Scotia Cinema has provided movie magic for 75 years
How old is the Scotia Cinema? Old enough that when the theater first opened, the show cost 20 cents and its new modern feature was the ability to offer its patrons sound.
It was Jan. 25, 1929, two years after Al Jolson thrilled audiences in the first "talkie," "The Jazz Singer." The Ritz Theater, in a brand new building at 117 Mohawk Ave. in Scotia, was open for business. A threecolumn photo and long article on the place appeared in the Schenectady Gazette that day, and the owner, Farash Theater Corp., took out a fullpage ad trumpeting the arrival of their spacious 750-seat arena.
At 8 o’clock that night, "Lilac Time," with Colleen Moore getting top billing over costar Gary Cooper, became the first motion picture to be shown at the Ritz. Its mission was to "entertain as efficiently as possible." Seventy-five years later, the Scotia Cinema continues to do just that, serving up second-run movies at a rate you won’t find at the mall.
"It’s very hard for a place like ours with one screen to be a first-run theater," said Rich Adams, who has owned Scotia Cinema since 1981. "You have to play them for at least a few weeks, and if you get one bad movie it can really hurt you. We’re not like a big place with several screens where you can put a bad movie on a small screen and not worry about it."
So, while Scotia Cinema patrons don’t get to see the huge blockbusters as soon as they’re out, they do get to watch some pretty good movies a month or so later for
a great price. Currently, admission is $4
for adults and $2.50 for children and seniors. "Our first big movie was ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ back in 1981," remembered Adams. "It came out in the summer and we had it by Christmas. That took us almost six
months to get it. These days, if we had to wait that long, you could forget about it. Depending on the movie, some companies are coming out with DVDs within three months. So that’s something we have to be concerned with."
The movies at Scotia Cinema usually run for one or two weeks, unless they’re really popular. Adams is hopeful he’ll have "The Incredibles" by Christmas.
"Family-type pictures do very well here," said Adams. "The animated stuff is very popular. We had ‘Shrek’ here for quite a while."
Adams and a partner bought the theater from the First National Bank of Scotia after it had foreclosed on the previous owner. He grew up in Scotia but didn’t visit the theater on a regular basis, most of his moviegoing experiences involving Super 50 Drive In in Burnt Hills and Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady.
"I had worked at both places and for United Artists for a while. So when the opportunity came along, I thought it’d be a good idea," said Adams, who bought out his partner in 1989.
Premium on comfort
Adams has one full-time employee on the payroll and seven part-time people. There were plenty of expenses when he took over the place, including a new roof and new projector equipment. All of the original 750 seats are gone, replaced by wider, more cushiony chairs. The place now sits 284 people on the ground floor and 91 in the balcony.
"We moved the stage up and took out a few of the front rows, and put in wider, more luxurious seats," said Adams. "There’s a lot more legroom now. We learned that people like to be comfortable."
When the Ritz opened up in 1929, it was the only theater in Scotia, although occasionally the Odd Fellows Hall further West on Mohawk Avenue would put up a temporary screen and show movies. Across the Mohawk River in Schenectady, however, there was plenty of competition, including Proctor’s, State and the Plaza.
Paul Ritchey ran the theater from 1966 to ’74, and first started working there in 1948 when his father Val bought the place.
"You had Proctor’s, State and the Plaza, but there were also probably 10 to 12 little theaters in and around Schenectady at the time," said Ritchey. "It was very competitive. You had to have special attractions for the kids, and my mother even put in a doughnut machine to bring people into the theater. Obviously, it got even tougher when television came along."
Ritchey’s father had been working on Wall Street when he purchased Scotia Cinema three years following the end of World War II, when movie theaters were still the No. 1 form of entertainment.
"My father always wanted to run a theater," said Ritchey, who grew up in Bayside on Long Island. "I was 14 when we bought it, and I used to put up the letters on the marquee. I can remember my father buying a new popcorn machine, and I can remember throwing away all the old movie posters. I wish I had kept them. They’d probably be worth a fortune."
Carving a niche
When his parents moved to Florida in 1966, Ritchey and his wife, Catherine, took over operation of the theater.
"In the late ’60s, we started experimenting with foreign films," remembered Ritchey. "It was getting so we couldn’t get any of the first-run films; so we were trying to carve out a niche for us. We got people from all over the region because it was only us and the Delaware [Spectrum] Theater that were showing foreign films."
Along with the foreign films, Ritchey would throw in an occasional second-run major feature, and in 1969 he got lucky when he decided to show "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
"It was a bit of a sleeper. So it didn’t run for that long in the first-run theaters," said Ritchey. "We picked it up and played it for about three months. We did a great business with it."
Adams said the most popular film at Scotia Cinema since he took over was probably "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," although others such as "Return of the Jedi," "Jerry Maguire," "Pretty Woman," "My Best Friend’s Wedding," and "Crocodile Dundee" also did very well.
The theater has almost always been used for the movies. In the past, local musicians might occasionally perform on stage, but that hasn’t happened since before Adams took over the place.
"The stage is small, and there isn’t a lot of room at all backstage," said Adams. "It just wasn’t built for that. It’s definitely a movie theater."
Along with the Ritz and Scotia Cinema, the building was also at one time called the Scotia Cinema Art Theater, which resulted in some patrons getting the wrong idea.
"There’d be a few people every now and then showing up thinking we were showing X-rated movies," said Ritchey. "But that was never the case, and we never even thought about doing that."
Neither has Adams, which suits Scotia mayor Michael McLaughlin just fine.
"To have a modest-priced theater right in our downtown section for the kids and the other citizens of Scotia is very important," said McLaughlin, who moved to Scotia in 1968 and remembers seeing a few Japanese movies there during Ritchey’s proprietorship. "It serves a great function in our community."
Nothing pleases McLaughlin more than going past the Scotia Cinema and seeing lines outside waiting to see a movie.
"When we did our master plan study for 2000, the planner told us that the theater and Gabriel’s Market were the two anchors in our downtown area," said McLaughlin. "It’s an indication that we have a lot of life downtown, and it attracts people to our restaurants and other businesses. It also tells us that we can do even more."
For movie information, contact the Scotia Cinema at 346-5055.
Meghan Caldwell, 16, of Scotia works the concession stand, serving buckets of popcorn to customers.
Scotia Cinema on Mohawk Avenue is one of the key sites in downtown Scotia. It was originally called the Ritz Theater when it first opened in 1929. Photos by Meredith L. Kaiser, Gazette Photographer
The movie house bathrooms are still designated by their original art deco-style restroom signs.
Scotia Cinema owner Richard Adams demonstrates how a movie’s film reels are loaded on to the "platter" in the projection room of the theater.
MEREDITH L . KAISER Gazette Photographer
John Matarazzo of Burnt Hills, left, along with his wife, Dianne, buy snacks from the refreshment bar at the Scotia Cinema as employees Don Romines of Schenectady, right, and Meghan Caldwell of Scotia, serve them.
MEREDITH L . KAISER Gazette Photographer
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