Comments from SEHarker

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SEHarker commented about Empire Theater on Nov 30, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Gerald & “fpokeeffe”:

I got a “Notification” of your query this AM and contacted King “Doc” Odell for a comment. King is currently living a very active retirement, and out of respect for his privacy (which I promised to protect) I am giving you his written response sans any electronic identification:

“I did know Gerry DeLuca from the Italian teaching days, and I did at times see movies at the Cable Car Cinema when he showed some Italian movie that struck my fancy.

I bought the Empire from Margie and Larry O'Keefe at a date too vague to recall. I have kept all the little programs of all the movies I did show at the Empire.

I sold it to Bob Huggins who made some improvements. He got caught up in the Credit Union fiasco in Rhode Island and had to sell it to the present owner who has made many changes (food, bar, etc.). I have never met him. His name is Gary Pollard and he comes from New York. From what I gather, he has a full-fledged apartment on the upper floor. He is frequently in the BI Times, fighting the zoning and Historial Boards over what he wants to do. He has made a considerable financial commitment to the building.

He keeps it open far longer than I did for a season. I had to get back to school (Moses Brown School, Providence, RI (SEH)).

DeLuca has always been a theatre buff, and is quite a pleasant guy."

Hope this helps.


SEHarker (MBS, ‘64)

SEHarker commented about Empire Theater on Nov 24, 2007 at 2:29 pm


First, I want to “Thank you” for your compliment. Second, I was stunned by our connection with King O’Dell (I was one of the worse Spanish students he ever had the misfortune to teach at Moses Brown). A word to the wise, tho, I would not want King to know we were referring to him in the past-tense, as he continues to thrive, in retirement, as MB’s Historian (and, as to not detract from the purpose of these “Comments” we should take that discussion off-line).

As for my recollections of the Empire Theater, I can honestly say those three summers (’64 to ’66) were among the most enjoyable of my life, and that the Sixties under King’s ownership, may well have been the first real “hey-day” for the theater (in the hope, under its current ownership, it will experience a second). Your picture of the Ticket Booth, clearly “spiffed up” since I last saw it, brought back sharp memories of King standing inside with his black rimmed glasses and a cigar. All he lacked was a green eye shade. King, to those who know him well, aside from being a consummate linguist, and track coach is (or was at that time), a dyed in the wool “Capitalist”.

As such, I suspect profit was paramount in the operation of his BI enterprises, including the Theater, and while he insured it did not crumble further, I have often felt more could have been done to protect that investment. I also suspect, in addition to management indifference, the quality of films I saw being produced beginning in the late 60’s may have contributed to, not just the Empire’s decline, but to that of many single screens around the country.

If I may, back to your pictures for a moment. One picture of yours which I find fascinating is the Post Card shot taken of the Empire back in what may have been the late Twenties or early Thirties with the Stature to “Temperance” in the foreground. The fascinating aspect is that you really can’t tell when it was taken. But, the front façade would not indicate the building was being used as a “Theater” at the time. If you can share any additional comments on same I’d love to know more about it.

At the moment I am writing a (relatively) short “Comment” on the Reading (, MA) Theater. I learned my Projectionist skills there just prior to going down to BI in ‘64, and it represents the quintessential example of the demise of a 1940’s small town theater in the 60’s. Look for it in a few days.

SEHarker commented about Empire Theater on Nov 24, 2007 at 11:12 am

Having discovered this Website entirely by accident, I’d like to add some additional information as a former Assistant Manager (a.k.a., Janitor) and Projectionist for the Empire Theater in the mid-1960’s (’64 to ’66).

Gerald A. DeLuca’s 1970 image resembles the theater as I remember it, right down to the yellow light bulbs over the front door. Movie posters were “glued” to the 3 oversized billboards, visible in the front, by using wallpaper-type glue. Given the large board covering the second floor picture window, that photo was likely taken during the off-season

Much of what has already been written here about the Empire is consistent with my own memories of the time. Along with the rumor of it having been a skating rink (1920’s, perhaps?) the theater was also believed to have been a (Horse?) trolley car barn around the end of the 19th century. As to when the building became a theater is open to debate but I believe, based on old movie posters I found in 1964 on the stage behind the screen and the age of its projectors, it was probably some time in the early to mid 1930’s.

