Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Only the State and the Palace remain

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When I was a small boy, South Bend’s five downtown movie theaters clung precariously to solvency: the Palace, the State, the Granada, the Colfax, and the Avon. Times were difficult for them then, as the 1960s crossfaded into the 1970s, because more and more people were charmed by recently built suburban shopping-center theaters for their convenience and ample parking. The story was much the same for all of downtown South Bend’s businesses.

As was the case in cities and towns all over the United States, at one time downtown was the place to be. My mother remembers, and can still be coaxed into telling stories of shopping downtown in South Bend during her 1950s childhood. Her parents would even have experienced the October night in 1940 when the film Knute Rockne, All Americanhad its world premeire at four of South Bend’s theaters simultaneously. Here, people crowd around the Colfax.

RockneColfax

Photo source: CineWiki

This is probably the more famous photo from that autumn night: Michigan Street, US 31, filled with people between the Palace and the Granada.

RocknePalaceGranada

Photo source: South Bend St. Joseph County Public Library

Here are these two theaters again, photographed in 1927. The Granada was brand new. This photo shows another little theater, the Orpheum, which I gather closed in about 1931.

Cinematreasures photo

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

I don’t remember the Granada. I was alive in 1971 when it was demolished, but I wasn’t quite four years old and memories of those days are very dim. Here’s what it looked like in its final years. It opened in 1927.

Granada

Photo source: unknown

I think that the Granada’s demise was related to a downtown revitalization project called The Associates Superblock. I learned about it in a high-school civics class 30 years ago. The Associates was a national investment company founded and headquartered in South Bend. In the wake of Studebaker’s failure, the company wanted to build a new headquarters and revitalize downtown at the same time. Until that time, US 31 followed Michigan St. through downtown. I’m pretty sure it was the Superblock that led to US 31 being rerouted. Southbound lanes were routed one block west onto Main Street, and the northbound lanes followed Michigan Street except for five blocks downtown, where they were routed one block east onto St. Joseph Street. St. Joseph and Michigan meet at either end of downtown; the Granada stood where these two roads now merge on the north end of downtown. Then in 1975, The Associates relocated to Chicago, leaving the Superblock a shambles. The project’s legacy was holes in the ground where proud buildings once stood.

Granada7-4-71

Photo source: unknown

The Colfax, which opened in 1928, was on Main Street. All of the other theaters lined Michigan Street, one block to the east. (Curiously, Michigan Street is South Bend’s main street – not Main Street.) Here’s a photo of the Colfax in its context. Judging by the cars in the photo, this was taken in the early 1980s.

ColfaxBlock1982

Photo source: unknown

I have a memory of my mother telling me she took me inside once before it closed, but I don’t recall the visit. I only remember the Colfax shuttered and looking terrible, like this. The Colfax closed in 1977 and was demolished in about 1991.

ColfaxTheater

Photo source: unknown

The Avon, which opened in 1926, was the smallest of South Bend’s theaters when I was a boy. I never set foot in the place, for it showed “art films.” In those days, that was the polite name for smut. The theater began its life as the Strand.

Photo source: Strand Theater Shelbyville

Photo source: Strand Theater Shelbyville

The theater changed its name to Avon in 1949. I remember it only as the Avon, but this photo from about the late 1970s shows it was known as the Mall Theater for awhile, probably referencing the disastrous pedestrian mall built on Michigan Street in the wake of the Superblock failure.

Mall

Photo source: unknown

Inevitably, the Avon closed. It looked like this for probably twenty years. Bits of the terra cotta facade began falling onto the sidewalk in about 2012, hastening the theater’s demolition that year.

Avon

Photo source: Indiana Economic Digest

At least the State and the Palace still stand. The State’s wonderful marquee is a South Bend icon. The theater opened in 1921 as the Blackstone. I saw two films here, both Disney feature cartoons: Bambi, in about 1975, the first film I saw at a theater; and Fantasia, in about 1977. Here’s a photo of the State that I took in 2007.

State2007

I was about ten the last time I was inside. What I remember most was that the rich, dark colors in which the interior was painted creeped me out. This photo from 2011 backs up my memory! The State stood empty for many years before being reused as a church, a night club, and now as a cultural center.

