Saturday, January 1, 2011

Film School: The Devon

It opened in 1928, I am told, but did not become part of my world, and later my history, until around 1940. It was on Tremont Avenue, a major east-west Bronx thoroughfare, just one half block from the Grand Concourse. The Devon Theatre was my first film school. We called it the Dee-von, not Devon (as in Evan). And it was neither picturesque nor palatial. It was a small 600 seat Art Deco movie house in the mid-Bronx, two blocks from where I lived. Perhaps I saw my first movie there, perhaps not. Try to remember.

But the Devon soon became my first film school. The curriculum did not start with Griffith, Eisenstein, or the Danes. It was a third run house -- the movies that came there reached its confines last -- usually tired prints accompanied by worn and folded one sheets, half sheets, and lobby cards.

Prints of these films had by then descended from the likes of Radio City, the Roxy, the Capitol, and lesser venues. When projected, they glistened less, perhaps, because of their meandering journeys. But, I suspect, as poor print quality took its toll on the images of those oversized studio performers -- I noticed little, or not at all.

The range of films was eclectic. And there was certainly a copious sampling of such as When the Daltons Rode, a rhythmic title that stays in mind, or similar western fare. It was a bit early for the deluge of war films but they were soon to come. And Maisie and Boston Blackie were in evidence. So the distribution cycle went from opulent to Poverty Row.

These were the first movies of what would become, as best as I can calculate, well more than ten thousand seen in a lifetime. In the Devon, I saw the forties films in the forties and the early fifties films in the early fifties. And some thirties films found their way into that broad two decade montage.

The faculty at my first film school, as best I recall, was six in number. Try to remember. There was a girl or a lady in a glass and metal box out front who dispensed tickets. A little man in a red jacket at the inner entrance took my ticket, tore it in half, returned a piece and placed the other half into a waist-high wooden box, behind which he stooped. At quiet moments, he sat on a small stool. There was a matron, with a flashlight, dressed as nurses used to dress, a projectionist (unseen) and a lady behind a candy counter. (Popcorn was a futuristic concept then and even in later years that would be upscale Bronx anyway.) I suppose there was a manager somewhere.

Course materials were a blank slate of mind, and remembrance of tales previously told by others of things seen in the dark – larger than life images cast upon a screen. The only qualification was young eyes waiting to see such illusion. There was no cafeteria or commissary. We ate on the premises: candy in little boxes most often, something with a lot of little pieces. Unmentionable things moved on the floor there, as they did at home, but I did not see them. My eyes were affixed on the screen as I sat behind the fourth wall.

By some strange confluence of events and coincidence, the photograph shows the Devon just about the time I was coming of age (for movies). It is almost certainly from 1940, when at six years of age I was likely first taken there. It was when I was about to be enrolled in my first film school. The photograph shows the structure as I recall it – abutted by a group of stores that I still remember well. I have in later years seen the films displayed on the marquee.

Like any good school, there was connectivity with other institutions of advanced learning and these had names like the Avalon, the Jerome, the Fox Crotona, the Loew’s Burnside and the Loew’s Paradise. And foreign languages were heard in the distance and later beckoned me to the Ascot and the Lido. But those were film schools for other days or later times -- tales of which might be told in some future posting. Try to remember.

An epilogue

The lower photograph was taken some twenty years and two wars later: Easter Sunday, 1960. The film school can be seen, apparently still operating. At that time, when the flight to the suburbs was already in full force, some students remained just a little while longer. Much of the Bronx eventually went into uncertainty, decay and ruin. The Devon, far less fortunate, became the location of two ordinary stores. Current Internet mapping sites indicate the stores are still there on a business street in a tired borough. I keep hoping they are false fronts.

Note: The photograph of the Devon Theatre is courtesy of Cinema Treasures.


  1. I don't often comment, but I always enjoy reading your posts about New York in the '40s and '50s, the reprints of Jimmy Cannon columns, and the photographs. My uncle lived for years in a place on East 27th between 3rd Avenue and Lexington, but your blog really brings it all to life. Thanks.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Thank you MM: I find it all comes out of the photographs evoking memory. Pleased that you share my interest in Jimmy Cannon. He was an essential component of our New York culture in those years. And in the realm of coincidence, my wife and I still have a small studio in Manhattan on 25th Street between First and Second. Perhaps we passed your uncle occasionally. Best. Gerald

  3. Dear Gerald, I enjoyed the rare photos and recollections. A theater two blocks from home certainly would be hard to resist. Regarding the Cinema Treasures website, I occasionally visit the site when researching local theaters of Chicago and other cities. If only there were more photos of some of them in their glory days.

    I wonder when the Devon Theater closed; do you recall what year it might have been, and/or final film?


  4. Thank you Tom. Yes, I wish Cinema Treasures had more photographs of movie houses that I remember and at different stages. Sometimes, as in the Devon entry, the photo is imbedded in a link in the Comment section. I moved into the house from which the second photograph was taken in 1960 – that is a slimmer version of me returning from the bakery and carrying the Sunday Times, lo those many years ago. We left the Bronx in 1963 and the Devon was still operating but I do not know when it closed after that. Thanks again. Best. Gerald.

  5. Hi Gerald, Happy New Year; hope you’re enjoying the calm after the chaos. I have only recently discovered the pleasure of reading your far-ranging posts, and though I don’t always comment, I do read each one. I especially enjoyed your “valentine to the house of flickering shadows” of your youth. The movie theaters of my youth were located in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., approximately an hour’s drive from the capitol, and ranged from a quaint 1930s era that we called “the rinky-dink” to the (then)latest and shiniest of the multi-plex. I can’t imagine that any of these theaters exists any longer except in my memory, but it is a bit sad to think they also left no permanent imprint in the form of photos to chronicle the memory. Best wishes, Karin.

  6. Thank you Karin. I suppose all of us who are involved in this sort of endeavor have a cache of favorite hideaways in our past where first we acquired, and then supported, this addiction. And I am sure that there is a “Rinky-dink” in each of our histories. In the fifteen or so theatres that I frequented (the Bronx was good like that) -- I am still looking for the least of the lot, but loved none-the-less: “The University.” I agree with you in wishing that more of those images were available. I find the words flow from the images.

    I hope to resume my regular reading of blogs shortly – yours and some twenty others that I follow regularly. Alas, I have been involved with less enthralling but essential matters. Appreciate your thoughts. Best. Gerald.

  7. I confess I am playing catch-up with your recent posts and have only just come to this one - like you, less enthralling but essential matters have taken precedence.
    This was a joy, though, one of your best. You have a rare knack for recreating lost worlds.
    Best, Matthew

  8. Matthew: Thank you. Age has to do with it. Memories, if not more clear or more accurate, are at least more cherished and more often visited. Best. Gerald.