Lafayette Theatre (Suffern)

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Stage of the Lafayette Theatre in 2005 as seen from the back row of the loge section.

The Lafayette Theatre is a nationally acclaimed, 1923 movie palace located in downtown Suffern, New York in the United States of America. Its primary function is first run movies, but also houses special events: the most popular are the Big Screen Classics classic film shows on Saturday mornings. It is also notable for housing the Ben Hall Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre organ, which is played several times a week before Big Screen Classics shows.

History[edit]

Lafayette Theater Exterior

The history of the Lafayette Theatre, named for the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, began when the Suffern Amusement Company hired noted theatre architect Eugene De Rosa to design a movie theatre for a location on Lafayette Avenue in downtown Suffern. De Rosa's concept was primarily Adamesque, but also with a combination of French and Italian Renaissance influences, subtlety mixed in a Beaux Arts style. The theatre was also equipped with a custom-designed Möller organ to accompany silent films and augment live performances.

The Lafayette opened its doors in 1924 with the silent film classic Scaramouche and flourished through the rest of the 1920s with a combination of live vaudeville shows and film presentations. A renovation in 1927 added distinctive opera boxes and shortly thereafter the projection equipment was updated to play sound film. During the mid-1930s, an air-cooling system was installed which forced the removal of the pipe organ. It was during this renovation that the original chandelier was also removed.

After World War II ended, movie-going habits changed with the advent of television. To keep pace with audience expectations, the Lafayette changed, too. Equipment to handle 3-D film was installed in early 1953 and many notable entries in the short-lived 3-D boom played at the Lafayette. Later that year, the Lafayette was the first theatre in Rockland County to install CinemaScope apparatus to show widescreen, stereophonic sound movies. The premiere engagement was the Biblical epic The Robe, during the Christmas holiday of 1953.

The Lafayette's popularity declined in the 1950s and 1960s as downtown populations moved further into the suburbs and television took hold as the popular entertainment medium of the day. The theater was spared, however, both the wrecking ball and the multiplexing boom, where large single-screen auditoriums were divided up into several small theatres to accommodate playing several films at once. As part of a minor renovation in the late 1980s, the old stage was refurbished and the New York Theatre Organ Society installed a new pipe organ, the Ben Hall Memorial Mighty Wurlitzer.

In the late 1990s, the Lafayette's future as a single-screen neighborhood movie palace was uncertain until Robert Benmosche, a resident of Suffern and chairman of MetLife Insurance, saw the potential of the Lafayette building and purchased the property in 2001, making repairs to the roof and exterior in order to prevent more serious damage from occurring.

The ornate glass chandelier, installed in 2003.

Late in 2002, the Galaxy Theatre Corporation, run by Nelson Page, took a long-term lease to operate the Lafayette Theatre as a single-screen movie theatre, erasing any lingering fears that the unique building would be converted to small auditoriums. Page and his team refurbished the interior of the theatre, bring back its luxurious pre-war style while investing it with modern projection equipment and concession areas. In September 2003, a chandelier was added to the ceiling of the Lafayette, the first time an ornate lighting fixture had been there since the 1930s.

The Lafayette is currently a modern example of a single-screen neighborhood theater and remains a popular landmark of Rockland County. While continuing to run first-run films every day, the Lafayette also runs alternative programming to keep up with the changing tastes in entertainment. A weekly series of classic film presentations began in the spring of 2003, taking place on Saturday mornings, bringing in hundreds of film buffs every week. In early 2009, Nelson Page's management contract ended at the Lafayette, and it was announced that the "Big Screen Classics" series would be leaving the Lafayette Theater and moved to another venue, specifically the Cedar Lane Cinema in Teaneck NJ.[1]

Another classic film series replaced Big Screen Classics at the Lafayette, starting in April 2009 and was put on by the town of Ramapo NY. This series, referred to by several different names, and popularly known as the Town of Ramapo Film Festival, ran a series of Academy Award-winning films such as Marty and West Side Story through June 2009. At the end of the Town of Ramapo Film Festival, it was not known if a fall 2009 series would take place.

In September 2009 it was announced that Nelson Page had bought out Boston Culinary Group's interest at the theater and had regained full control of the theater. Several weeks of restoration work and painting occurred during September 2009, and the theater was scheduled to reopen by October of that year. The Big Screen Classics series of Saturday morning films resumed at the Lafayette on October 3, 2009.

The theater organ[edit]

The theatre organ, which is owned and maintained by the New York Theatre Organ Society (NYTOS), is played every Friday and Saturday night, and is a favorite feature before the Big Screen Classics presentations on Saturday mornings. The main house organist is Jeff Barker, who plays on a regular basis. (Barker returned to play the organ for the Saturday morning Town of Ramapo Film Festival presentations on April 18.)

Wurlitzer Opus 2095 left the Wurlitzer factory on January 31, 1931 and was installed in the Lawler Theatre in Greenfield Massachusetts. It was the last Style 150 (2 manuals and 5 ranks) that Wurlitzer built. Like so many small-town movie theatres in the 1950s and 1960s, the Lawler was closed for demolition. The organ was removed from the Lawler, and installed in the Rainbow Roller Rink in South Deerfield, Mass, where it was rarely used.

The owners of the rink sold it to Ben Hall, noted theater historian and film critic. He, with the help of some friends, removed it during the Blizzard of 1968 and installed it in his New York City duplex. Everything (pipes, percussions, the console, blower) went up two flights of stairs by hand. Hall died in 1971 and the organ was once again "orphaned."

When the estate of Ben Hall gave the organ to the American Theatre Organ Society, the organ was packed up and shipped to California, where it was to be installed in the proposed Harold Lloyd Estate museum. Unfortunately, the plans for the museum fell through and the organ was shipped back to New York City where NYTOS installed it in the Carnegie Hall Cinema. Opus 2095 played in the Carnegie Hall Cinema for over ten years until the restoration of Carnegie Hall. During restoration, the Carnegie Hall Cinema was twinned. Again the organ was homeless! It was removed and placed in storage by NYTOS members.

When Al Venturini and the Good Samaritan Hospital began working together to fix up the Lafayette Theatre, Dave Kopp, then chairman of NYTOS, contacted Al about the possibility of installing the organ. Everyone agreed that the Lafayette Theatre was an ideal place for the organ. Work began in November 1990, and after countless hours of labor by the volunteer crew and nearly $20,000 in donated funds, the organ was reborn. Wurlitzer Opus 2095 played for the first time in its new home in December 1992. Since then, it has been entertaining the weekend audiences at the Lafayette Theatre in the grand tradition of the American Theatre Organ.

Honors[edit]

The Lafayette was named one of the "10 Great Places to Revel in Cinematic Grandeur" by USA Today in January 2005, sharing the list with such notable venues as New York City's Ziegfeld Theatre and Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

External links[edit]