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Nourishing Nostalgia: Remember When Royal Oak Had 3 Uptown Movie Theaters?

This week's column revisits Royal Oak's rich film-showing history and a youthful incendiary incident at Neisner Brothers Five and Dime.

We had such great response to looking back that we’re going to keep at for this week’s column. While the nostalgia may be focused on Royal Oak, I’m betting there is bit of a universal appeal to this week’s column on movie theaters and youthful embarrassment.

A Youthful Incendiary Incident

I was heartened that the premise of the previous column was embraced by more than a few nostalgists. A lot of splendid memories were resurrected and revisited. It brought to mind stories based in uptown Royal Oak that still make me cringe and laugh today. 

I had mentioned Neisner's, the five and dime store located on the corner of Fifth and Washington (most recently the site of the ). Neisner's always seemed like the slightly balding, less successful uncle compared with the brighter, larger Kresge store located almost exactly across the street. But it had character and cheaper merchandise.

Comments on our most recent column included the recollection of the smell of the wood floor, the candy counter and the soda fountain counter. Neisner’s was where I had my first job after my newspaper route, and as a 14-year-old freshman, I was paid $1.25 per hour to be stock boy and cleanup kid. I learned a lot at that job, including how to hide out in the basement of this 1920s-or-so-era building. All of the inexpensive stock, from candy to school supplies to cosmetics and women’s unmentionable clothing items, were stacked from floor to ceiling. 

I had recently received my first kiss from a young lass, who was vastly prettier than I deserved. Since I was in love (until I saw her holding hands with a sophomore), I inscribed her initials on the end of every stock shelving unit with bold black strokes, provided by my stock-boy grease pencil. I wonder if they are still down there.

Lovely young ladies resulted in another Neisner’s incident that left an indelible and rather warm memory. Shortly after work one winter night, I was scheduled to meet fellow ninth-graders Peggy Ridenour, Judy Fons and pal Jerry McEntee to sip Cokes or hot chocolates at the counter. Both these gals were out of my league, and I wasn’t even a very good wingman for babe-magnet Jerry. 

I tried to compensate by being a risk taker, and on that night, it meant standing outside and waiting for my friends as I smoked a Kool cigarette I had borrowed. It was a frigid January night, and they didn’t even notice I was smoking as they hustled past me into the store. I was only a couple puffs into the cig, so I neatly put it out against the brick wall and stuck it into the pocket of my very brand-new, insulated nylon parka with a fake fur trimmed hood. 

In a late '60s Royal Oak family of six, you were lucky to ever get a new coat, and this was indeed my first new coat ever. It was a Christmas bonanza.

I sidled up next to Judy on one of the green leather spinning stools at the 12-seat counter, and before I could order or join the conversation, she turned to me and said, “I smell something burning.” 

Yes, she did. Seconds later, my brand-new Christmas coat exploded into flames. I’m guessing this was pre-fire-retardant, because the conflagration looked like I was going to become one of those unexplained spontaneous combustion stories. Fortunately, Jerry whipped me out of my coat like we were doing a vaudeville act, bumped the door open with his rear end and threw the blazing jacket into a pile of snow, where it melted like the wicked witch of the west.

To this day, Judy still can’t control her laughter whenever remembering that story. Of course, I had to sprint the eight blocks home, coatless, and face the parental music with yet another "Mom and Dad, you won’t believe what happened to me" story.

Ah, youth, how did we survive it?

Royal Oak's Movie Theater History

Another very cool part about growing up in Royal Oak was that our uptown had not one but three movie theaters. There was the upscale and large and the least expensive (now the Main Art Theatre), both of which still stand today, even if not in the exact same form as in my youth.

I spent more time at the Washington Theatre, which was right in the middle of the price structure with double features priced from 25 cents to 35 cents. 

The back of the Washington Theatre lives on in the stage and house of the Baldwin Theatre. I miss that marquee and the long walk past the ticket takers, down the aisle to the popcorn and refreshments, before deciding whether to head upstairs to the balcony for mayhem or the main floor to watch a can’t-miss movie such as Sink the Bismarck!

