A trip to the area's now long-gone theaters was a time-honored, but close, escape from everyday life. For those looking to be a part of the cinema scene, it was also a night out -- unlike today, where a film can be shown right in one's living room.
A parking lot now sits where Tess Pastino's favorite theater used to be. To her, the Italia was less an escape from reality and more like a home away from home -- considering her grandfather, Luigi Di Santo, lived and worked inside the former building at 733 Christian St. Her connection to the place runs deep -- making the theater's demise in 1966 all the more heartbreaking.
Luigi's store sold pretzels, ice cream and candy, but was famous for its water ice, or "lemonade" -- as Pastino refers to it.
"Grandpop would go into the theater with trays of water ice while they were watching the movie, and they would buy them," Pastino, of the 1500 block of South 12th Street, said of the audience.
Luigi, who began his business in 1935, specialized in lemon water ice, but occasionally experimented with chocolate, she said.
As a young girl, Pastino would help out in the store, but frequently was drawn to the movies being shown at the theater, originally called the D'Annunzio Theatre in the 1920s.
"You could stand [outside of Luigi's store] and see the screen," she said. "Some times grandpop would get so disgusted, he'd say, 'Just go see the movie, but come back.'"
Pastino viewed such 1930s' classics as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Wuthering Heights."
"The bill changed every couple of days, unlike today," Pastino said. "Wednesday afternoon matinees were as low as 6 cents and you got a free comic book."
Pastino vividly remembers Tony the ticket man, a no-nonsense disciplinarian who was not afraid to put children in their place.
"Kids were thrown out of theater -- not like today where they're afraid to talk to you," she said.
What really made the theater so special for Pastino was her grandfather, who served his cool creations to moviegoers and passersby through a window.
"It was delicious. It was one-of-a-kind," she said. "People used to bring these glass pitchers to the store to fill up, especially on a summer night."
Luigi died in 1963 and the theater was demolished three years later.
As the tears began pouring down her face, Pastino said, "He was an old-school gentleman. He'd tip his hat. He was a good businessman who never argued with anyone. They don't make them like him anymore."
The same could arguably be said about the Italia -- not to mention Luigi's homemade "lemonade."
Asked if she has tasted other brands of water ice, Pastino said, "I feel disloyal to my grandfather. I don't buy it. I don't know what anyone else's tastes like."
Movie (theater) mania
Here is a partial list of additional South Philly theaters with some interesting tidbits:
Avon Theatre, 2217-19 South St.: Opening in 1924, the building had a dance hall on the second floor.
Becker Theatre, 20th and Mifflin streets: The first theater built by the Becker Brothers, who obtained their fame through the circus and carnivals. It was the first theater built south of Market Street.
Dante Theatre, Broad and Federal streets: Had "dish nights" where residents could snag free tableware. It was common to hear clanging and rattling as people would rise from their seats, forgetting the dish on their lap.
Dixie Theatre, 1224 Point Breeze Ave.: During matinees, ushers would cover large windows to block out sunlight. It closed in the 1950s.
Grand Theatre, Seventh Street and Snyder Avenue: Opening in 1911, the building once served as the Snyder Avenue Baptist Church.
Jackson Street Theatre, 513-519 Jackson St.: A nickelodeon that began operation in 1919.
Point Breeze Theatre, 1638 Point Breeze Ave.: Dubbed "the big theater with the little entrance" due to its structure.
President Theatre, 2308 Snyder Ave.: In existence from 1936 to the mid-1970s, the theater showed pornographic pictures in the 1960s. It was used during the filming of the 1995 film "Two Bits" starring Al Pacino.
Royal Theatre, 1524 South St.: Opened in 1920 as "America's Finest Colored Photoplay House." It hosted many prominent African-American stars of the day.
Savoia Theatre, 1709 S. Broad St.: Opening in 1937, this was the last of the large theaters built on South Broad Street. It closed in the 1960s.
Southern Theatre, 1412-1414 S. Broad St.: Opening in 1914, it occasionally showed Italian pictures. Double features were common until 1952, when the place closed.
South Philly Drive-In, Broad and Pattison streets: "The few times I went, I took my children. I couldn't get a babysitter, so I loaded up the family," one resident said.
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