Source: The South Bend Tribune

Source: The South Bend Tribune

South Bend’s greatest downtown theater is the Palace. It opened in 1921 as a vaudeville house, but like so many other theaters it converted to showing movies after vaudeville died. Here’s a photo of the Palace from its vaudeville days.

Photo source: unknown

Photo source: unknown

The Palace almost met the wrecking ball in 1959 thanks to declining revenue. But Ella Morris, a local philanthropist, bought the theater and sold it to the city for a dollar. It then reopened as the Morris Civic Auditorium and hosted plays and concerts for many years. However, the building fell into decline and was in sorry condition by the late 1990s. Fortunately, it underwent a complete restoration, reopening in 2000 as the Morris Performing Arts Center. Here’s a photo I took of it in 2007.

Palace2007

I’ve been to two events here: a showing of the film It’s a Wonderful Life in 1988, and a concert by the rock band Heart in 2006. I was shocked by the building’s poor condition in 1988 – but just look at it now. Here’s its lobby.

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

Here’s the view of the stage from the balcony. When I saw Heart play here, I stood in the area between the stage and the front row of seats. What a vantage point!

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

Photo source: Cinema Treasures

South Bend is certainly not alone in having lost so many grand buildings, including theaters, starting in the 1970s. Urban renewal and suburban sprawl touched so many communities in this way. But South Bend is especially fortunate that the State survives and the Palace thrives.

See a recent photo I took of the Palace here.

Captured: Hillforest

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Hillforest Hillforest stands on a hill overlooking Aurora, Indiana, and the Ohio River. Built in 1855, it was home to industrialist Thomas Gaff and his family. Today it’s a National Historic Landmark, and you can tour it in the afternoons, except during the dead of winter and on Mondays and holidays.

Aurora is a US 50 town. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been four years since I explored US 50 across Indiana with my Canon PowerShot S80 in my pocket. As road-trip season approaches, I find myself wanting to revisit the roads I have explored before. I saw so many great, interesting things along these old highways. I’d like to see some of them again, and I’d like to see how things have changed. I recently drove the Michigan Road through southern Indiana. Several things that I remember from my 2008 trip are gone now, including a log cabin, an old gas station, and a stone arch bridge. But Hillforest is certainly still there and is well maintained. When I see it again, I should stop long enough for a tour.

Vintage TV: The Twilight Zone

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My kids don’t like The Twilight Zone.

twilight_zone_titleDuring my 1970s kidhood, this show was one of my favorite gems of syndicated television. I loved to come across it, especially late at night, and enjoy its tales of science fiction and fantasy, of warped human nature, and of dystopia.

What I didn’t understand was that when the show originally aired, from 1959 to 1964, reason was king. People seriously and earnestly sought surety. They believed in absolutes; they deferred to authority. There was a sense that you could truly understand the world, and that there had to be a rational explanation for everything.

A frequent premise of The Twilight Zone episodes was the search for a rational explanation to events that made no rational sense. Characters were thought to have cracked, to have lost their marbles, when they spoke of experiences that they could not explain logically.

But that kind of modernist thinking had all but ended by the 1970s. I didn’t know it, of course; what small boy is aware of society changing around him? But in those days, the generation entering adulthood felt that things didn’t have to make sense, that there might not be any absolutes, and that a universal, objective means of judging things as right or true might not exist. The postmodern age had dawned.

I found these shows to be delightful because I understood both sides, although only viscerally. I grew up around adults, largely of my grandparents’ generation, who clung to those old modes of thinking – and I watched their children thumb their nose at it all. My grandparents loved The Twilight Zone as I did. But I think our experience with the show differed sharply. I imagine that sometimes it frightened them, because it challenged what they knew to be right and solid. In contrast, the shows excited me, because I wanted to believe that such alternate realities could exist.

But for my children, who have never known anyone from my grandparents’ generation, for whom the postmodern transition has always been complete, The Twilight Zone’s protagonists are buffoons trapped in a too-narrow reality. My kids can’t relate to them. They take as a given that things happen that can’t be explained. It’s reflected in the shows they enjoy watching: The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Doctor Who.They accept as given that their world is full of unfathomable mysteries. They embrace it. The Twilight Zone points to a time when the world was a puzzle that could be solved. It is too different, and it just can’t reach them.

See everything I’ve written in this occasional series about vintage television here.

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