Those of us who were Catholic had to contend with the Legion of Decency’s movie rating system. Our parents would open up the Michigan Catholic to see whether the movie we wanted to see was rated A-I through A-III, B or C — for condemned. My parents wouldn’t let us see any movie that earned above an A-I, which means I saw a lot of Disney flicks.

I’m not sure how it happened, but for a school friend’s eighth birthday party, a group of 10 of us unsuspecting youths attended The Blob, starring a very young Steve McQueen, at the Main. Fifty years later, I still have nightmares about the scene in the movie where the unstoppable blob came through the vents of the movie theater and devoured the unwitting moviegoers. I still keep an eye on any vent in movie theaters I visit.

While today’s theaters, with stadium seating in luxurious chairs and high-definition pictures with lifelike sound, are wonderful (and expensive), I’m not sure anything can replace sitting through previews, two movies with cartoon intermissions and wondering whether that cute girl might notice you if you throw enough popcorn at her.

What were your memories of theaters and uptown stories? We love to hear them!

Many thanks to the for its contributions to this column. We look forward to an upcoming visit to the museum and reporting back.

It’s Monday, let’s go!

Gerry Boylan is the author of two books, Getting There, a novel, and Gerry Tales, a collection of short stories. Both are available at Amazon.com. In addition, they are available for download for Kindle and Nook at Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Kimberly Middlewood September 26, 2011 at 12:10 PM
I went to St. Mary's elementary and high school. Being a junior high student in the 70's I remember these things as well. Our big treats were going to Kresge for their frozen coke and penny popcorn....then being able to take that penny popcorn into the Main theatre were we watched many, many Disney movies as well! I remember thinking that seeing Escape from Witch Mountain was a huge deal only becuase my parents had to 'think about it'. :) I miss the old uptown, now downtown. I have so many fond memories. (There was a Cliff Ridenour that graduated St. Mary's 8th grade a year before me, I wonder if there is a family tie to your Peggy). Good times in uptown Royal Oak were had by all back then.
Ernie Mahar September 26, 2011 at 01:11 PM
I had a close friend, Mark Williams, and apparently he had (by raiding his fathers' coin collection or through some other dubious means) come into a rather significant amount of pocket money. So, we went to the Royal Oak Theater to see "How To Stuff A Wild Bikini" seven times in one week. Don't remember what the rating was, but I'm sure I never told my mom about it! But then again, there was a lot ma didn't know about. The poor old gal worked her toukas off to put me through St. Mary's, little ingrate that I was. Saw Asia at the R.O. a number of years later, same place...much different scene.
Gloria Irla Marlow September 26, 2011 at 03:27 PM
I worked at Vanity Fair dress shop as a sales girl for my first job. We were right next door to the Washington theater. I remember having lunch at Kresge's lunch bar. We would sneak next door to the Washington for popcorn when our manager was not working. Being an old building, Vanity fair had a huge, very dark basement. It was where the bathroom was and there was only one light illuminating the way there. The basement was full of naked, bald manikins and they filled the space beyond the bathroom. It always scared me. I also remember closing the store on Good Friday between 1:00 and 3:00. So much has changed over the years
Elvis Tomaszycki September 26, 2011 at 03:35 PM
Gerry you lucky Son of a gun, I worked my Junior and Senior year at Royal Drugs for earl Averbuck @ 95 cents per hours, along with Tim Sweeney and Bob Kerre(sp?)- I learned alot about pharmeceuticals at that place. And one other memory involved Joe Purtell. On my way the see Bonnie and Clyde (Dunaway and Beatty) a train had hit a pedestrian and it had stopped right at the intersection of 4th between Washington and Center. I ran into Joe Purtell there and could see something covered up near the track. Joe stated that he yelled at the person, "Hey Girlie, Watch Out". Unfortunately it was too late.
Alan Stamm September 26, 2011 at 03:36 PM
