I was 4, maybe 5. It was my first movie. The theater was the North Park.
The name of the movie was “Dynamite!” – a “truth in packaging” title if ever there was one.
My older brother and I had somehow arrived late so we had to sit in one of the first five rows. The movie began with a guy setting a dynamite charge on a mountain and getting his foot trapped between two mountain rocks.
A couple of buddies begin to race toward the poor unfortunate dynamiter to save him. The fuse countdown has begun. 10-9-8-7-6, etc.
He waves them off. Just save yourselves, he yells.
And is then blown to smithereens with the loudest noise I had ever heard until that moment.
That was it. The sight and sound on the huge North Park Theatre screen just a few feet away from my 4-year-old self was too much for me. I burst into weeping and wailing and racing up the aisles of the North Park in the purest terror of my entire life (still).
My older brother, who was recovering from foot surgery, was in no position to chase after me and calm me down. Ushers, no doubt, intercepted me.
You wouldn’t think it the most auspicious beginning for life as a future movie critic, but that’s what it was. I assure you that just a few more years of Saturday matinees later I was reveling in Edmond O’Brien double bills in glorious existential black and white – “Shield for Murder” and “D.O.A.,” that truly immortal Grade B film noir directed by the great cinematographer Rudy Mate, the man who shot both Karl Dreyer’s “Vampyr” and Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be.”
I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course. I wouldn’t have cared. Paying attention to directors was a few years down the road. But I sure knew the difference in that one double bill between a pretty good throwaway programmer like “Shield for Murder” and a weird B-movie minor classic like “D.O.A.” I realized many decades later how much the beginning of John Boorman’s and Lee Marvin’s “Point Blank” owed to Rudy Mate and Edmond O’Brien (and, after Boorman and Marvin, how much Mel Gibson’s “Point Blank” called “Payback” owed to Mate).
The North Park Theatre had taught me to know the difference – just by showing the films.
It was our own Cinema Paradiso – a beautiful old Mike Shea neighborhood movie palace to which all the neighborhood parents would drop off the kids for a happy Saturday matinee costing only pennies. (Unless, that is, you were 4 and seeing your first movie and proving just how much a primal fear loud noise truly is for toddlers.)
You can, if you want, go to YouTube and watch all of the 1949 “Dynamite!” now. I tried to do it and got only 10 minutes into it. I understood why I was so terrified at the time. I also understood now in my senior years why I have no desire whatsoever to see the whole bloody (and noisy) thing again, with its hour of wall-to-wall explosions. (That’s how long those double bill B-movies often were.)
The next life of the North Park was its great life as a kid-friendly palace for Disney movies, a business consequence of Disney’s extreme disenchantment at the time with General Cinema.
And then, for the past 30 years, we’ve had its last glorious incarnation – a beautiful, if terminally shabby – neighborhood palace that functioned as the city’s premier art and independent theater. That came courtesy of the late Dipson Theater president Bernard Clement and his late great film booker, Isaac Ehrlichman, who had been agitating for such a place for a long time.
The North Park is dark now for what is quite possibly the first time in my life. (Certainly in very long memory.) Its marquee was hauntingly empty on Sunday afternoon. I could imagine large black letters announcing the Edmond O’Brien double bill or “Dynamite!” – or three decades later, the first showing of the fully restored 1983 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” (which kicked off the North Park’s premier art film identity for the past three decades).
But it would be, to understate, a hallucination.
The Clement family of Dipson announced it was letting their lease lapse after five years of North Park unprofitability for the company.
Where we are now is hoping that the building’s owner Thomas Eoannou and his partner Michael G. Christiano can fully refurbish the place and make good on Eoannou’s promise to make it “the jewel of Hertel Avenue” – which, considering the wonderful development of the street in the past decade or so, is a truly fine setting for any jewel.
Digital projection is promised. Fully repaired seats, if not up to the minute 21st century seats.
So many of us dream of a great multiuse nonprofit theater with music, theatrical performances, repertoire films and maybe, yes, some of the first-run art and independent films by which Buffalo has now known the venerable old neighborhood palace for the last 30 years.
The staff may be preserved – as promised – but some things are going to have to change.
Dipson and the North Park’s owners and new operators are going to have to declare a separate peace for the sake of a neighborhood or indeed a city. Suburbanites are going to have to understand fully that North Park parking is still far from impossible, just different from what it is when you zip right into a capacious parking lot adjacent to a Regal theater.
Dipson’s old fears of offending the neighborhood by having too much sexuality and violence right across the street from St. Margaret’s Church have to be reconsidered completely in view of the new Hertel and the end of St. Margaret’s identity as a school.
A full understanding of what the North Park might have to offer (I’ve heard to tell of stained glass windows on the second floor now covered up) has to be arrived at, as well as an intelligent way to use it as a kind of mini-North Buffalo version of Shea’s Buffalo.
But all that’s going to depend on money and passion and finesse from its new operators.
At this second, though, the theater is dark and the marquee is empty.
But I refuse to cry – yet.