By Norma Higgs
Column by Norma Higgs —
We are moving slowly along this busy street in 1956 as traffic always moved slowly along Pine Avenue. Next to the Castellani grocery business at 1803 Pine was the Visentine Appliance Store owned by John Visentine.
1805 Pine was commonly known as the “Sicilian olive oil” store but officially was the Niagara Importing Company. According to what I was able to find, the building was owned by John and Aleck Curtis and the business was operated by Anthony Sciolino around 1954. They highlighted imported Italian products such as cheese sausage, etc. Later Charles Marazzo Sr. joined the operation and it was expanded to include wholesale distributorship. It is now Latina’s Foods, Inc. and is located across the street next to MacDonald’s and is operated by Charles Marazzo Sr., his son, Charles and daughter Ann.
McFarland’s Clothing Store at 1811-1813 was a working man’s clothing shop run by Mrs. Frances McFarlane. Next door at 1815-1817 Edward McFarlane and E. Boyer of Lewiston had the McFarlane’s Shoe Store. Later this became Frank Kranitz’ Marlan Men’s Clothing. Next door was the Unique Chocolate Shoppe with Cornelia Bruno at the helm.
Pine Avenue was abundant with coffee shops and small family run restaurants during these times and Rob-Ann’s Restaurant neatly fit into this category. Robert Marcucci and Ann Barone were the hosts here and it later became Gigio’ Café. Rose Lanzetta received national attention for our city and her restaurant, along with Pete’s Market House and Gadowski’s when they were highlighted as part of an article on “seeing Niagara Falls for under $50 a day.” Her recipe for frittata was passed along to the world.
For many of us who watched the recent Academy Awards it may have brought back some memories of our locally owned movie theaters throughout the city during these times. One of the more well-known was the Hippodrome Theatre at 1823 Pine Avenue. Ralph Aversa was my contact for the history of his family’s ownership and I left his office at Key Bank thinking he probably learned a bit about the banking business while learning how to make change at 5 years of age in the ticket booth with his mom, Rose when they operated the business. Originally they charged 15 cents to see a movie but later raised it to 25 cents and Ralph thought at the time, it was easier to make the change.
But I am moving ahead as the theater was built in 1914 (long before Ralph’s time) by his grandfather Frank Aversa and his wife Maryann. Their son Ralph C. (who would later take over the business) was born in 1903. Following the early death of her husband, Maryann married Frank Rosso and they continued in the theater business bringing in other close relatives as well. In the early 1930s, they remodeled the exterior adding the shiny royal blue mirrors and the movie posters that became the building’s trademark. The theater was operated by the Aversa, Rosso, D’Aloise and Eanonne families until Ralph C. and his wife Rose were in charge in the early 1950s and this is when young Ralph would sit in the ticket booth with his mom.
Telling a story about how businessmen along the Pine Avenue corridor worked together, Ralph reminded me that Frank Amendola and his wife Rose (another Rose — I hope you are still with me — with the many Ralphs, Roses and Franks in this story), owned the Amendola Rainbow Theater at 1427 Pine Ave. The two gentlemen would meet on Mondays to decide who would feature what movie that was offered through the distributor in Buffalo. It was friendly competition. Their theater was managed by John Amendola.
Ralph’s cousin John Aversa, a well known Niagara Falls attorney, also came from a family with theater at its roots. His father Frank (another Frank) Aversa worked at Hysen Supply Company and part time for the Harmon Company who operated the local drive-in movies. Remember the former StarLite Drive-In? When Frank Amendola bought into the franchise theater business, it was not a matter of “sorting out” where movie distribution went, and the little single screen theaters, like the Hippodrome, became known as “second-run” theaters receiving the movies after their initial run in a franchise theater.
The Hippodrome lost its appeal and closed in 1960 and sat vacant until it became the Niagara Falls Deliverance Center Church. Donald Coutts took it over in the early 1970s and it became the Niagara Falls Cinema. Don’s plans were to operate it as a family theater with low prices but unfortunately this did not work out and he sold to Ernest Haltslander in 1982, who turned it into an adult movie theater. When that operation closed, Ralph and his cousin John talked about reopening it as a theater around 1995 but were talked out of it by Frank Amendola as he felt a single screen theater would never make it.
The upstairs has a history all its own and was known as the Hippodrome Hall and was THE PLACE for weddings and other family and business gatherings. The Aversa family booked these events and catered them also. The steep staircase up to the hall was traveled by many wedding parties and Ralph remembers his aunts making all the sandwiches served at these festive occasions. Neighborhood kids would sneak up the fire escape to watch the grown ups “all dressed up and dancing” through the back door left open during the summer season.
Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council. Her columns appear Mondays in the Gazette.