Lou Rugani of AM1050 WLIP takes you on a trip down memory lane.
THE MAJESTIC THEATRE
The Majestic Theatre at 5709 Sixth Avenue (originally “Main Street”) opened on Saturday, August 17, 1912 a popular 300-seat Downtown photoplay house operated by well-known Kenoshan Charles Pacini who ran a chain of small theatres in Kenosha including the Lincoln, Strand and Butterfly theatres. But the Majestic was his flagship and the most prominent Main Street showplace until the Orpheum Theatre opened one block south on March 14, 1922, though the Virginian Theatre on 58th Street (“Wisconsin Street”) and the Rhode Opera House and Burke Theatre on 56th Street (“Market Street”) were important entertainment venues on Downtown side streets.
Kenoshans still associate the Majestic Theatre with the mysterious and still-unsolved murder of exhibitor Charles Pacini, the story of which rivaled any of the dramas ever seen on his theatre screens. We’ll cover that case in a future article.
In September 1923, the Majestic Theatre premiered the locally-produced itinerant film “The Belle of Kenosha”. (My mother, Katherine Rugani, played the comedic role of a broom-wielding housewife shooing a door-to-door Bible salesman.) In 1927, facing competition from the new Kenosha Theatre, the Majestic Theatre was converted to retail space, and still exists after many reincarnations. Today it serves as office space. Several facade brickwork details betray the original front.
Ernest “Nick” Nicolazzo walked into the nearly-new Majestic Theatre to repair ten fans which weren’t working. The Majestic’s manager, seemingly surprised at Nicolazzo’s mechanical ability, asked him if he knew how to run a projection machine. Nick said he did. That answer started Italian-born Nick on a lifelong career. With but two major interruptions, he’d been a “movie grinder” ever since, the last surviving charter member of Local 361 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada. (The IATSE logo is still seen at the end credits.)
After being in on the formation of the local in 1913, Nick helped charter it in 1914. In 1964 he was guest-of-honor at a dinner honoring his fifty years in the local, and was given a ring for his half-century service. He worked at the Majestic until 1918, then enlisted in the Army for a year’s duty, returning to work as a projectionist for the Butterfly Theatre (today’s Circa on 7th) until 1923, then back to the Majestic for five more years. Until 1955, Nick worked for the Kenosha Theatre; then a bout with tuberculosis kept him away from theatres for eighteen months. He came through that ordeal losing four ribs and a lung but wanting to get back into the projection booth. His physician, though, recommended he not climb the 76 steps to the projection booth of the Kenosha Theatre every day, so in August of 1957 Nicolazzo began as projectionist at the Mid-City Outdoor Theatre on Sheridan Road at 7th Street.
“I can remember when movies cost a nickel,” Nick said. “Later the price went up to 18 cents, but a bag of popcorn was thrown in with the admission price. People in the old days were more cost-conscious about admission prices than they are now.” Projection techniques changed over the decades, too. “Before ‘talkies’, if the crowd was too big, we’d just grind the movie through a little faster.”
(The story first appeared in the Downtown Kenosha magazine vol. 12, #4, fall/winter 2019 edition)