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Barnestorming: Digging out happy memories as cinema building comes down

March 04,2017 15:09

Watching the demolition of the former Orpheum/Gardner Cinemas building Tuesday in downtown Gardner, I was one of the gawkers, snapping way too many photos and chatting up anyone who would listen. Like others there, I had mixed feelings. I know it ...

Mar 4, 2017 at 6:00 AM
Mar 4, 2017 at 12:30 PM

George Barnes Telegram & Gazette Staff @georgebarnestg

In old New England towns, it is not an exaggeration to say that when someone loudly announces a building is being torn down, people flood out of their offices and race down the road, coffee and cell phones in hand, excited to watch and record the historic moment.Watching the demolition of the former Orpheum/Gardner Cinemas building Tuesday in downtown Gardner, I was one of the gawkers, snapping way too many photos and chatting up anyone who would listen. Like others there, I had mixed feelings. I know it sounds a little twisted, but I like to see buildings demolished. For the most part, by the time a city decides it needs to demolish a building, it has become like an infectious disease. The decay spreads throughout the neighborhood.Gardner has lost a lot of buildings in recent years. Some were apartment buildings so decayed they were destroying the lives of their tenants. Of those, some were not beautiful in the best of times. The awkward and uncomfortable three - or four-story slums were made on the cheap and rented cheap. Others have an almost Victorian charm. There was a strength and vitality to them in their day. When they were torn down, there was a sense of loss.The cities and towns of Central Massachusetts are home to many old factories, theaters and former schools, wonderful structures that are too difficult and expensive to put to a modern use. When they closed down, they remained vacant, slowly rotting and eventually filling with rodents and vagrants.So they tear them down to make something new. The demolitions attract gawkers and nostalgics, and honestly, they are kind of fun to watch. When the first part of the old theater building was torn down, everyone watching had a memory and some were bursting with the desire to share their stories.If you are of a certain age, say 24 or 25 years or older, the Gardner Cinemas was one of your good memories. When I was a kid, the movies were a big treat. We rarely had television at home and I was deeply addicted to popcorn. Good movies and heavily buttered popcorn were a perfect pairing.At the Orpheum Theater, which predated the name Gardner Cinemas in the building, I saw my first movies. They were Disney or cowboy movies, maybe something starring Lassie, or possibly some war film. I saw the racy (for its time) "The Graduate," with my mom, who brought me and a friend and sat with us in the theater. She heard it was a good movie, but I think she was planning to leave if it was inappropriate. We didn't leave. It was a great movie. Because it was a little risque, we felt like we'd gotten away with something.Gardner still has a movie theater. It is a lot bigger and has video game machines in the lobby to keep you from getting bored while waiting for the movie to start, but the old Gardner Cinemas was all about the movies, not playtime. The point of the place was to enjoy the stories Hollywood brought to the big screen. I was among a group of friends who loved the movies and would see the best ones over and over. These days I am more drawn to silly B-movies that end up being mocked on Mystery Science Theater, but then it was "The Godfather," "Star Wars," more than a few Woody Allen films, and especially "Patton," which we may have seen a dozen times.I saw many, many movies in that theater, but I also had other unusual connections to the building. While at Mount Wachusett Community College in the early 1970s, we took tests and had classes in the theater when movies were not being shown.In 2013 I toured the building with city officials and saw what a disaster it had become. We were lucky - some of the floors we crossed during that tour collapsed a few months later.In 2000 when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore for president in the election that took weeks to declare a winner, I spent a good part of election night watching the results on television in the then closed theater lobby with members of the Democratic City Committee. We all went home by 1:30 a.m., still wondering who was president.Through the years, I interviewed tenants in apartments and businesses on the second and third floors above the theater lobby. I covered the big fire that left the building uninhabitable, the arrest of some young men who broke in after it was condemned and were found upstairs wearing stolen religious robes. Sometime in the 90s as a reporter I covered a racially motivated assault in a restaurant on the ground floor of the building. There was always something happening. The old cinema building was never boring.I get why it has to come down. I am sorry to see it go, but like the idea that when the lot is emptied, the city will have more parking and another small park for downtown visitors. I hope removing the blight will help refresh Gardner, and maybe some day, someone will open another place where people can find, like I did, some good moments and memories.  

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