187-02 Union Turnpike,
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The Utopia Theater stood mid-way between 188th and 187th Streets on Union Turnpike in Jamaica, Queens.
Opened on January 1, 1942, no one could call this tiny theater a movie palace, but to all who went there, especially the children, it offered all the excitement and wonder of any theater 50 times its size. The marquee of the theater (topped by large, round, red Art Deco style letters that spelled its name) was so small that many titles of films had to be abbreviated. Also, the names of stars had to be brought to their shortest form. So it was that J. Allyson starred with V. Johnson in “Hi Barbaree” and B. Grable and D. Daily appeared in “Mom Wore Tights!”
The outer doors of the Utopia Theater led into a small, wide lobby, with one sheets of coming attractions in glass showcases, covering its walls. The ticket booth was on the far right of the lobby, facing the theater, and across from it, a long stand, behind which stood the ticket taker. The Utopia Theater was owned by an unlikely pair. Mr. Paul Raisler, a short, jovial, Jewish man, and Miss Wright (no one knew her first name), a tall, Wasp-y lady who, in her man tailored suits and swept up hair, looked very much like a young Katherine Hepburn (Wright sold the tickets/Raisler took and ripped them).
Inside the theater, the auditorium was to the right while the ladies and gentlemen’s rooms were to the left, in a recessed lounge area. Between the rest rooms was a water fountain, above which was a long hard plastic cylinder holding cone shaped paper cups. The cups started out costing a penny, then were given away for free and then disappeared altogether, leaving their dispenser as a reminder of what had been.
There were two candy machines in the lounge area, and the “ching” of the coin being dropped, the “ka-chung” of the plunger under the selection being pulled, and the “thunk” of the candy hitting the bottom opening could be heard all through the show. No one cared. It was the Utopia! The theater’s small screen was surrounded by Art Deco style half moons. It’s thin, gauzy curtains pulled sideways as the show began.
The Utopia Theater showed Movietone News and in the 1940’s there were also bond drives and kiddie shows with twenty cartoons, a serial (“The Sea Hound”, “Rocketman”), and a children’s feature, like “Bill and Coo”. On those days, and on all Saturdays, a small gray haired woman, dressed in a white nurses uniform patrolled the theater, brandishing a flashlight and a small black purse from which she gave change for the candy machines.
Though the Utopia Theater never offered stereo sound or 3-D, it did convert to CinemaScope in the summer of 1954 with “Garden of Evil”, followed by “The High and the Mighty” (the coming attractions were always preceeded by a glittering screen, lighting horizontal lines that read “Sunday through Tuesday” and “Thursday through Saturday.” (for years, Wednesdays were given over to revivals or foreign films.)
On the way out of the theater, on the back of the entry doors were small wooden boxes containing the programs telling you what was coming soon. Nothing more than folded pieces of paper with either green or blue lettering on a white background, these programs, done up in horizontal lines that formed a months grid, were an exciting extra as you left the theater. (I can still smell the fresh print of the programs on the day that the new ones were delivered to the theater!)
Mr. Raisler died first, and shortly before she herself died, Miss Wright sold the theater. The already tiny auditorium was twinned into two miniscule theaters. After a number of years, unable to keep up with the two large multiplexes only a few streets away, the Utopia Theater shuttered and was converted into a drug store around 1999.
What no one knew was that there was nothing that any drugstore could sell that could match the curative powers of the Utopia Theater when the lights went down and the screen flickered to life.
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