Re-Discovering the Theater of Our Youth
My high-school class (Jamaica High, Queens, 1956) is pretty tight. We have held reunions in the old gym and the pizza parlor we used to frequent on Friday nights.
The other day some of us got together in the theater of our dreams, the great Valencia on Jamaica Avenue. Now it is the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People – as awesome as ever.
Our class leaders-for-life recently discovered that the Valencia still existed – 3500 seats surrounded by Spanish/Mexican artwork on the walls and ceiling.
The only difference, as Sister Forbes, our tour guide, told us, is that some of the statues have been clothed, for modesty’s sake.
This theater was one of five first-run emporiums in downtown Jamaica, once the shopping hub for Long Island in the 40’s and early ‘50’s. The Valencia had an orchestra pit and dressing rooms for live Vaudeville shows. My friends seemed to hear the throb of the massive organ.
We met on Jamaica Avenue, virtually unrecognizable in daylight. When we were young, the Jamaica El ended at 168th St., but it has long since been torn down. My parents met at the Long Island Press, which went down in 1977. The building is now a Home Depot.
We all remembered the glory of downtown Jamaica – the department stores, the cafeterias and clothing stores, but the fondest memories were of the Valencia. Secret smiles indicated great things had happened as James Stewart or Doris Day flickered on the screen. Perhaps the first cigarette in the balcony. Perhaps a first kiss in the dark.
The years faded away as we sat in the first couple of rows and listened to Sister Forbes, who told us how the Valencia was opened in January of 1929, designed by the grandiose Loew’s architect, John Eberson.
For a New York Times article about the turnaround, please see:
We all knew how movie theaters provided entertainment even during the Depression. And the glamour was there for us during the hope and security of post-war American, as we became old enough to go to the movies by ourselves.
For some reason, I could remember going to the Valencia only once – my parents took me to see South Pacific. I remember being out with them more than I remember the glory of the building. My friends supplied the awe and the nostalgia.
One of us remembered how a member of his group would hold their places in the ticket line during snowstorms – and how he would repair to an open upstairs room with a stove. Sister Forbes was impressed with his ingenuity.
Another of us remembered how one of his party would buy a ticket and then open a side door for his buddies. We didn’t tell Sister Forbes that, lest she cast us out of the tabernacle.
Jean White Grenning, our class president for life and captain of the cheerleaders, and Walter Schwartz, the editor of the school paper, recalled the victory rally for the 1955 New York City basketball champions from Jamaica, right there on the stage, as Jean Gollobin’s choir sang.
Sister Forbes told us how the Tabernacle was formed when the Valencia closed in 1977. The theater had been reduced to showing “black exploitation” films, she explained, and most of the African-American community wanted no part of that genre. The congregation was larger back in the day, she said. Nowadays around 300 members come to church on Sunday, but sometimes they hold regional services, and the old building rocks again.
The good part, she said, was that “things were built to last” in 1929. The congregation has surprisingly little maintenance and repair, she said -- a good thing, I sensed. The building looked great. The congregation does not rent out the building for secular music or other entertainment; we are Pentecostal, Sister Forbes explained. However, they do give tours for a donation, she said. Their number is 718-657-4210. They also welcome worshipers on Sunday -- but not cameras, she added.
After a tour of the lobby (some people think the building is gaudy, Sister Forbes said with a proud smile) we said good bye and returned to the bizarre daylight of modern-day Jamaica Avenue. We still expected the rumble of the El.
Then we headed toward lunch at a diner on what Walter Schwartz calls Re-Union Turnpike. Stanley Einbender, a star of the 1955-56 basketball team, drove us past Jamaica High, still gorgeous up on the hill.
I should add that New York City has cooked the books to come up with spurious excuses for phasing out Jamaica High itself. We are in mourning for a great city institution.
That glorious building will accommodate four boutique schools of various or changing description. I have no idea how the ambitious new minorities of Queens can possible navigate all these precious little creations to find a school they can attend.
Back then we had big schools, big theaters, big dreams. Our youth was reinforced by a visit to the Valencia, to the Tabernacle.
4/27/2012 08:04:04 am
Thanks, George, for these words, and Marianne, for the pictures. I tried to tell my sister and other JHS alums about the day and I see why you got the big bucks for "words". I just sent them your website. It was lovely to be with you both.
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4/27/2012 08:16:25 am
George - Ditto what Judith said. The Valencia was even known by those of us from Queens Village. I remember when Judith and I went to the big V and saw Ravi Shankar strumming a very sincere message from India. So intellectual to have an inside line to Eastern mysticism. Great seeing you and Marianne.
4/30/2012 02:20:08 am
Dear Judy and Sheldon: It was great to see you both. Hope we can get together again soon. GV
4/29/2012 11:25:54 am
A lovely story, George. I really enjoyed it. You are the best native and fan Queens has ever had. They better place a statue of you on top of the LIRR station in Jamaica when you retire to the next world.
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Thank you for sharing your high school experiences. It is a great time to hang out with your friends to watch a drama in a theater. The sad part is that there is not that much enthusiasm in the youth to watch dramas at nowadays.
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From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.