Empire Theatre

17 Water Street,
Block Island, RI 02807

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CSWalczak
CSWalczak on July 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm

This theater, like so many others, is threatened by the the impending move by the studios to only supply theaters with digital prints of films: View article

bicyclereporter
bicyclereporter on July 5, 2011 at 2:47 pm

I will be in Block Island next Wed on a bike vacation. I plan to stop by at both places and take pictures and perhaps take in a movie.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

In September 1922 this theatre was part of Rhode Island’s Paramount Week. Click to see the ad in Providence News, September 1, 1922, which contains a list of all participating theatres as well as the films shown that week.

PART ONE OF AD
PART TWO OF AD

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 17, 2011 at 3:40 am

This theatre was part of the September 1923 6th Paramount Week. In this advertisement from the (Providence) Evening Tribune, September 1, 1923, we see a fascinating list of Rhode Island area theatres, many long-gone and long-forgoten, or even unheard of, as well as what they were showing during that week. CLICK HERE and move image to see all theatres.

SEHarker
SEHarker on November 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.

Rgds,

SEHarker (MBS, ‘64)

fpokeeffe
fpokeeffe on November 30, 2008 at 6:57 am

Sorry for my confusion. Thanks for the great old photos though. I am particularly interested in this one, due to my Great Uncle and the idea of a theater as a centerpiece of someplace isolated like an island would be off season.
Thanks,

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on November 30, 2008 at 4:12 am

“He would have been in his seventies when Gerald was working there.”

If you are referring to me, I never said I worked there. That 1970 image was scanned from a book. I am simply interested in the topic of old R.I. theatres and have posted my own photos of the Empire as well as historic ones I’ve found, many of them on vintage postcards.

fpokeeffe
fpokeeffe on November 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm

Does anyone know who King O'Dell bought the Empire from? I grew up with paintings from Block Island that my Dad said he got when visiting his Uncle Larry who ran a movie theater there. He would have been in his seventies when Gerald was working there.

SEHarker
SEHarker on November 24, 2007 at 2:29 pm

Gerald,

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.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on November 24, 2007 at 12:08 pm

Scott, what a fascinating recollection! I knew who King Odell was. We both had experience teaching Italian, he at Moses Brown, I at La Salle. And when I ran the Italian Film Society of RI at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence, I believe he occasionally patronized our programs.
Here is a photo of the Empire’s antique ticket booth which I took in 2005.

SEHarker
SEHarker on November 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.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on July 26, 2007 at 9:46 am

This is a recent photo of the Empire Theater.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 30, 2006 at 12:30 am

The 1949 Film Daily Yearbook listed the seating capacity as 500.

Lost Memory
Lost Memory on May 11, 2006 at 7:19 am

This theater building was in poor condition in the early 1990’s. This document is about a lawsuit filed over an accident that occurred at this theater.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on May 11, 2006 at 5:49 am

Here is an old postcard view of the Empire Theatre building to the left of the picture.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on August 1, 2005 at 2:05 am

The Empire is not alone, as I erroneously asserted in my description. The Oceanwest Theatre at Champlin’s Marina also programs films during the summer season. Films are shared between the two theatres. What appears one day at the Empire will often be shown the next day at the Oceanwest. The juggling is all done by arrangement with the distributors. Something similar occurs with the theatres on Martha’s Vineyard. Management says the theatre has 300 seats. This theatre has an enormous ammount of charm and it boasts an restored antique ticket booth within the doorway.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on July 23, 2005 at 4:14 am

Folk singer Pete Seeger performed at the Empire in the 1960s at a sold-out concert. It was to benefit his campaign to rid the Hudson River of pollution. Don McLean performed in the same concert. I didn’t find a date for this performance.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on July 19, 2005 at 9:35 am

Here’s a 1970 photo of the Empire with posters of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and a couple of other movies. The theatre generally has two nightly shows of the same film, with occasional rainy-day matinees. Expand the photo for better resolution.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on July 16, 2005 at 3:21 am

The Empire had served for a time as a rollerskating rink. In 2003 when I saw Freaky Friday here to a packed house of all ages, this place gave me the feeling, lost for so long, of what it had been like going to a local single-screen movie theatre as part of a community. With the almost Draconian restrictions against “development” rightfully promulgated by conservationists, here’s the last place in the world you will ever see a multiplex, and I say whoopee to that!

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 3, 2005 at 10:04 am

Here are three shots of the Empire taken in 2003. The last shot is of a pre-film piano player.
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Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on March 16, 2004 at 10:33 am

I didn’t see any publicity for it when I was there last summer. Perhaps I err.

Roger Katz
Roger Katz on March 16, 2004 at 9:57 am

It is the only one now? Has the Oceanwest Theatre at Champlin’s Marina closed down?