Tom Malloy‘s Napa & Its Movies

malloy picsm

by Lauren Coodley

Thomas C. Malloy Jr. was born in town in 1911. He never forgot his mother’s death in 1917 from appendicitis when he was only six years old. After his mother died, he moved to his grandmother’s farm, east of the river at the end of Big Ranch Road. He described this area, the Duffy ranch, to me,  as “a paradise of open space, orchards, and a few settled homes.” Due to fear of the 1918–1920 influenza epidemics, he and his brother were kept out of school and tutored at the farm until the fourth grade, when they entered Salvador School. In 1921, Malloy’s father remarried and moved the two boys back into town. They graduated from St. John’s Catholic School in 1924, and from Napa High in 1928.

Most towns had at least one movie house. “One of my first memories of going to a movie was of my father taking me there, as I recall, at my insistence to see one of Jack Dempsey’s early Championship Fight films.” Malloy’s first job was in 1930 at the new 500-seat, State Theatre on 834 Main Street, between Second and Third (now part of Veteran’s Park). He would work in the motion picture business for the rest of his life. Mr. Malloy remembered sitting in Dr. C. H. Farman’s dental office on the southwest corner of First and Randolph in 1920, watching the construction of the Hippodrome, which became the Fox Theatre.  It seated 1,500 people and boasted an orchestra pit with a massive pipe organ. Mr. Malloy described hearing organist Eugene Brown, play during silent movies: “I thought he almost made the organ talk.” By 1935 he became the manager of the Fox, which showed major films and, sometimes, live presentations.

In a grand fashion, the Uptown Theatre opened in August, 1937, complete with searchlights, banners and movie stars. The first film to be shown was Ever Since Eve, starring Robert Montgomery and Marion Davies. The theatre had 1,200 seats, and Thomas Malloy became its manager. It featured a central ceiling of angels painted by muralist Dick Echeles. Malloy describes the “well-trained team of young ladies in matching uniforms” who served as usherettes. When the house was full, Malloy assigned an usher to every exit and was considered a “safety guy.”  The Napa Daily Journal of August 12, 1937 notes: “a staff of 14, trained, theater people have been engaged to serve patrons of the magnificent, new Uptown Theatre.” These included Norman Wyatt, assistant Manager, and head usherette, Eleanor Rose (who handled the staff of five other women). “Frances Gerth will occupy the position of the doorman with his assistant, Ray Nasuti.” The projectionists were Howard Brown and D.W. Aiken. “The intricate lighting system of the theatre will be maintained by JT Roberson, a veteran, electrical technician.”

Matinees attracted children like Ruth Bickford’s son, Bob, who recalls that, on Saturday afternoon, “every child’s bike was parked, unlocked, at either the Fox or the Uptown.” Beautician, Chris Aultman, especially remembers the mezzanine at the Fox: “I liked going up both sides, it reminded you of something really elegant. Napa was a country town, so this was something really special.” The companies would mail in a two hour film that included a comic and a newsreel. Mr. Malloy explained that British films were not popular in Napa.

To survive during the Depression, theatre owners devised gimmicks to persuade the public to pay the 35¢ admission price. The most popular promotion was Bank Night, which offered a cash jackpot. A cashier named Dolly handled bank night registration. Mr. Malloy remembered, “She was so good at it. I think I fell in love with Dolly from admiration.”  In 1940, they were married and they bought a house at the corner of Yajome and K Streets for $2,000, with Liberty Head Nickels saved by both of them.

By 1942, Air raid rules and blackout procedures were developed for the town. Malloy recalls: “After Pearl Harbor was bombed it was a wild time here. The manning of Monticello Road as a look-out, and the presence of Mare Island, made Napans uneasy about being a potential, enemy target. It was a trying time, and people were looking for an outlet, to get away from things. So, they went to the movies.” Because one-fifth of the 25,000 workers at Mare Island lived in Napa, special, morning matinees were scheduled for swing-shift Mare Island and Basalt workers.

