heart and soul into. I will forever remember fondly my memories of these theaters and all the love and care that went into them.

    -Greg Wolf

  14. George Read

    To Laura –
    Sorry for the late response, but this the first time I’ve look at this web site in quite a while. I live in Jamesville, NY, just southeast of Syracuse.

  15. TJ Edwards

    Since this page was first posted, I’ve made some updates to our page on the Kallet Genesee (mostly when George finds more stuff from those days). If anyone else has pictures of the Kallet Genesee Theatre, the Kallet Shoppingtown Theatres, or any other Central New York theatre, I’d love to see them, and possibly include them (with permission and credit) on our site. I’ve inquired at the county historical organization, but their fees for research and reuse are (though understandable) out of my budget. I can be reached from the contact page on Cinema Sightlines. Just to repeat the most important thing about the Kallet Genesee: GEORGE READ. Mr. Read made that theatre a showplace, and many of us will never forget him for that.

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  17. Claire

    Hi All,
    I just discovered this website. I also am looking for a recording of the CinemaNational music that was played right before the movie started as the curtain was opening.
    Our band has this as a piece called Holiday in Montreux. I don’t know if that’s what CinemaNational called it or if they commissioned the recording. If anyone ever found out for Greg, could you please pass it on to me?
    I lived in Baldwinsville and went to many movies at the Kallet Genesee. I did not know about George Read when I was young, but I have fond memories of movies in that theater. Thank you!!

  18. Joe Vogel

    While researching for the Kallet Genesee page at Cinema Treasures, I came across a couple of bits of information not mentioned above that might interest you. The April 1, 1950, issue of Boxoffice Magazine published a rendering of the proposed Genesee Theatre by its architect, Michael J. DeAngelis. Construction began later that year. Albanese Brothers built the building, and it was operated under lease by Kallet Theatres.

    I’ve been unable to find the exact opening date for the Genesee, but the March 14 issue of Boxoffice said that the theater had recently opened.

    Michael DeAngelis was a Rochester architect who designed many theaters from the 1920s into the 1950s, some as far away as Florida, though I’ve been able to track down the names of only a few. His page at Cinema Treasures currently lists a mere dozen.

    I’ve been unable to find out anything about Albanese Brothers, but it’s likely that they were a local firm of builders and developers in Syracuse.

    Scans of Boxoffice Magazine and its predecessors are currently available at issuu.com, and there are many articles and brief items about upstate New York theaters, some going back to the mid-1920s. If you’re interested in the subject this is a good place to search for information about it. I’ve found it easier to search through Google than through Issuu’s own search box, though.

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  21. Jeffrey

    What were they thinking when they decided to tear this down? Someone should have steped in and stopped it. Now there s just a n empty building doing no one any good!!!! We all miss the $1 movies and $.50 popcorn. Those were the days!!!!!

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