Our spiritual journeys all start somewhere. Mine started in my home town of Scranton Pennsylvania, a town best known as the setting of the TV show The Office (yes the opening scenes really are of Scranton) as well as the birthplace of Joe Biden.
“Macon was a tired old town”. Whenever I hear Scout Finch say those words at the beginning of To Kill A Mockingbird, I see myself standing on Lackawanna Ave, thinking “So is Scranton. A tired old town.”
Scranton wasn’t always that way. Oh, it was kind of run down back in the 50s and 60s. After all, the coal mines were mostly closed and there wasn’t a whole lot that had taken the place of coal in terms of putting food on people’s tables.
But downtown Scranton was a place to go. There were three department stores to roam around. There were two hotels. There were places of forbidden wonder, mainly strip joints and bars. And there were three movie theaters. Three! Two of them – the Comerford and the Strand were first-run. But the best was the Riviera.
Every Saturday afternoon, the Riviera ran a double-header made up of science fiction or monster movies. One Saturday I might see Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers paired with I Was A Teenage Werewolf. The next week It might be It Came From Beneath The Sea and X The Unknown.
Scranton had its neighborhood movie theaters as well. Dunmore had the Orient. Our theater in the Green Ridge neighborhood was the Roosevelt, better known as the Roosey. Every Saturday featured a Kiddie Matinee which might consist of 22 Cartoons. (Bugs Bunny was the best! I’d go get some candy or popcorn when Caspar the Friendly Ghost came on). Mainly, though, they would show an old movie. It was at these matinees that I met some characters that became truly beloved. There was Manuel in Captains Courageous, Gunga Din. Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. I also had early stirrings as I watched Anne Francis in Forbidden Planet. I’m sure I stayed to watch it a second time to see the very cool special effects. But it was nice watching Anne Francis as well.
One day it was announced that the Riviera would be closing. I was devastated. We were told it would be replaced by a new first-run state-of-the-art theater called the Center. The first movie to play there (for several months!) was Ben Hur. I went to this fancy theater many times to include years later with the girl who eventually became my wife. We watched Camelot together. But I never got over the demise of the Riviera.
There’s not much left to downtown Scranton. The department stores are gone. The Dry Goods and Samters are boarded up. The Globe houses government offices. The book store I used to haunt is a restaurant. Even Tony Hardings’, the great purveyor of French fries with gravy no longer exists. If Scranton were a Wild West town, you’d expect to see tumbleweeds blowing along Lackawanna Ave.
There are a few remnants. There is Preeno’s, a good Italian restaurant (although to get really good Italian food you have to scour the neighborhoods of Dunmore or Old Forge). There is the courthouse square, largely unchanged from the political gatherings of the 60s such as Earth Day or the Viet Nam protests. But there is especially the Coney Island hotdog restaurant.
This place used to be in a basement across the street from Tony Hardings. Their specialty was and is a wiener dog drenched in onions and a meat sauce somewhere between a Sloppy Joe sauce and chili. Time was you’d go in there and order six dogs. The owner with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth would line six rolls along his hairy arm, then would load each roll with a wiener, some onions, and the magical Coney Island sauce. Nowadays the place is obviously more compliant with the Health Department. But the dogs still beckon.
So does Scranton.
REFLECTION: 1. How did your home town shape your spiritual journey?
We have a home town in common. Your email brought back many, many happy memories. The days when “going downtown” meant dressing up. Hat, heels, gloves, etc. The picture of the Dry made think of my Mom and I going to the restaurant on Mezzanine of the Dry, Those days were very special.
We had 12 cent movies at the Rialto in the Providence section, wow it was so long ago, but seems just like yesterday.
Thank you for bringing back some really happy memories.
A great story that speaks volumes about growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. I always enjoy the glimpses of your personal life. Thank you, Richard.