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My father has never gotten over the fact the city tore down the RKO Palace Theater in the 1960s. A couple years ago, he showed me a booklet produced as a memento of the downtown theater.

It is beautiful and heartbreaking to think this was right in our center city:

“The 2916-seat theatre had provisions for every type of stage show. There was a bath for trained seals, a chute for bringing animals into the stage basement and onto the stage, and seven floors of dressing rooms that included a billiard room, kitchen and children’s playroom for the convenience and comfort of performers.”

“On its site will be erected a modern motel-office-theatre complex with twin eighteen story towers. The new 1200-seat theatre will be in the luxury class with the latest projection and sound equipment plus roomy seats that offer patrons “living room comfort.”

Nothing was ever built. It’s a parking lot on Mortimer St.

I was inspired to take out the old booklet when I read about the enormous success of Shea’s in Buffalo.


20 Responses to What Were They Thinking?

  1. How sad is it that the RKO was not even 40 years old when it was demolished?

  2. December 25, 2011 at 10:51 pm Mark Powers responds:

    I was virtually raised in the RKO Palace. And a palace it was. My grandfather, Harry Lamoureaux, was the backstage manager of the RKO. He started out as an usher before WWII and then after he got back he got involved in Rochester theaters. I spent weekends there (from 1959 until 1966) watching movies and exploring the place. There were floors of dressing rooms and all kinds of cool (to a kid) places to rummage around in. I would occasionally watch movies from behind the screen as they were projected onto a thin screen called a scrim. I still have some of the stills from movies that played there. The lobby, bathrooms, and even the theater proper were way more ornate and beautiful (some say gaudy) than the Eastman (where my grandfather also worked). The bathrooms in the RKO were larger than some of the present day suburban theaters themselves. I can see in my minds eye going through the lobby to go up upholstered stairs that led to giant brass doors that opened into the seating area. Absolutely beautiful. Anyway thanks for this post as I have seen the Rundel archives on the RKO and this pamphlet is a great addition to look through. Merry Christmas.

  3. Nice! I wonder if I ever attended a movie there. Eastman Theatre was built as a movie house too. Lucky it survived because it housed an orchestra house.

  4. My favorite part about the RKO was watching a movie from the balcony and its close proximity to the Paramount and Lowe’s theaters. A 10 cent bus ride to downntown with my brother and always something to see.

  5. This is right where the Mortimer St. bus terminal is going to be built. You see? All is not lost after all 😉 Just kidding. We’ve literally lost half our city to developers and so-called planners who told us they were doing the right thing for Rochester.

    As I’ve been told by older generations of Rochesterians who remember this old theater, not many people at the time voiced any concern at all to save it. We were duped into believing newer and bigger was better. Even if “newer and bigger” never actually came. Whoops. At least the old eyesore was removed, and now we all have a convenient place to park our cars.

    Unfortunately, we just don’t build places like this anymore. My hope is that we (collectively) have learned from these mistakes. Unfortunately, in Rochester this very same story continues to play out over and over again. I could point to dozens of parking lots and grassy “green” space where this is true.

    Thanks for sharing this booklet. Great stuff.

  6. When I was a little kid and my Dad worked for the RG&E, they would have their Christmas party for the kids of employees at the RKO. It was truly a memorable experience. Larger than life really…. and So Beautiful

  7. December 26, 2011 at 11:51 am Carlos Mercado responds:

    I would love to meet your father and hear his stories. I am guessing we’re about the same age – I’m 65, going on 17…. I was at the RKO once, as a little boy to see The Robe. It was night, and I don’t remember anything about the theater. We were in town to visit friends. I also did not know there was a nifty trolley subway running nearby.

    Movies today are technologically better than when I was a kid, but my children and grandchildren will never know the inexplicable joy of entering the magic of a Movie Palace to see a film. I am greatful for The Little, The Cinema, and The Dryden, and I go to a mall cineplex about once every five years. 🙂

  8. December 26, 2011 at 1:10 pm PAUL QUARTIERI responds:

    well look at the urban renewal project of the mid to late 1960’s? there are vacant lots that still exsist from what the city promised to bulid there but never materialised just like when the inner loop was constructed same thing what was the city thinking?

    • December 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm Carlos Mercado responds:

      Urban Renewal (which came to be called “Urban Removal”) was a well-intentioned attempt to apply “successful” suburban solutions to urban centers. While a suburb is designed around automobile travel, center cities require abundant entry/exits from office buildings, apartments, shops, theaters, et al. Urban transportation is to extend the range of the walker and must be friendly to the higher density populations of cities and their infrastructure. Bix box buidlings and malls bring death to urban streets.

      The Inner Loop looked fine on paper in the early 1950’s, and few realized it was a medieval moat that disconnected Downtown from the rest of Rochester. Expressways were supposed to run from the edge of a city to connect it to other regions. Bringing them to the center of a city mainly destroyed hundreds of acres of private land and hurt the viability of urban centers.

  9. Yes your father has many memories of the “good old life”, where cities were the center of activity, where families enjoyed wholesome entertainment, and life seemed simpler to navigate.

    Mom ( Susan)

  10. December 26, 2011 at 5:24 pm Cary Barnhart responds:

    Great post, Rachel. I find it so ironic that today Monroe County awaits a messiah to fund a performing arts center when almost 50 years ago we tore down what was akin to Shea’s Buffalo. Even Syracuse had the wisdom to save their Loew’s State (now Landmark) Theater. Same for Utica, Albany, Schenectady…the list goes on.

  11. My sister and I would take the bus downtown to the RKO Palace, who could forget the velvet curtains, the “Royal Surroundings”, the long staircase with red carpeting to the balcony, the velveteen seats, the guilding of gold sconces, frescos, much like a European castle, well.. the RKO PALACE it was. When they tore it down, many watched across the street crying.
    Hell, we still cry when we see Sibley’s building, great memories gone.

  12. The brochure’s stated purpose was to raise funds to move the magnificent pipe organ to another location in Rochester. Does anyone know if this actually happened? Was it saved at all?

  13. December 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm Carlos Mercado responds:

    Yes, the Mighty Wurlitzer is happily esconced in the Auditorium Theatre and is lovingly maintained by the Rochester Theater Organ Society. Regular concerts are given and there are recordings you can purchase.

    Ironically, the Rochester Broadway Theater League says the 2,400 seat Auditorium is too small for their needs and they have been lobbying for public funding for a new theater/arts center. So, the future of the “Aud” may not be all that certain.

  14. December 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm Carlos Mercado responds:

    That would be my hope, as it and the Eastman and the two remaining larger theaters from before WWII. Before any local or state money is used, I would hope an independent engineer’s report is done vis-a-vis upgrading the present structure, and if the 600 seat difference between the Auditorium and a new theater is critical to the overall use of an arts center.

  15. January 3, 2012 at 8:36 pm Jim Havalack responds:

    Read Curt Gerling’s Smug town Rochester and you will find the answer why nice things in Rochester are torn town.

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