Before television, movie theaters reigned supreme in South Philly. Many people wiled away the hours watching flicks inside these dazzling edifices while chowing down on snacks and snagging free giveaways — all for less than the current price of a bottled water.
While several of these theaters have fallen by the wayside, the memories remain and are just as classic as the movies once shown there. Here are recollections of some of the area’s gone — but hardly forgotten — screen gems:
An usher at the Broadway Theatre during the 1940s, Basso Ludovico fondly recalled the plush carpeting and breathtaking balconies that made the movie-going experience captivating. He compared its interior and magnitude to the city’s Merriam Theater.
Before it showed films, Ludovico said the Broadway, which opened its doors in 1913, was a vaudeville theater.
"Having worked there, I would see all the paraphernalia from those that performed there," he said.
The former resident from 16th and Reed streets would don clothing that rivaled a bellhop’s uniform — minus the hat — while on duty. Upon entering the theater, which was formerly at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, courteous ushers would escort people to their seats, using a flashlight’s beam to guide the way.
Sam D’Amico, of the 3400 block of Smedley Street, said the theater usually was the first to acquire the latest movies. Yet ticket prices, he said, were somewhat costlier when compared to the norm of the day: He recalled paying 35 cents for a movie ticket at the Broadway.
"The only time you would go there was if you had money or there was something special you wanted to see," said D’Amico.
One resident and his friends made use of the beautiful — and very private — three-tiered balcony: "We would take our girlfriends up there to smooch."
The Broadway’s movie projectors were turned off for good in 1971. "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" was one of its final showings.
Since she was a little girl, Mary Renzulli has seen many celebrities grace the screen at the Colonial Theatre. Now the 47-year-old is patiently waiting for her son, who got his first acting gig at the theater, to join their ranks.
Renzulli, of the 700 block of Mollbore Terrace, fondly remembers when her boy, Johnny, landed a small role in the 1988 film "Clean and Sober" starring Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker and Morgan Freeman. The movie was partly filmed at the Colonial, formerly at 1025-1031 W. Moyamensing Ave. The theater opened in 1910.
During a scene between Baker and Keaton, Johnny can be seen munching on popcorn in the background.
Both mother and son were amazed during one of the film’s exterior shoots. One scene called for rain, but the weather was bright and sunny. To make the shoot work, equipment was brought to the set to douse the area with water. Renzulli, amazed by the movie magic, said the mixture of the sun and heavy downpours astonished her.
Johnny "was 12 at the time and he really got the [acting] bug after that," she said. The 30-year-old aspiring actor now lives in Los Angeles.
Mary Renzulli grew up watching the classics, including "Jaws" and "The Sting" at the Colonial. Even her experiences at the theater proved unique.
"I remember this one usher — an older man — who worked there forever," she said. "The kids used to break his you-know-whats. He’d hassle the kids and the kids would hassle him back."
Today’s theaters, she said, don’t hold a candle to the Colonial, which seated 954 people.
"It was just an old-fashioned, nostalgic, old-time movie theater," she said. "We’ve got these movie theaters over here now, but it was just a place you could walk to. Now you have to go to Delaware Avenue. It doesn’t have that South Philly charm."
Why pay for admission when you can get in for free? That was the mindset of Vince Blundi and his buds, who concocted some ingenious ways of beating the system to secure prime seats at the Globe Theater, formerly at 1136 S. 17th St. Originally dubbed the Gladstone Theatre in 1914, the building became the Globe in the late 1920s.
Not from the richest of families, Blundi and friends did not let their financial status hinder their chances of catching a flick, which included Westerns starring Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and John Wayne. He remembered the cost as being 10 cents a ticket.
Theater employees would rip a customer’s ticket in half, allowing a person to keep the other half. Ten of these stubs plus one penny granted a discounted admission.
But the group — ever the quick-thinkers — found this approach too cumbersome. They knew the Globe’s workers would normally take the ripped tickets to a back alley for burning. After the paper bits were set aflame, Blundi and friends were ready to pounce.
"They would walk back there to burn them, but they couldn’t burn them all," said Blundi, of the 1000 block of Jackson Street. "In the ones that were burnt, you found the ones that were clean."
The boys would scavenge the pile to find tickets not charred to a crisp. Their tactics were successful, despite the time Blundi was sprayed with disinfectant when an employee caught him rummaging through the tickets.
But a little adversity never stopped the group. Having received the Globe’s "kiddy club card," Blundi and his friends would make sure to get a hole punched into the piece of paper. Similar to the ripped tickets, 10 punched holes and a penny got a person into the theater.