I don't know from R.O. history -- but Yiddish slang, this I know. What a treat to see it in a sentence that ends "to put me through St. Mary's." Such assimilation! ;-} And as a friendly heads-up, Ernie, it's generally spelled "tuckus" (or "tuches" in old-school Yiddish) . . . but you use it perfectly and humorously, even St. Mary's nuns would agree!
Michael B September 26, 2011 at 04:24 PM
Uptown Royal Oak Theatres were the best. I recall seeing Mighty Joe Young, the ripoff sequal to King Kong, with my aunt and about 800 screaming kids at a Saturday matinee. This was back when kids were dropped off or just walked to a theater, little adult supervision. It was part of a double feature with an Indian (Asian, not American) boy's adventures, in black and white. A tiger was stalking his village. I had nightmares involving gorillas and tigers.
Jerry McEntee September 26, 2011 at 07:18 PM
My brother John,Tom McCormick and I spent four hours standing in line at the Washington Theater to see the release of 'Hard Days Night". Couldnt hear a thing. We sat right down in front. What an experience that was. Then I'm sure we went to Kresge's for a Coke. Lets not forget the Choclate Square. Right behind Mongomery Wards. That was a favorite hang out in our Freshman and Sophmore years.
Jan Smith September 26, 2011 at 09:19 PM
My dad was an usher at the Royal Oak Theater. When the Main Theater opened, part of his job was to buy the first ticket at the Main Theater when it opened each day. Someone else bought the last one and the Royal Oak's managers kept track of how well the new competition was doing.
Gerry Boylan September 26, 2011 at 11:30 PM
Hi Kimberly....thanks for your memories...yes, Cliff was Peggy's brother...and friends with my youngest brother David at St. Mary's.
Gerry Boylan September 26, 2011 at 11:32 PM
Ah, yes..."How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." I wonder what the League of Decency's rating was on that movie?!
Gerry Boylan September 26, 2011 at 11:33 PM
Thanks for the great visual of Vanity Fair, Gloria1
Judy Davids (Editor) September 27, 2011 at 02:33 AM
I never saw a movie at the Royal Oak Theatre, but have been to plenty of concerts there. I don't remember the Washington Theatre at all, but then I grew up in Hazel Park. What I do remember is the Main Theatre. As a kid, we got dropped off by a neighbor to see many a Jody Foster Disney movie. It truly was special. I also remember Kresge and Sanders. My mom didn't drive so we would take to bus to Royal Oak and then walk over to Woodward for all my orthodontist appointments from the 4th grade on. Often times on the way back we had to kill time while we waited for the bus and would do so at Kresge or Sanders. Makes me smile (with my straight teeth) to think about hanging out with my mom.
Muriel Versagi September 27, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Hello Jerry, Muriel from the Museum here. Do you have a picture and any information about the "Chocolate Square?." This is the first time I have heard about that store. call me at the Museum, 248-439-1501, please leave a message. Thanks.
Muriel Versagi September 27, 2011 at 03:05 PM
Hello Jan, Muriel from the Museum here. Would you have a picture of your dad in his ushers uniform? Would you allow us to scan it and make a copy for our next RO exhibit? Call me at the Museum, 248-439-1501. Thanks.
Muriel Versagi September 27, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Hello Ms. Marlow, muriel from the Royal Oak Historical Society Museum here. Would you be so kind as to call me and tell me some of your stories about the dress shop? We are collecting family and individuals histories a nd I would really like to have a story from you avbout growing up and working in RO. Please call me at 248-439-1501. Thank you.
Barb September 27, 2011 at 10:55 PM
I remember going to the movies to watch Elvis Presley at the Washington Theatre. We would stay in the theatre and watch the movie a second time. I also remember my older brother coming home after the Beatles Hard Days Night and being mad that the girls were screaming so loud he couldnt hear the movie!!
Jerry McEntee September 29, 2011 at 03:54 PM
Yes Barb - the girls and guys were screaming their heads off, pulling out their hair and fainting. all that for $1.25.
Tom Reed November 07, 2011 at 02:32 PM
I would like to share a tidbit about the the location of what is now "Leo's" hot dog place on Main St. near 11 mile rd. Way back in time ...there was an artisian well flowing there!!!

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