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Yes, it’s true that at one time a single family owned just about every Fall River movie theater; but the real powerhouse behind those theaters—the man who kept them profitable and comfortable way beyond their advanced years—was the late John McAvoy. For over 40 years, that friendly Irishman managed at one time or another the Durfee, Empire, Center, Academy, Park, Strand and Embassy. But even John’s unique personality could not compete with TV and the convenient parking at suburban movie theaters. It’s also true that when John McAvoy was not physically at the Durfee, it just wasn’t the Durfee.
Gerald, My strangest memory of the old Durfee Theatre is the near kiddie riot when the “Howdy Doody Road Show” came to town in the early 50’s. The newspaper ads featured pictures of Howdy, Buffalo Bob Smith, Clarabelle and other characters of the NBC show. We school children were thrilled that we were going to see the show’s stars in person right on the Durfee’s massive stage. But wait! What’s this? That’s not Buffalo Bob—it was his “brother Bill”. And that’s too tall to be the real Clarabelle. And Princess Summer Fall Winter Spring looks suspiciously like the guy who just played Chief Thunderthud. Our loudness and booing cut the show short…very short.
The last photo I saw that related to the old Durfee Theatre was a line up of ushers in their dress uniforms as published in the “Fall River Herald News”.The exterior of the Durfee was very deceiving. It looked rather small from the outside, but once inside, the massive lobby was art deco at its best. The regal staircase was truly majestic. I can still smell the popcorn pouring out of the cast iron popper, and I can still hear the head usher shouting, “Immediate seating in the balcony, folks!” Sadly, that beautiful lobby was converted for a time into a Chinese restaurant in the 70’s.
This beautiful art deco theatre’s lobby featured a black marble fish pond with extremely large gold fish. A former vaudeville theatre, the Durfee is where W.C. Fields once angered audiences by proclaiming, “Providence, Rhode Island without Brown University would just be Fall River, Massachusetts."
The Durfee was the second stop for vaudeville acts after first playing Fay’s Theatre in Providence. That theatre was the first to utilize an hydraulic-operated stage microphone. The microphone would rise from the stage floor or disappear into it with a push of an of-stage button.