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.
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.