Old, opulent theaters trigger magnificent memories

Monroe photographers’ new book recalls ‘Poli’s Palace and Majestic Theatres’

by Brad Durrell

For William Lee, Poli’s Palace and Majestic theater complex in downtown Bridgeport was an important part of his high school social life. It’s where Lee and his peers went on dates.

“When we went to the Palace, it was like our whole lives changed,” Lee said during an interview for a newly published book on the old theaters. “The magnificent interior was an inspiration and brought you to another world.”

Millicent Zolan also has fond memories of going to the theaters while growing up. “When the lights dimmed and the magnificent velvet curtains parted, a tingling sensation would go down my spine,” Zolan said.

Lee and Zolan are among dozens of people whose recollections are featured in the new coffee-table book “Poli’s Palace & Majestic Theatres Memories Project,” produced by local photographers and history buffs Jay Misencik and Geralene Valentine.

The 100-page hardcover book includes 41 color photos of the theaters by Misencik and Valentine; 30 historical photos provided by the Poli family, historical societies and libraries; 16 old newspaper ads or story clippings; and portrait photos of many of the former patrons, employees and local performers interviewed.

Misencik and Valentine received a $4,700 grant from the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County for the project, which involved years of research, interviews, writing and design work. The end result is a keepsake account of a theater complex that touched many lives through the years.

“Old places give us a sense of who we are,” they wrote in the book.

Misencik, who grew up in Bridgeport, said his parents went on their first date at the theaters. “For many people, it was an important part of those wonder years — from perhaps age 12 to 18," he said. “A lot of people worked there during high school, a lot of friendships were formed there, and a lot of couples went on first dates there.”

The opulent theaters opened on Main Street in 1922, built by Italian immigrant Sylvester Poli.  They featured marble, brass, ivory woodwork, stained glass, crystal chandeliers, red velvet seats, decorative ceilings and walls, and large pipe organs. The block-long complex cost $4 million to build and had storefronts and a hotel.

It was the heyday of large, grand theaters in big cities. Bridgeport had more than a dozen theaters back then, and downtown was a shopping and entertainment hub.

The theaters offered live entertainment — vaudeville, plays, music, dance shows -- as well as silent films, but by the 1940s had switched to showing “talkie” movies almost exclusively. People watched newsreels to learn about the latest developments in the Great Depression and World War II.

The theaters closed in 1972, but the boarded-up structures remain and serve as a symbol of often-stalled downtown Bridgeport redevelopment plans. They have been owned by the city since 1992 due to a foreclosure action.

A New York developer recently announced a proposal to turn the theaters into an arts center, banquet ballroom, recreational venue and fun park as part of an overall $400 million plan that would include high-rise residential towers.

The larger Palace seats 3,900 while the Majestic has a capacity of 2,600. The complex has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.

'An amazing feeling'

Misencik and Valentine estimated they've been in the theaters about three dozen times since 1989. “I remember being amazed as we walked through,” Misencik said of his initial visit to the long-closed structures.

“It’s an amazing feeling when you're inside,” Valentine said.

Misencik said the theaters’ interiors are “remarkably preserved,” partly due to limited activity inside them for many decades. It helped when the city put on a new roof, ending problems with water leaks.

The couple has given presentations on the theaters at historical societies, senior centers and libraries for years. This is where they met many of the individuals featured in the book.

People would come to their talks armed with photos, newspaper clippings and lots of stories relating to the theaters. During formal interviews, many subjects — now in their 80s and 90s — would laugh and cry while sharing memories.

“Their eyes would very quickly become 16 or 17 again — they weren’t 90 anymore,” Misencik said.

The authors spoke with numerous members of the Poli family. “It was like a Poli family reunion,” said Misencik, noting Sylvester Poli had built a mansion on the Milford shoreline. Poli owned theaters throughout the northeastern United States, including in Connecticut's largest cities.

The book features observations from historians, information on Poli and the theater's architect, and the full text of 1922 newspaper articles when the complex opened. At the time, one writer called it “the finest piece of architectural beauty in the city.”

George Crist, who began managing the theaters in 1963, made the painful decision to close the doors for good due to heating and plumbing problems in late 1972. In the book, he fondly recalled their beauty and excellent acoustics. “They were palaces,” Crist said.

The book offers insights from candy girls, usherettes, ticket sellers, and employees' children who became “theater brats” by spending so many hours there.

There are stories about throwing popcorn from the balcony, handing out 3D glasses, seeing celebrities like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland perform, and publicity stunts from wrestling bears on stage to beautiful leg contests for girls.

The authors said their goal was to highlight a part of the area's cultural and social heritage before it fades away. “It’s about capturing, preserving and sharing the memories that people have,” Valentine said.

“We tried to figure out how to make the theaters come back alive,” Misencik said.

The Monroe residents own a commercial photography business and have backgrounds in corporate communications and design. They produced the book on their own. It costs $95 and is available at misencik-images.com or by emailing misencik.images@gmail.com.