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The curtain falls, but the memories linger

The Playhouse Theater building in Great Neck Estates

The Playhouse Theater building in Great Neck Estates in 2014. With the recent closing of the nearby Squire Cinemas, two decades-old movie theater favorites are gone. Credit: Steve Pfost

I was saddened to learn that the Squire Cinemas, which opened in 1935, is closing its doors — forever. Growing up in Great Neck during the ’50s and ’60s, for many, meant whiling away Saturday afternoons at the Squire or the Playhouse Theater, its elder sibling, situated directly across Middle Neck Road. They were a parent’s most dependable babysitters. Dad would send my older brother, Marc, and me with $2 for admission, popcorn and soda, and he would expect change. Meanwhile, we were treated to not one but two first-run movies, cartoons, newsreels and coming attractions. We were captivated by blockbusters such as "The Vikings" and "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad."

Feast on a nosh at Squire Delicatessen around the corner and then stroll to catch the 8 o’clock show. One Saturday, my father reluctantly allowed his 10-year-old to drag him to see "The Horror of Dracula." I was so terrified by the movie that I slept that summer with my windows shut and parsley taped to the panes because I could not find garlic to repel vampires. A few years later, the cinema became the go-to option on Saturday date nights.

The Playhouse debuted in 1925 as an actual stage theater with an orchestra pit. George Abbott was the initial headliner, opening in "Straight Shooter." Other plays, musicals and even vaudeville had their days there. Ethel Barrymore and Gertrude Lawrence made it to that stage before it was converted to a movie house during the Great Depression.

In 1965, as a 17-year-old usher, I shuttled between shifts at the Squire and Playhouse. Clad in a threadbare gold jacket and clip-on black bow-tie and armed with a flashlight, I patrolled the aisles for $1.25 an hour and all the popcorn I could eat. They were great memories. Another Playhouse role I had, at the start and end of every feature, was to scurry behind the screen and manually operate the curtains. I remember the dimly lit area, filled with old stage props, the eeriest being an old guillotine that gave me the willies.

Occasionally, celebrities such as Sid Caesar were spotted in the audience. My first feature as an usher was "The Train" with Burt Lancaster, a World War II thriller that even after the 10th screening, was mesmerizing. But when "What’s New Pussycat?" was playing, I scheduled breaks to miss Tom Jones singing the title song.

One afternoon in 1965, Playhouse manager Milton Kipfel advised our crew that Joan Crawford would make an unscheduled promotional stop to hype her movie "I Saw What You Did." Kipfel scrambled to provide a welcome and frantically phoned Follender’s Flowers. My assignment: Round up passersby to attend the welcoming ceremony. An 8-year-old girl was drafted to present a rose bouquet to Crawford, and a photographer was summoned. Crawford swooped into the Playhouse lobby from her limo and posed for pictures, treating onlookers like adoring fans. Her entire visit? It lasted perhaps 10 minutes, and she was off to her next stop.

The Squire will be remembered as a local, friendly movie palace that crowded multiplexes will never be. Locals were passionate about the place. I loved every minute of my year as an usher, my first job, and I’ll never forget the electricity of the packed houses riveted by memorable films in a once-great movie theater.

Reader Alan Freeman, a retired history teacher, lives in Malverne.

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