By Jeffrey Page
Word that a developer is turning the old movie house at the Monticello Mall into a modern five-plex recalls the curious, and sometimes outrageous history of movie theaters in Sullivan County.
On the gentle side of things in the Seventies were the Rivoli in South Fallsburg and the Strand in Loch Sheldrake, both owned at the time by Sam Rosenshein, who also served as the Fallsburg supervisor. The theaters had long passed their glory days and were brooding hulks. Still, Rosenshein kept them open. But they were only crowded on Saturday nights in summer, when they were patronized mostly by tourists. Rainy days brought kids from camps.
When you went to the Rivoli in those days, your shoes stuck to the floor, you sensed that the seats were rarely if ever cleaned, you knew that the popcorn didn’t exactly taste like it was just made, and that if you breathed deeply you were inhaling air that smelled like something swampy.
But what was it? Ahh, it was a dampish combination of muskiness and mildew. That odor and the fact that no theater in the county ever showed the Marx Brothers was why I would take my daughter to the movies in Middletown or Chester, or down to the city if we needed a touch of Groucho to brighten our day.
Sam Rosenshein, an older gent and a genuinely nice guy, kept the Rivoli and Strand open year round. This might have had to do with the fact that he also owned Poppy’s, a popular-priced restaurant just a few blocks from the theater. Rosenshein would lock the Rivoli and then join his customers for coffee and Danish at the restaurant.
Though the Rivoli was quite unpleasant, I still recall it was there that I saw “The Late Show” with Lily Tomlin and Art Carney, having missed it in its initial run of the county. I have no idea why I remember this.
It was at the Rialto Theater in Monticello that the owner, Rick Dames – he would later gain a rep for showing porn – played “Travels With My Aunt” for an audience of seven on a blustery cold night. Dames said the old comedies would never draw an audience. He was right. Once he played a W.C. Fields double bill and said the crowd amounted to 12, which included a friend of mine and me.
Later at the Rialto, he showed pornographic features and then offered the movie “Snuff.” Snuff films, designed for the sickest among moviegoers, purportedly showed the actual murder of women. Some advertising copy for “Snuff” ran: “The film that could only be made in South America where life is cheap.” This resulted in some local feminists bringing obscenity charges against Dames, who eventually left the county.
The county used to be rich in movie houses – the Roscoe, the Ritz in White Lake, four in Monticello, two in Liberty, the Peace Palace in Woodbourne, among others – but as summer tourism declined so did its theaters. The only active movie house in the county nowadays is in Callicoon.
The prospect of a new theater in Monticello is a treat for anyone who loves film.