The marquee of the Skyline Theater in downtown Canon City is blank and empty today, 99 years after the theater began providing escapist dreams for a dime or a quarter–then later a few dollars, or so. Given its lifespan, the Skyline had seen the first rueful comedies of Charlie Chaplin; Laurel and Hardy trying to get that piano up an impossible flight of stairs; John Ford’s masterful depiction of shadowy British soldiers prowling a fog-bound Dublin–all on a Hollywood soundstage. The theater’s flickering darkness was a place of refuge, comfort, tears and laughter while the world outside was plunged into the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Second World War and all the other calamities betwixt and between.
It was in the Skyline that many people–some still living–watched in awe as actors seemed to talk on screen, and a few years later witnessed the wonder as the flicker of black-and-white film bloomed into the Technicolor land of Oz and Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. Countless Saturday matinees were the scene of countless pint-sized riots as kids–most of them now grown old–grew restless between cartoons, serials and cookie-cutter westerns. The floor beneath their feet sticky with Green River, wads of chewing gum stuck to seatbacks for a later day, they bounced in their seats in time to well-mounted Indians in pursuit of stagecoaches and Conestoga wagons. All gone now, victim to DVDs and streaming video, but mostly to a film distribution system geared to big-city multi-plex cinemas rather than isolated small-town theaters.
If there’s a glimmer of hope in this tale of progress it’s the vague promise of the Skyline’s last owners to host an “old movie festival” sometime in the future; if my luck holds I’ll be in line for my ticket, as long as the “old movies” are flicks with live action, not spinning electrons from a computer, with flesh-and-blood stuntpersons, and a main character that hasn’t already appeared in a comic book. Whether or not the festival–if and when it happens–might be a recurring happening like as not depends on the attendance–and rightly so. I’ve often wondered if a theater could survive showing old movies, and have day-dreamed just as often of having such a place. There is a theater in Santa Fe that does just that, but Canon City isn’t Santa Fe (which ain’t all bad). That Santa Fe theater, by the way, is the love child of one of the most successful authors on the planet, so I like to think he can sacrifice the bottom line to the love of what was once the defining art and entertainment of the 20th Century.
In the middle part of that century–while in high school (and for nearly a year afterward)–I worked nights and weekends as an usher at the Mayan Theater at First Ave and Broadway in Denver. To this day, that was the most fun job I’ve ever had–which may, or may not, be a sad commentary on my adult life. Leading people to their seats by flashlight (and quelling Saturday morning riots with the same instrument) didn’t pay a fortune and pretty much screwed up my dating life, but I got to see one helluva lot of movies. The Mayan was a second-run house in those days. We usually ran a double-bill of A-list films, changing the bill and the marquee twice a week; that works out to about a hundred movies a year, which was a little more than Hollywood’s output in those days. The gaps were filled in with occasional re-releases of older movies that still had strong box-office appeal.
Hard to believe in these days of multiple-screen cineplexes, but there was a time when new films opened in just one (rarely two) theaters at a time. In Denver the so-called first-run houses were downtown–the Paramount facing the Denver across 16th Street, while the newer Centre was a bit further south, handy to the new hotels; the Denham was kinda remote, over on 18th St. if I remember correctly, while the RKO Orpheum was on Champa (or maybe Tremont) right across from the Welton. I never went to the Welton, nor knew anyone who did, but I vividly remember that theater’s scandalous “lobby cards” propped in store windows along South Broadway.
Denver was in the rear-view mirror of a car I didn’t even own anymore by the time, the 1980s, when the Mayan narrowly escaped progress and the wrecker’s ball. The grand old dame was saved thanks to the efforts and fund-raising of a group called The Friends Of The Mayan. Living over a hundred miles away, I heard nothing about it, or I would surely have lent my enthusiastic support. Still, a part of the Mayan I knew only too well did not survive: the box-like lower marquee which reached to the curb, and the V-shaped upper marquee that was tucked under the vertical “MAYAN” neon sign. In their place is a flat black rectangle, flush with the building, showing a little neon but not much imagination. It does, however, allow a terrific view of the Mayan’s magnificent façade, with its wonderful rendering of a pre-Columbian temple as Cecil B. DeMille might have imagined it. The façade soars three or four stories above Broadway for all to see now that the dangerous old marquee is no more.
One of the duties of ushering–besides flashlight work guiding unsteady feet up and down shadowy steps, or illuminating illicit Friday (teen) night shenanigans in the balcony–was changing the marquee twice a week. Hanging onto a shaky stepladder on a sleet-laced evening was akin to watching Jimmy Stewart clinging to that rain gutter in Vertigo, a fellow usher crouching on the upper level with a stack of ever-dwindling red plastic letters, handing them down as I wiped wet snow from my eyes and tried to remember how the hell to spell Sayonara. Usherettes were exempt from this high-wire act; their duties were confined to the box-office, the concession stand, and checking the Ladies Room to find out why three teen-age vamps had been in there for the last half-hour.
Getting two movie titles–and sometimes a star’s name–on three marquees was often a challenge given our fairly meager alphabet. Downtown management, or our own tight-fisted manager, was forever reluctant to replace letters that had gone AWOL or splintered in the cold. Nice short titles like Picnic or Separate Tables were no problem, but a double bill like Witness For The Prosecution and The Three Faces Of Eve was a nightmare spelling bee. (Not that I can recall those two on the same bill, but you get the idea.)
Best of all, though, was the occasional “blockbuster” as our ever-eager manager would call them–movies with strong carry-over box-office that would run by themselves, usually for at least a week. There weren’t many such that I recall–Raintree County was one, Sayonara another, and for reasons which escape me now, a mild service comedy called Don’t Go Near The Water. Auntie Mame also got a week all to herself, due in part to her nearly three-hour running time. Telling the world she was here proved a bit of a problem, however–Mame demanded no less than six Ms on our three marquees, and we were down to three. Yankee ingenuity led us to three Ws in decent shape; the result looked a bit mountainous, but got us by.