Lost Nyack: The Rockland Theater
by Mike Hays
Nyack’s history is visible in its preserved buildings, from its Victorian homes to its 19th century brick commercial buildings. However, much has been lost to time due to weather, development, and neglect. Lost Nyack is a series that explores remarkable places now lost in time.
A decade-long rubble of bricks graced North Broadway between High and First Ave in downtown Nyack. The rubble was a temporary monument to Nyack’s million-dollar movie palace, the Rockland Theater, which brought the lush dreams of Hollywood to Nyack from 1928-1967.
Was the Rockland Theater beyond saving? Was preservation not important at the time of its demise? Could the building have been repurposed? The story of the Rockland Theater is a mirror of downtown Nyack in the mid-20th century–from a vibrant, though small, downtown to a down-on-its-heels enclave ready to graduate into a new vibrancy in the 21st century.
The birth of the Rockland Theater
By the mid-1920s, lavish movie palaces were sweeping America. Talkies first appeared in 1927. The Rockland Theater, touted in advertising as “the million-dollar theater,” was opened in May, 1928, on North Broadway, between High and New Streets. Five houses, two on Broadway and three on High Street, were demolished to make room for the theater.
The exterior of the theater was nothing extravagant. A three-story sign lit with flashing incandescent bulbs jutted out from the second floor of the brick exterior above a fairly standard marquee. On the south side, at various times through the 1950s, was Stark’s restaurant; and on the north side, a classic railroad diner, the Club Diner.
Inside was a different world. An oriental rug once adorned the center of the lobby along with a bronze statue of an Egyptian on a horse. The theater held 1,800 and sloped down to a large curtained stage 35 feet deep, with a Wurlitzer organ on one side along with room for other musicians. Red, white, and blue footlights with dimmers and side spotlights were used for live performances.
An ornate, 3,000-pound chandelier hung from a domed ceiling. According to an early announcement there was a “beautiful ladies’ retiring room” and a smoking room for gentlemen, complete with “modern equipment.”
Opening night at the Rockland Theater
The theater opening was a big deal in Rockland. Just before its opening, a contest was held by the Journal News for four jobs as ushers open to “every normal-sized intelligent girl.” Myrtle Hess of Castle Heights was the winner with an amazing 64,975 votes. The three other winners totaled over 30,000 votes.
On the first night, May 16, 1928, every one of the 1,800 seats was taken to watch a silent movie, High School Hero. Supreme Court Justice Arthur S. Thompkins gave a speech, as did the owners Bratter and Pollock, who had recently developed the lavish Oritani theater in Hackensack. The giant Wurlitzer organ played by professional organist Jack Taylor was a big hit with the audience, especially with sing-alongs. During vaudeville performances, an eight piece orchestra played. During the first week, Two Arabian Nights and The Arizona Wildcat also played. The first sound picture at the theater was The Lights of New York, shown later in 1928
Early days at the theater
According to William Motto, the projectionist who was with the theater for all of its 30 years, the theater was packed in its early days: “standing across the aisles and at the back of the balcony, people were lined up around the corner on High Street waiting for the next show.” In a good week, 12-15,000 people would attend. Sixteen people worked in the theater including ticket sellers, takers, ushers, a doorman, projectionist, and cleaners.
The theater was packed especially in the summer months, when Rockland Lake vacationers were in town. The Rockland Theater played to a full house throughout the Depression. The stage was used for special performances during World War II, with celebrities like Helen Hayes appearing to promote the sale of war bonds. The projectionist remembers Lenny Bruce appearing on stage when he was stationed at Camp Shanks during WWII.
Some time before 1952, African Americans, shamefully, could only sit in the balcony. One account cited in Nyack in the 20th Century states that “if you made an attempt to go downstairs, they’d call the police station and the police would come and drag you out.” According to the family of Leo Avardnay, manager of the theater from 1952 until it closed, people of color were never excluded or separated in seating during his time as manager. Smokers were limited to the balcony.
By the 1960s, the public’s taste for entertainment changed, as did Nyack’s downtown. Television was replacing movies as entertainment. Malls replaced small village business centers. Racial tension was felt in Nyack. Parking was limited.
Rockland Theater began to be neglected. Matthew Seig, executive director of Rivertown Films, remembers the theater as being a little run down when he first saw Babes in Toyland and It’s a Mad, Mad World. The screen was patched, the floor was sticky, and buckets were used to catch water leaking through the ceiling. On November 7, 1967, the theater closed for good. Lester Post, the doorman, said he “thought it was the most beautiful theater in the world.”
There were proposals to turn the building into a warehouse, a supermarket, a roller-skating rink, and community center. But according to Nyack Mayor Caglione, the cost of renovation was just too high. The property was taken over by the nearby First Chartered Savings and Loan Association (now a Chase Bank). According to Leontine Temsky, a Nyack historian and reporter about the theater demolition for Connections Magazine, villagers lined the sidewalk on April 5, 1978 and for days after to see the wrecking ball start the weeks’ long demolition of the theater. In 1993, the Victorian Mews, a combination of condos and shops, was built on the site.
We didn’t just lose a movie theater or an architectural gem or a piece of our history; we lost a potential gathering place for art and music that would fit our resurgent village hand in glove. It’s sad to think of what might have been, a Nyack-flavored, deco-style, type of Tarrytown Music Hall, a Broadway Theater for arts and music.
Nyack’s Lost Theaters, John Patrick Schutz
Nyack’s Rockland Theater…Razing the Curtain, Connection Magazine, Leontine Zemiles, 1978
Photos: Historical photos courtesy of the Nyack Library. Current photos by Mike Hays
“Double feature: A History of Nyack Cinemas and Theaters”
Exhibition of the Historical Society of the Nyacks opened on Saturday September 14, 2019 and runs through Saturday, November 23, 2019.
For over 100 years, people had the pleasure of attending movies and dramatic performances in downtown Nyack. This exhibition will be nostalgic, surprising, and fun, as it explores three 19th century motion picture theaters and two live performance theaters in Nyack. The interactive display will include vintage photos and playbills from the archives of the Nyack Library and Historical Society, silent movies, a photo booth, and a book for visitors to record their memories of the stages and screens of Nyack.
Location: The Historical Society of the Nyacks, 50 Piermont Avenue, Nyack NY 10960 – in the historic Depew house across from Memorial Park. Enter under the front porch.
Open Hours are Saturdays from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M.
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.