In the long ago days when I was a shrimpy kid, and the Mullendores, he and she, owned the Auburn Avenue Theater and showed honest to God films, I spent many happy hours there.
To this day, every darkened theater I sit in reminds me how the light from the sconces scattered in colors on the side curtains and seemed to enhance my sense that something wonderful was about to happen.
Most of the time it didn’t, but I always had a great time there.
In 1967, when I was 5, Warren Beatty’s “Bonnie and Clyde” was playing at the theater, but those who knew better deemed the film too, well, too something for young eyes like mine, so I didn’t get to see it. But I remember the bullet-pocked poster to this day.
On one weekend afternoon in 1972, I went with friends to see a film called “Baron Blood.” The gullible-kid-drawing gimmick was that the movie was so terrifying, medical assistance and stretchers had to be there to tend to the legions of moviegoers who were sure to be overcome by its horrors. I bit. I’m sure I learned that day what being conned was all about.
If there were candies like Sugar Babies and Mike and Ike for sale in the lobby, I figured out comparatively recently that by the law of the Bell Curve, such deliciousness has to have its counterpart in yecchh! I found my yecchh! in the relic of a candy machine just outside the men’s room. I have ever since associated that grey entity with the dread taste of candy cigarettes in fusion with the reek of the urinal biscuits in the adjacent men’s room.
There was the afternoon my dad, with his ever eager penchant for embarrassing his offspring, stood up in the theater as Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” played on the screen, and bellowed, “I paid $5 to see this piece of crap!” No seats, however cushy deep — and those were wooden — could have afforded my sister Diane and me the depths needed to sink far enough out of sight.
And I got my first kiss there. The big event happened in the last row, upper back left, just in front of the thick glass that shielded the room behind where mothers could muffle their fractious babies so as not to disturb the good people who had their eyes glued to the screen.
Those days are in the distant past.
By my college years, the Mullendores were long gone, and the Avenue had become a dinner theater.
In 2007, the city of Auburn, convinced that with a few touches the old building could be the magnet to draw new generations into the downtown for live theater and other cultural activities to enliven it, entered into a 15-year lease with its owners.
And after studies had assessed the building’s soundness to host Auburn’s big ideas, the city began a series of upgrades and repairs to ensure the structure would not do things like, umm, collapse, should people occupy it again.
In 2019, the city of Auburn bought the theater, and now stages all kinds of things there: musical theater, political events, comedy shows.
This week, as demolition of the burned-out Max House Apartments drew toward its conclusion, inspectors red tagged the adjacent theater building until more inspections could be carried out because, let’s face it, the theater is a geezer.
All of which got me thinking about the building.
Then I remembered a city council work session in 2018, when the city began to talk about buying it outright. Daryl Faber, director of the city’s Parks, Arts and Recreation Department, trotted out options and opportunities for the city’s grandees to chew on, as follows:
• Buy the theater and remodel it, or rebuild at the site. The assessed value of the land it sits on was a bit over $250,000, Faber said at the time, while “the value of the building is … negotiable;”
• Acquire property in the downtown or elsewhere along Main Street and build a new theater there; or
• Form a potential public-private partnership downtown “to achieve” a civic theater.
Several inconvenient truths, however, hemmed in all of the ruminations: there was nowhere to expand the theater into, and an absolute lack of available property downtown.
So — the city has not discussed this, and I am not recommending anything — here’s the straight skinny: with the demolition of the Max House Apartments, there is now nearby property to expand the theater into, even land the city could consider buying on which to build a new one.
No, it would not be cheap, but here’s an opportunity that will not come again. And the city would certainly have to ask its residents what they think.
So, what do you think?
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.