Somehow the group obtained the same apparatus — that is until "they wised up and changed the puncher," said Blundi, 77.
Using his creativity, Blundi realized he could "make the same imprint using a nail."
Residents found other ways to obtain free admission. One man said his group would elect one person to pay for a ticket, head inside and sneak to the theater’s back exit. He then would open the exit door as his friends entered free of charge.
Since the Globe had a huge stage in front of the movie screen, special events became popular in between movies. In front of an audience, pie-eating contests were held.
"We were so poor in those days, that it was a treat for us to eat a pie," Ludovico said.
A parking lot now sits where Tess Pastino’s favorite theater used to be. To her, the Italia was less an escape from reality and more like a home away from home — considering her grandfather, Luigi Di Santo, lived and worked inside the former building at 733 Christian St. Her connection to the place runs deep — making the theater’s demise in 1966 all the more heartbreaking.
Luigi’s store sold pretzels, ice cream and candy, but was famous for its water ice, or "lemonade" — as Pastino refers to it.
"Grandpop would go into the theater with trays of water ice while they were watching the movie, and they would buy them," Pastino, of the 1500 block of South 12th Street, said of the audience.
Luigi, who began his business in 1935, specialized in lemon water ice, but occasionally experimented with chocolate, she said.
As a young girl, Pastino would help out in the store, but frequently was drawn to the movies being shown at the theater, originally called the D’Annunzio Theatre in the 1920s.
"You could stand [outside of Luigi’s store] and see the screen," she said. "Some times grandpop would get so disgusted, he’d say, ‘Just go see the movie, but come back.’"
Pastino viewed such 1930s’ classics as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Wuthering Heights."
"The bill changed every couple of days, unlike today," Pastino said. "Wednesday afternoon matinees were as low as 6 cents and you got a free comic book."
Pastino vividly remembers Tony the ticket man, a no-nonsense disciplinarian who was not afraid to put children in their place.
"Kids were thrown out of theater — not like today where they’re afraid to talk to you," she said.
What really made the theater so special for Pastino was her grandfather, who served his cool creations to moviegoers and passersby through a window.
"It was delicious. It was one-of-a-kind," she said. "People used to bring these glass pitchers to the store to fill up, especially on a summer night."
Luigi died in 1963 and the theater was demolished three years later.
As the tears began pouring down her face, Pastino said, "He was an old-school gentleman. He’d tip his hat. He was a good businessman who never argued with anyone. They don’t make them like him anymore."
The same could arguably be said about the Italia — not to mention Luigi’s homemade "lemonade."
Asked if she has tasted other brands of water ice, Pastino said, "I feel disloyal to my grandfather. I don’t buy it. I don’t know what anyone else’s tastes like."
Movie (theater) mania
Here is a partial list of additional South Philly theaters with some interesting tidbits:
Avon Theatre, 2217-19 South St.: Opening in 1924, the building had a dance hall on the second floor.
Becker Theatre, 20th and Mifflin streets: The first theater built by the Becker Brothers, who obtained their fame through the circus and carnivals. It was the first theater built south of Market Street.
Dante Theatre, Broad and Federal streets: Had "dish nights" where residents could snag free tableware. It was common to hear clanging and rattling as people would rise from their seats, forgetting the dish on their lap.
Dixie Theatre, 1224 Point Breeze Ave.: During matinees, ushers would cover large windows to block out sunlight. It closed in the 1950s.
Grand Theatre, Seventh Street and Snyder Avenue: Opening in 1911, the building once served as the Snyder Avenue Baptist Church.
Jackson Street Theatre, 513-519 Jackson St.: A nickelodeon that began operation in 1919.
Point Breeze Theatre, 1638 Point Breeze Ave.: Dubbed "the big theater with the little entrance" due to its structure.
President Theatre, 2308 Snyder Ave.: In existence from 1936 to the mid-1970s, the theater showed pornographic pictures in the 1960s. It was used during the filming of the 1995 film "Two Bits" starring Al Pacino.
Royal Theatre, 1524 South St.: Opened in 1920 as "America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House." It hosted many prominent African-American stars of the day.
Savoia Theatre, 1709 S. Broad St.: Opening in 1937, this was the last of the large theaters built on South Broad Street. It closed in the 1960s.
Southern Theatre, 1412-1414 S. Broad St.: Opening in 1914, it occasionally showed Italian pictures. Double features were common until 1952, when the place closed.
South Philly Drive-In, Broad and Pattison streets: "The few times I went, I took my children. I couldn’t get a babysitter, so I loaded up the family," one resident said.
But one South Philly resident said this drive-in was also a hot spot for dates.
"We didn’t even watch the films," he quipped.