In the summers of 1964 to 1966, Block Island was considered a Rhode Island “Blue Collar” worker’s paradise. Owners of Block Island tourist establishments sought to maximize profits with a commitment of minimal yearly financial investments. The Empire Theater, in the mid-1960’s, reflected this philosophy, and in doing so (health and safety codes of the time notwithstanding), practically defined the term “Summer Rustic”.

At that time (as well as for some years before and after) the Theater was owned by one King (“Doc”) O’Dell, a language teacher (now retired) at Moses Brown School in Providence, RI. At that time King also owned the “King’s Spa”, a Drug Store/Soda fountain directly across Water St. from the Theater.

The Theater’s interior flooring, in the mid 1960’s, consisted of large, worn wooden planks. Its seats were hard, wooden and uncomfortable, flip-up contraptions that could have (and may have) come from a 1920’s high school auditorium (I agree with the 300 seating capacity figure). The screen, hung over the front of the stage, was old and stained. The black cloth bordering it was ripped in various places and was in such a delicate state of disrepair we avoided touching it for fear it would dissolve into a pile of dust.

“Air-conditioning” in the building, apparently now as then, consisted of rows of upper and lower open screened windows on each side of the building (still visible in the first two of DeLuca’s photos of April 3, 2005) which could be covered with wooden panels (also shown in the April images) using a simple cord and pulley system (also, in the mid-1960’s the upstairs front room (with picture window) which could have been the theater’s original projection booth at one time, was used as a “dorm” room for King’s Moses Brown student employees (including myself)).

In the mid-1960’s the theater’s Projection Booth – situated at floor level in the back of the theater â€" was an 10’ by 12’ structure built of Asbestos-impregnated slabs of sheet rock â€" and contained two very old (1930’s era) Simplex 35mm arc lamp projectors, powered by rectifier bulbs housed elsewhere in the building. Both required constant maintenance, and hard to find replacement parts when bubble gum and bailing wire (not to mention curses) failed to correct the problem.. The drive mechanisms for the arc lamps, alone, were so worn and loose they required almost constant adjustment during the course of each reel if a “pure” white light was to be maintained on the screen. Lacking its own air-conditioning, the temperature in the booth could reach 120 degrees on a hot, humid summer afternoon. One humorous memory I have of the time was a persistent problem with a sixty cycle “Hum” that came through the antiquated sound system during shows and which, for the three summers I was there, had King tearing his hair out, when it totally defied the repair skills of the Island’s and Mainland’s best electricians and sound technicians.

As I recall, under King’s ownership we ran movies three times a day â€" once in the afternoon at 2:00 PM, and twice in the evening at 7:00 and 9:30 PM, 7 days a week, rain or shine, from a week or more before the 4th of July through and including Labor Day week. If film length required it only one show would be run in the evening. Tickets were under $1.00 for kids and under $2.00 for adults. At the entrance, on the left across from the ticket booth was a small room where all sorts of candy and popcorn could be obtained. On average we ran 3 to 4 films a week (which, if you do the math, was about 30 to 40 films a season). The films and trailers were shipped in their canisters from and back to Providence on the old Block Island ferry.

Film selection, of course, was critical to the success of a seasonal theater, and King’s taste in those summers was eclectic. What few would appreciate today is that in the 1960’s, aside from feeding the entertainment needs of the Island’s seasonal vacationing crowd, both parents and children, the Theater was a God-send for the Island’s year around population. Having little or no access to mainland theaters over the off-season, they hungered for Hollywood’s products of the time. King recognized this and his selections for each season featured all the major film successes of the prior 12 months spaced out over the season. This always insured a sizable percentage of his attendance each week were Islanders. Indirectly, as I would learn in time, my particular role also tagged me a “valued” summer worker in the eyes of the Islanders.

As I learned during my October, 2004 trip the Empire Theater did, indeed, fall into a state of disrepair, then closed and was condemned from 1986 through 1992, but had then been resurrected by new owners. Today, the theater’s modern, upscale appearance, both external and internal, is a far cry from the rough honed character of the theater I remember. But, it gives me hope it will continue in its primary mission to entertain for years to come, and if its owners remember that it is also there to provide its audiences the experience of going back in time to the age of small hometown Movie Theaters (with apologies to DeLuca for jumping on his thoughts), they â€" and it â€" will survive.