When Harlem city officials illuminated the pink and yellow neon marquee lights on the former Columbia Theatre Thursday, it reminded two former theater employees of their teen years working in the cinema.
"It was nice. It was back to another world," Don Sullivan said of the ceremony, which featured the lighting of a newly installed duplicate of the original theater marquee. "(It was) part of growing up. It was old memories revived."
Sullivan spent about two years in the early 1960s working at the theater, owned and run by Bill and Nan Griffin, and a similar theater they owned in Wrens.
"I sold tickets and put people in the 'cry room,' " Sullivan said, referring to the glass room with a speaker designed for crying babies and other noisemakers in the theater. "I was sort of a bouncer."
The new marquee was designed to look like the one on the original theater, which showed movies from 1949 until the fall of 1962. It was part of exterior renovations to the building, which The Harlem Foundation purchased in 2005 with the intent of transforming it into an arts center.
"If they want to know where everything was and what it was, I can tell them because I know every square inch of that place," said former projectionist Phil Hoffman. "I basically lived in that place. I knew everything there was to know about that place."
Hoffman, 65, ran the projectors at the Harlem and Wrens theaters as well as apprenticing with Mr. Griffin as he repaired televisions. Hoffman said he watched thousands of movies through a little square viewing hole in the projection room wall while he worked there from the late 1950s through its closing
"I probably saw some of the best pictures ever made," said Hoffman, who was only 12 or 13 when he started working at the theater and for Mr. Griffin. "You don't think about that when you are doing it. Probably some of the best movies that ever come down the pipe were played in that theater."
Hoffman remembers watching classics such as Gone With the Wind , I Want to Live! and Inherit the Wind .
"You got to where you knew every word they were going to say," Hoffman said.
But with the popularity of television and competition from new theaters, the Columbia Theatre closed its doors in 1962.
Hoffman, who had just graduated from high school when the theater closed, spent most of his teen years working there.
"It just kind of dwindled out," Hoffman said. "It was very sad."
But Hoffman said he made lots of memories during those years in the theater. He said he and Junior Jennings, a good friend who taught him how to run the projectors, would use what little money they had on bread and bologna at the grocery store across the street and would cook up the sliced meat with the popcorn machine.
"I believe that was probably the best part of my life, all in all," Hoffman said. "I think in my life, that was the (most fun) time to be alive. It was just a marvelous time."
After the theater closed, the building housed a variety of businesses and stood vacant for many years before the foundation purchased it. The $69,500 facade project included the new marquee as well as new doors and windows and exterior paint.
Though the building restoration is nice, Hoffman and Sullivan agree that it was the theater owners that left a lasting impression. Mr. Griffin repaired televisions in the back while his wife ran a florist shop in the front of the building.
"They were both absolute charms," Hoffman said, adding he learned electronics from Mr. Griffin and ended up pursuing electronics as a lifelong career. "Mr. Bill was my hero."
Sullivan said the Griffins were good role models who often hired kids from the community.
"Mrs. Nan and Mr. Bill were just the finest people you could ever imagine," Sullivan said. "They were just the epitome of class in everything they did. They were hard-working people. It was just a pleasure to be around them."
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