Lawrence Borg was the Uptown’s original owner, until he sold it to the Blumenfeld theatre chain in 1945. Between 1947-1957, 90% of Americans bought television sets. No one realized that supplying screens for home use, signaled the beginning of the end for most movie theaters. After the advent of television, Mr. Malloy explained, “the majestic Fox was converted into a bowling alley. After a fire ravaged the structure, it was demolished in 1962.” That would’ve been 2 years into John Kennedy’s administration; Thomas and Dolly Malloy loved the Kennedy family.

In 1949, Mr. Malloy moved his family to Spruce Street, a block east of  South Jefferson Street.  Tom and Dolly were blessed with 4 children: Thomas, Phillip, Kathleen, and Patricia. Between 1950-1976, he commuted to San Francisco in his new role of General Manager for the Lawrence Borg, and his various real estate properties located in both Northern and Southern California, while continuing to manage Borg’s two other remaining Northern California theatres in San Jose and Salinas. Mr. Borg stipulated  that when he died (he died in 1954), all properties in his estate be sold unless Tom Malloy would stay on to manage them. Mr. Malloy did manage Borg’s Trust until 1999.

By 1973, the Uptown Theatre was remodeled. Stephanie Farrell Grohs recalls: “It was 1976. I was searching for a job, and was just starting at the JC and living at home. Mr. McKnight interviewed me and liked the idea of hiring a college student.  I began by stocking the candy counter: popcorn, hotdogs, and candy. I worked my way up to being the head cashier. I sold tickets and balanced the books at the end of the night. Everyone coming to an opening went by me; I knew who was out on a date. I wore a polyester, blue, zip-up jacket, not unlike the uniforms of nursing-home, care attendants, with closed-toed shoes. The cashier before me transferred to Berkeley and I followed her the next year.”

In 1977 the first VCR in America went on sale. Blockbuster movie-rental stores opened in 1985. It began to be possible to watch movies at home. In 1986, the theatre was again divided, this time into four spaces. That must have been when I watched The Journey of Natty Gann with my daughter. The Uptown changed hands several times throughout the 90’s, and I remember watching Cinema Paradiso with my son. Dolly Malloy died in 1992.

In 1998, the theatre again re-opened, featuring
independent/art, house films. My colleague, Professor Doug Dibble, and I filled the theatre with students to watch The Ballad of Little Jo. That same year, online video-rental began. One more blow to the viability of movie theatres and, eventually, to video stores. The theatre was shuttered until 2000, when George Altamura and partners took ownership of the Uptown, and began a massive renovation project to turn the old movie theatre into a live-music venue. Mr. Malloy was invited by George Altamura to consult on the restoration of the Uptown Project, right down to the last detail.

He proudly attended the press conference for the reopening.

Thomas C. Malloy Jr. died at the age of 96 on February 9, 2008. He wrote a memoir when he was 88 years old about the “many gifts that I had been given in my lifetime.” Among them, he lists, “the values and examples of my parents and grandparents, and the civility that distinguished the decades of my generation.” Spruce Street is “where I now live alone imbued with the memories of my late wife, Dolly, and family life with our four children,” and where I visited him and took these photographs. Patti, his youngest daughter, is now living in the family home, carefully guarding the Malloy legacy on Spruce Street. She writes:

Anytime and every time we went out to dinner in Napa (to one of the 4 restaurants existing at the time), someone would approach our table to tell my Dad that he had given them their first job at the Uptown Theatre, and that he was the best boss they ever had.  He always remembered their names.

In 2003, Mr. Malloy handed me a lemon off his tree, one of those quiet moments in the life of a local historian
that lingers in memory, both tart and sweet.

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One comment on “Tom Malloy‘s Napa & Its Movies

  1. andrew deborgia says:

    Some additional information on Lawrence Borg, the original owner and designer of this theatre would be nice.. he was a HUGE part of this theater, and Mr. Malloy was very lucky that Borg made him a manager. Please do show some legacy to Borg, who was born in Malta and moved to USA in the early 1900’s., and became a self made theatre mogul

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