Memories Are Made Of This

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 What memories do you have of school days and your years growing up  in Chatham?  Want to share them and bring back memories to others  who may remember the same or similar events?

This essay by Bill Kehoe 49 starts what we hope will be a new feature.  Send your essay to  

"The Old Movie House"

Whenever people of my generation get together to talk about growing up in Chatham 60 or 70 years ago, we're more apt to use the milestones that were meaningful to us as kids than specific years. "Before the Boy Scouts planted the trees on Meadowbrook Rd." and "before Sgt. Carley (one of our most loved adult friends and a master wood-worker) retired from the Borough Police Force", even "the year of the big ice storm" were more real than 1941 or 1947. So I can't tell you when the huge building we used to call "the old movie house" was torn down other than it must have around the time gas rationing started and toy soldiers started to be made of papier mache or plastic rather than the lead the government wanted for bullets. It was a traumatic event that none of us actually witnessed, other than Lincoln and Bailey Brower, perhaps, who lived closest to it.
  Bill Kehoe - CHS '49

The building stood almost exactly in the middle of a rectangle formed by Shunpike, Noe Ave., Woodland Ave., and the power lines we always called "the high tension wires" back then. The northern half of this parcel was old growth woodland, mainly huge oak trees. The southern half was an open field with greenhouses on the east and an abandoned, mansard roofed turn of the century house, which had been used last as an office for a rose grower (perhaps Duckham's, as we recall the name from catalogs on a shelf in the house) to the west. Fuller's Pond was just to the south of the house. If you still can't place the location, that southern part of the parcel is the place now occupied by what was built as the township schools' athletic fields complex on Shunpike and, nearby, a group of upscale colonial houses. If the folks whose houses stand near the field are experiencing wet basements at times, there's probably a good reason. Old spring-fed ponds like Fuller's, on which we played hockey for so many years, are rather like the Indian spirits in the movie "Poltergeist" - apt to rise up every now and then and cause trouble.

"The old moviehouse", so-called though it probably was abandoned long before movies (or at least "talkies") came along, was the crown jewel in the center of this property. The kids from upper Washington Ave. who played there, and later those of us from Meadowbrook Rd., thought of the place as "spooky". It looked, in retrospect, like something out of a Charles Addams cartoon. It was three stories high, with towers reached by winding staircases at the east and west end. On the ground floor was an office, stalls for horses, and a variety of other small rooms possibly used as rest rooms or places to store props and sets for the stage above, at the east end of the building. The Meadowbrook Rd. kids searched this lower
area repeatedly for the secret passages which the Washington Ave. kids insisted were there, but which they intended to keep as their own private domain.

The prime secret location, for us, was the alleged sub-cellar room, reached only by a four foot square door, almost invisible, that you "needed two guys to lift", its presence signaled "by the iron ring you grabbed onto".  Clem Hipkins, after the building had been torn down, insisted he and the Dawson boys were making up the part about the sub-cellar and the trap door, but one day, years later, after playing ice hockey on Fullers Pond, I found something among the few remaining pieces of that huge building that has stuck in my mind forever. A heavy, four foot square trap door, ripped from its hinges, with a large iron ring on one side.

Upstairs was a sight that, to us, was so awe-inspiring that we always whispered when we were in there, the way we did, as students in St. Patrick's Elementary School, in churches. There was a short stairway up from the porte-co-chere which was rather wide, so that all the people arriving by coach could come up at once. There was a balcony at the west end, reached by the west tower stairway, which continued to the roof. A large stage with a high proscenium arch studded with lights dominated the east end. Stairways at the back of the stage met the east tower stairs, which continued to the roof. There were small dressing rooms under the stairways.

In the middle of the north side of the auditorium floor was a very large fireplace, where the fire was presumably allowed to die when there was a large audience, for safety reasons. The seating must have been movable, since, to our best recollection, there were no indications on the floor of its having had bolted down seats of the type favored in theaters of today.  The building probably served as a ballroom as often as a theater, with the orchestra on stage or in the balcony. It may even have been used for flower shows. Some local history buff may want to research this. The acoustics must have been excellent, despite its resemblance to the inside of a huge rectangular box. The abrupt flutter of birds' wings when we tiptoed in via the shorter stairway sounded like gunshots, as did anything dropped on the floor. We imagined some much praised actor from NYC at the turn of the century doing monologues from Shakespeare's plays, only vaguely realized by us at age eight or nine, but already looked forward to as something akin to Phantom of the Opera, which would have played well in that building. (No doubt he still lives down in the covered over sub-cellar.)

The tar covered flat roof between the towers had obviously remained, all those years, impervious to rain and snow. There were no clear indications of water damage below on the ceiling or floor of the auditorium. Our plan to put basketball hoops on the towers (to play full court - a great luxury in those years of very limited gym access) was probably overheard by an anxious parent, who could envision an elementary school child going over the north or south rim after a lost ball. All our stories of the lower floors, the search for secret passages, could be listened to by our parents with amused condescension. The unfenced roof, however, was another matter. One insurance question directed to the owners of the property, probably a
bank that had foreclosed on the rose grower during the Great Depression, was likely to have triggered, even in those relatively non-litigious days,  the sudden razing of the structure. There was so little left when we came through to the edge of the woods from the north, on our way to the pond, that we stood there in silence for several minutes, no mean feat for kids of nine and ten. After skating we tried to console ourselves with the observation that, in those years of severe wartime materiel shortages, most of the lumber in the huge structure had been salvaged, just as we had reused the same "borrowed" lumber and discarded corrugated steel roofing sheets in every one of our huts for almost ten years, whether they were in trees or on the ground.

It's strange that, after more than half a century, the woods, the streams, the open fields of that period, now mostly covered by houses (or, in the case of the streams, enclosed in culverts) come back so clearly. My grandkids have little experience of exploring old houses, woods, and fields unencumbered by "No Trespassing" signs and threats of criminal prosecution. It may be a safer world, but I often wish for them at least the freedom of a pick-up game of baseball or softball without the presence of an adult to set the rules and call balls and strikes.

Bill Kehoe

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