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Remembering Louisville’s Glorious Movie Row

Submitted photo

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I found myself on the stage of the Brown Theatre interviewing a distinguished filmmaker about his new movie. All of the sudden, as I sat there looking out at the audience of nearly 1,000 people, I was swept back 50 or 60 years ago to the days when the Brown was just one of a whole cluster of theatres in downtown Louisville that screened movies.

When it opened in 1925, the Brown, which was the brainchild of hotel mogul J. Graham Brown, was something of a marvel. It was modeled on the Music Box Theatre in New York—the theatre owned by songwriter Irving Berlin, which playwright Moss Hart’s brother Bernie called “The Money Box”—and initially was the home of vaudeville and legitimate theatre. All that changed in 1929 with the coming of talking pictures and the collapse of the economy. Mr. Brown saw the importance of movies and converted the theatre to show them.

An aside: I remember Mr. Brown well. He was a compact little man, impeccably tailored, with Stetson hats and a little Pekingese dog on a leash. When I was young, he lived in the Brown Hotel, had his breakfast every morning in the coffee shop there, and then walked out to Fourth Street to await his limousine. On more than one occasion he greeted me, when I was a youngster. Today, there is a statue of him, and his dog, in front of the hotel that still bears his name.

The Brown was one of downtown Louisville’s movie palaces, but it was not the only one, and despite the A-1 pictures it screened over the years (“The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “South Pacific,” “The Absent-Minded Professor” and others), it wasn’t the grandest.

That honor, I should think, would go to the Loew’s United Artists, known today as The Palace. That rococo showplace (and it is one) opened in 1928, just after Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” upended the making of movies (in much the same way the Internet has thrown newspapers into disarray). “The Jazz Singer” played across the street at the Rialto Theatre, always my favorite, and more on that in a bit.

The Loew’s was one of a few dozen theatres across America managed by the chain of movie palaces that also owned the fabulous film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Before a 1948 Supreme Court decision broke up the monopoly, theater chains and movie studios were joined at the hip. In Louisville, that meant that pictures from MGM went to the Loew’s, pictures from RKO went to the Rialto, and pictures from Columbia and Warner Brothers landed at the Brown, the Kentucky or the Ohio. Walt Disney pictures almost always were at the Rialto.

The Loew’s was big, and its lobby was busy. The concession stand was one of the best ever, with long freezers filled with frozen malted milks and “Drumsticks,” those ice cream bars dipped in chocolate and chopped nuts. For a time they also sold chocolate covered frozen bananas. Popcorn flowed from a popper the size of a cotton gin, and if you wanted it buttered, the concessionaire pushed the brown and yellow cup of popcorn under a dispenser. I don’t know if even then it was real butter, but the concessionaires called it “Reel-Butter Popcorn.” If the movie was a blockbuster, like “The King and I” or “Oklahoma!” concessionaires also hocked souvenir programs, most of which I collected and still have in my possession today.
In my memory, the glorious end of Movie Row came in a short period in the mid-1960s.
Louisville was a certified big city in my childhood; in the 1950s and 1960s it was among the nation’s top 25 or 30. But rarely did we have a Hollywood premiere with Klieg lights, tuxedos and the like. It did happen once in my childhood, on the eve of my seventh birthday, when Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and the cast of “Raintree County” assembled for the premiere of that movie at the Brown. My little family climbed into our new Oldsmobile and drove downtown to observe it all. My younger brother and I were told that (a) “Raintree County” was set in Danville, which was just down the road from Louisville; and (b) Elizabeth Taylor was a major movie star. I have a vague memory of a raven-haired woman in a silk gown riding in a convertible. Of course, our family just took a few turns around the block and headed home to St. Matthews.

Of all the theatres on Movie Row, however, none surpassed The Rialto for beauty, elegance, comfort or (as our 1930s movie makers boasted) “class.” Built in 1920 by the Louisville architectural firm of Joseph and Joseph, its classical façade was a dazzling assemblage of white-glazed terra cotta tile from Cincinnati’s legendary Rookwood Pottery (which also lines the Rathskeller of the Seelbach Hotel). The Rialto cost a million dollars (in 1920-dollars) to build and seated 3,500 people. When it opened in 1921, it boasted a magnificent marble staircase and a huge pipe organ. I climbed those stairs many times.

Its name was steeped in history. “The Rialto” in Venice was the financial and commercial center of Venice. Remember Solanio’s line in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”?: “So, what’s the news on the Rialto?” For decades The New York Times called its theatrical gossip column, “News on the Rialto.” Playwright-extraordinaire George S. Kaufman named the column.

Our Rialto was a special place. In the 1930s, it was the venue for all of Katharine Hepburn’s great films. While “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” opened across the street at the Loew’s, “Gunga Din” packed in weeks of crowds at the Rialto. Move forward into the 1950s and the Rialto was the site for all the Disney revivals (“Bambi,” “Pinocchio,” “Song of the South” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)

But by 1960 or so, the competition was getting stronger. Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson,” which ran for almost six months at the Ohio Theatre, a cheapie place next to the Brown Hotel, was setting records. The Ohio, which smelled of rancid butter and whose floor was sticky with semi-dried sodas, also was the venue for other Disney films.

The Mary Anderson, named for the sort of great actress, was right across the alley from the Rialto. It was the home for Warner Brothers pictures. The seats weren’t comfortable, but films were good. By the 1960s, it was changed to the Mary Anderson Towne Cinema, and the décor instide was changed to reflect the current picture being shown. Some of the best? “April Fools” with Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuvre, “The Sterile Cuckoo” with Liza Minnelli and Wendell Burton,” and “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)” with Robert Morse, Rudey Vallee and Michelle Lee.

By the early 1960s, Theatre Row was in its final stage, but those of us who trooped downtown for lunch at Stewart’s or the California Orange Bar, or the Blue Boar had no idea. At the Rialto, they installed projectors first for “Cinerama,” and then for “Todd-a-O”. My fifth grade class in 1961 all trooped downtown to see “This Is Cinerama” at the Rialto. What I remember best is the roller-coaster ride, as well as the choir singing at the Vatican. All black-and-white.

In my memory, the glorious end of Movie Row came in a short period in the mid-1960s. “My Fair Lady” opened at the Penthouse in early 1965, and the dazzling recreation of the Broadway success played for more than a year. (The Penthouse had been created in 1962 by dividing the balcony of the Loews—now Palace—into two theatres. The United Artists was downstairs; the Penthouse, reached by a seemingly endless escalator was upstairs.) Downstairs, at the United Artists, Julie Andrews opened in Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins” in January 1965. Across the street, at the Rialto, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” opened that same year. It played in Louisville—either at the Rialto or the Penthouse—for well over a year. Todd-a-O was an amazing film format. It was a combination of wide-screen and 3-D. When Julie Andrews walked through the brooks as they tripped and fell, it was truly like being in the hills above Salzburg.

The last time I went to the Rialto was in the spring of 1968. My Aunt Lucille, who had been my guide to downtown theaters for many years, arranged for me to see the revival of “Gone With the Wind” with an elderly aunt, Minnie. We saw the four-hour film, and then went for refreshments at the Brown. It was a last gasp from the 1950s for me. There would be more moments at Theatre Row movies in the next few years, but their time was ending.

Our city looked eastward—to the Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road, then to the Oxmoor Cinemas. They are now long gone. Now we go to Stonybrook, Baxter and Tinseltown.

For me, however, the grand era of motion pictures in Louisville is in my memory. And how marvelous it is.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.