SKANEATELES | Here's a trivia question: What was the last movie shown at the Colonial Theater on East Genesee Street in Skaneateles before it closed for good in 1979?
Perhaps a hint: The title character is a major action hero of American cinema and lore.
If you ask Skaneateles Village Historian Jorge Batlle, he'll tell you it was "Superman." But, Jean Wallace, who grew up with the theater and worked there at the time it closed, maintains that it was "Rocky II." Both have photographic evidence to back up their claims.
Wallace is very adamant that she is right because she was there, yet Batlle points out that his photo even shows a "Closed" sign where a movie poster used to be. Wallace's photo shows a "Closed" sign too, but Batlle notes a newspaper article lists the last movie as "Superman."
The debate started as Batlle, Wallace and Laurie Winship, the director of the Skaneateles Historical Society Museum at the Creamery, sat down to talk about the newest item the museum has on display - the town crier figure that used to adorn each side of the theater's marquee.
Winship said the museum acquired the figure sometime after the theater closed, and Wallace said her aunt took possession of it first and displayed it in her barn before donating it to the museum upon her death.
The figure was housed in upstairs storage above the museum, but Winship said the museum was cleaning out the area when it realized there was finally space for the large artifact with the addition of the museum's connector wing.
"It just seemed like the perfect spot," Winship said of the connector wing. "We decided it was time for it to make a reappearance."
There were two such figures when the theater was open. While Batlle said the other one was scrapped and taken to the landfill, the one the museum has stood still on the east side of the marquee as its partner stood on the west with a working arm that rang a bell.
With a back-and-forth motion of her arm, Wallace mimicked the action of the town crier ringing his bell to beckon residents to the movie theater.
"There was one on each side, right against the building," Wallace said of the figures. "I vaguely remember the bell working."
Winship said she has considered having West Lake Conservators take a look at the figure and preserve it - not conserve it, which Batlle said would restore its appearance but diminish its worth, but preserve it to maintain its condition as a viable historical artifact.
"It's in remarkably good shape," Winship said of the town crier that stands across from the Sarah Kuse boat also on display near the museum’s entrance door.
The building known as Legg Hall, where the theater was located, opened sometime in the 1800s, but it wasn't until 1915 that a theater was established there.
And it wasn't even until 1940 - when Reuben Canter bought the building from Charles Huxford - that the theater started to show exclusively movies, after the previous incarnative shows a mix of silent films and live shows.
"By that time, we had talkies," Wallace said, remarking that her late father attended some of the live shows hosted at the previous theater. "They had vaudeville there. ... He could remember going there and seeing plays."
Canter "bought the whole block," Wallace said, and owned the building from where present-day Arisocats is located all the way down to Thayer Park. The theater was upstairs, while the lower level contained a variety of businesses - a doctor, a liquor store, an insurance agent among them.
As well as the Skaneateles theater, Wallace said Canter owned some other theaters around central and western New York - Marcellus, Baldwinsville, Bath, Monetto and a few others.
She said Canter performed "extensive renovations" to the Genesee Street building when he purchased it, particularly to accommodate the innovation from silent to talking films, and he put in a new projector, floor, decor and more upgrades, both interior and exterior.
Among the interior designs, Wallace said, were a goldish brocade and two tapestries that depicted Skaneateles Lake. She estimates the tapestries measured 10 to 12 feet high and 15 to 16 feet long.
“The tapestries were elegant,” she said. “They were huge.”
While Wallace said she believes the tapestries ended up in Rochester after the theater closed, nobody is exactly sure where they are now.
She said the theater showed a matinee on Saturday, with cartoons in the afternoon followed by a western series. Each week was a different episode, she said, so one had to go each week to find out the next part in the story.
Children could go to the theater, buy a candy bar for a nickel and not be in any harm despite being by themselves - "You didn't have to worry about them," Wallace said, noting her opinion of the contrast with the present.
At night, the theater would show two movies for adults, and in between was an intermission with previews of coming attractions. During World War II especially, the theater also showed news reels since that was how people got their broadcast news in the days before television.
And, unlike its previous incarnation, Wallace said the theater under Canter only hosted one live show - a concert by the Dean Brothers band, then known as Brandywine, sometime around 1973.
She said the theater was "like church" in that everybody had a seat and typically sat in the same seat each time friends gathered at the theater.
“It was like a community theater,” she said of the place that both she and Batlle estimated held between 350 and 400 people.
Canter bought films through a broker, Wallace said, but could never show movies right when they were first came out to audiences.
"He couldn't buy first-run movies because he wasn't that big of a theater," she said, noting the larger theater typically got films first. "They had to play it for at least a couple of weeks before he got it."
By the late 1970s, Wallace said, Canter was getting old and wanted to get out of the business. He sold the building to Tony Kolinski, who in turn operated the theater for just a couple of years before he too sold the theater so it could be turned into condominiums and offices.
Like Canter before him, Kolinski too owned a number of theaters across the state and country.
Wallace said she still has the last two tickets from the theater.
"Those were two they would've sold next if they had stayed open," she said.
Now for the answer to the trivia question: It turns out Wallace is right. After Winship did an Internet search, the group learned "Rocky II" came out in 1979, but "Superman" came out in 1978 - a year before the theater closed.
So, the last movie shown was "Rocky II," and Wallace said there were showings from Friday, Aug. 31, 1979 through that weekend to Monday, Sept. 3, 1979, which was Labor Day and the last day the theater was operated.
As Batlle once again pointed to the "Closed" sign in his photo, Wallace noted that the theater closed briefly in the summer of 1978 while ownership transferred from Canter to Kolinski when the theater was sold to make room for condominiums and offices.
Perhaps, as Wallace said her mother remarked at the time, it would have been more fitting to present "The Last Picture Show." It seems, after all, that a part of Skaneateles was lost when the theater closed.
"Who wants to drive to Destiny USA at night and pay $15 to see one movie?" Wallace wondered.
"It would be fun to be able to go down to Genesee Street and see a movie," Winship mused.