There were once more than 20 operating theaters in downtown Bridgeport alone. They welcomed thousands of people each week, from workers just getting off their shifts at the city's factories to the kids that came every Saturday for Westerns. Today, only two are still standing, and they've been empty for 40 years.
This summer, developers announced plans for a $400 million project in downtown Bridgeport. The plans include the restoration of one of these historic theaters: the Majestic Theater.
Longtime Bridgeport resident Ed Schairer remembers how busy the area used to be.
“You couldn't walk the sidewalks or the street, that's how many people were in downtown Bridgeport.”
Schairer now lives at the Lord Chamberlain nursing home in Stratford. He and friends in the nursing home’s recreation room spoke fondly of growing up in and around the movies.
“Everything that was going on there was consummated by the movies.”
Florence Pagnozzi lived in Bridgeport all her life. She recalls the Palace and Majestic as the most lavish of Bridgeport's movie houses.
“I had my cousins coming from New Jersey to come to the movies here. They said, ‘You have the most beautiful movie houses around.’ The stairs when you walked in – marble. Beautiful! The velvet curtains. Everything beautiful.”
Sylvester Poli opened the theaters in 1922. Poli owned 19 theaters in Connecticut by this time, and more than 30 across the Northeast, from Washington, D.C., to Waterbury, Connecticut.
Visitors to Poli’s theaters received treatment equal to their luxurious interiors.
Lou Belloisy worked as an usher at Poli's Palace Theater in Waterbury during the 1960s. Belloisy says ushers wore double-breasted suits and followed a strict code of conduct.
“We did not dare look over our shoulder at the movies because that was totally forbidden.”
The shows Belloisy stood through were more than just a single feature. You would see two features, a serial, a newsreel…and all your friends.
“First floor would be the money, the older people,” remembers Ed Schairer, talking with his friend, Lenny Pellegrino.
“The kids and wise asses were all up on the second and third floors.”
“They were smooching. That’s where they used to go, the balcony,” says Pelligrino.
Weekdays, the high school football coach patrolled the 9 a.m. movies looking for truants. Kids didn't always pay. Florence Pagnozzi still feels guilty today about sneaking in as a teenager.
“In my life we did one bad thing.”
She snuck in with her little brother because he didn’t have money.
“He said, ‘Sis, let’s just walk in and sit down.’ We saw the whole movie for 5 cents...I gave them my 5 cents anyway...I felt so guilty.”
Pagnozzi returned to the theater as an adult, this time with her daughter. She says a knife fight broke out during the movie. Police asked her to leave because it wasn't safe. It wasn't like the Palace and Majestic she remembered.
“I wish something could be done to fix them up. They’ve said every year they’re gonna do something but it’s never happened.”
City officials and developers hope this time will be different.
Exact Capital Group has proposed a $400 million project that would restore both theaters, but not for screening movies.
The Majestic would become a black box for local arts groups. The Palace would become a family recreation center and gym. The developer would then renovate the Savoy Hotel and build three apartment high-rises with retail space on the bottom floor.
Professor Norman Garrick, who teaches urban planning at the University of Connecticut, says it’s important for cities to build on their history in new development projects.
“It’s not only big bang projects but also projects that restore existing buildings and existing fabric so we start to restore some semblance of urban life in cities like Bridgeport.”
The City Council's Contracts Committee has approved the development. It will go before the full council for a vote on September 5.