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Meet Gerald and Viacita Fowler, Part 1

March 20th, 2020

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

a man in glases and a woman

Gerald and Viacita Fowler

I did a number of small exhibit displays for The Smith last year in support of their 125th anniversary and during my research I discovered Gerald and Viacita Fowler. Originally from Dundee, Gerald moved to Geneva in 1927 after he had gotten a job as the chief projectionist for Schine’s Regent Theatre on Exchange Street. He met Viacita the following year while she was teaching Spanish & Civics at Penn Yan Academy.

In his autobiography, Gerald recounts how Viacita was already engaged to a young, wealthy man in NYC who had known her family for years and broke off the engagement when she fell in love with Gerald. But Viacita panicked at the end of the school year, running home to her mother in New Jersey. In the end, Gerald says, he doesn’t know how but he was able to convince Viacita, and her mother, that he loved her and wanted to marry her. They were married the following year in 1929.

Of course, you may ask, why are they important to Geneva? Gerald worked at all three Schine theatres that were located in Geneva, as well as several others in the area. His autobiography is a wealth of primary source information on the movie business in Geneva and his community activities, while Viacita’s scrapbooks are filled with information on her work in the community and for the city.

large crowd standing outside a movie theater

Temple Theatre advertising the silent film “Battle Cry of Peace” in 1915

Gerald was on the front lines when the Smith Opera House was renovated and re-equipped as a movie theatre by the Schine theatre chain in 1929 (Schine’s Geneva Theatre). He was also in charge of projection at the Temple Theatre in addition to the Regent which were all owned by Schine. The Temple Theatre had opened in 1912 as a vaudeville house but also screened movies. It closed during the Depression, but was reopened by Schine in the early 1940s in order to handle the influx of moviegoers from the Army Depot and Sampson Naval Base. It later closed in the 1950s with the general decline in movie business and was used as a teen dance club in the 1960s. With the roof collapsing, it was eventually demolished in 1976.

Regent Theatre

Schine’s Regent Theatre, no date.

The Regent Theatre had opened in 1915 as one of the first motion picture theaters in the US to be built for the purpose of screening movies. Gerald was on the front lines when sound equipment was being installed at the Regent in November 1928; he had already taken two weeks off in 1927 to learn about sound operation. After four weeks, the day the Regent was supposed to reopen, the union went on strike for better pay and working conditions. The Schine company sent untrained people who couldn’t actually operate any of the equipment and with poor results the company capitulated to union demands.

The completed remodel of the Smith Opera House included the addition of the large marquee in the front of the building, which Gerald said was a sore point with the traditional Geneva citizenry. However, the marquee would remain there until Schine’s Geneva Theatre closed down. Gerald eventually became manager of the theatres in 1940 and discusses the difficulty of getting people to fill the jobs at the theatres during wartime. Often he had to do the work of three or four people because men were going to war or finding better paying jobs building the naval base at Sampson.

Gerald was very supportive on the home front by working with the Red Cross and hosting a number of War Bond drives at the Smith. Viacita helped out at the USO and was on the US Treasury’s War Finance Committee in Geneva.

car in the lobby of the Smith Opera House

Gerald standing next to a car being given away by Schine, in the lobby of the Smith Opera House (note the carpet is the same today).

The Korean War coincided with the decline in the movie industry due to the development of television. Schine hosted car giveaways, tried bringing back vaudeville, magicians and animals, and the introduction of 3D movies to try to attract customers again…and yes there was an actual car in the lobby of The Smith once. Movie companies started sending their big stars to premieres and Gerald arranged to have some of the actors also visit the Sampson Air Force Hospital to improve moral. Some stars include Charlotte Austin, Merry Anders, Casey Adams, Vera-Ellen, Jackie Gleason, Sterlin Hayden, the Grand Old Opera, Jose Hurbe, and the Harry James Orchestra.

Image on the left is an ad for the premiere of "The Farmer Takes a Wife". Image on the right is a man standing between two women.

Stars from the movie “The Farmer Takes a Wife” visiting Geneva to promote its release. Charlotte Austin, Casey Merry, and Adam Anders

 

3 responses to “Meet Gerald and Viacita Fowler, Part 1”

  1. Charlie Bauder says:

    John,
    Another great article. I knew the Flower’s The were great members of the Geneva Community. The Twisted Rail Brewery might like to have some of the information about the Regent. Like the photo of the Henry J

  2. John LaBuff says:

    My sister, Anita Mountain , worked for the theater for many years. C>C Youngs was her boss. Our family knew Jerry Fowler. He was a wonderful man
    John

    1. Anne Dealy says:

      Thank you for this information John. I will pass it on to our archivist.

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