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Rosendale Theater 60th Anniversary by Jay Blotcher

The Rosendale Theatre bears little resemblance to the movie houses of the 1930s and 1940s, those ornate Asian temples that stood sentinel in numerous American cities and towns. Instead of cloud-crowded ceilings against sky-blue murals, Rosendale offers a plain tin ceiling. And even that is perpetually peeling. There are no Greco-Roman pillars, no torchlights illuminating the exits. But this sagging structure on Main Street engenders a fierce devotion in its patrons. Its careworn facade and rickety signage suggest no exotic destination within. But make no mistake; there is magic afoot. Since 1949 this modest dream factory has served the county well, whisking away the everyday aches and worries of farmers and stonecutters, beckoning locals to travel in their imaginations much further than their feet would ever carry them. In short, it has nurtured several generations of the Mid-Hudson Valley populace.

This February, the Rosendale Theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary, a quixotic achievement for an independent movie house holding its own in the era of multiplexes and Netflix. It is an unlikely milestone, especially for its resilient owners for all six decades, the Cacchio Family.

When the newly-refurbished theatre—previous incarnations included a firehouse and performance theatre called Rosendale Casino—opened its doors on February 18, 1949, owner Anthony Cacchio, Sr. inaugurated the Friday evening event with Blood On The Moon, a western starring sleepy-eyed Robert Mitchum and prim but feisty Barbara Bel Geddes. On Sunday, February 22, the current owners of the theatre, Tony Cacchio Jr. and his nephew Michael, will acknowledge the threescore anniversary with an afternoon party, with the RKO western once again illuminating the screen. As happy audience members devour freshly-popped corn, Tony and Michael may allow themselves a brief moment of self-congratulation.

This frigid evening in January, the theatre is showing The Reader, a psychological drama about a Nazi female guard trying to outrun her past. The Oscar nominations were announced just this morning, and the film was among the Best Picture selections; star Kate Winslet is vying for Best Actress. Theatre co-owner Tony Cacchio, 76, known to all as “Uncle Tony” sits quietly in the projection booth upstairs, counting the box office tickets—admission is $6 per person—and waiting for his cue to switch reels. The walls around him are covered in taped-up tutorials about caring for the two huge projectors which command the room. Sample: “Open gate and sound unit before you leave at night.”

Uncle Tony’s florid face is usually passive, at rest. Reactions come quietly, after some thought. It is a marked contrast to the mien of his nephew Michael, 47, who is energetic, voluble, and slyly sarcastic. Uncle Tony estimates there are 50 people here tonight—more than usual, given the Oscar nods. Still, the theatre seats 300. Not an impressive take. But the two are accustomed to this chronic aspect of the business.

“We are genuinely, genuinely thrilled if somebody comes here and enjoys a movie,” Michael said. “It has never been about the box office, the money. It’s always been about opening the door.”

When the theatre first opened its doors in 1949, Uncle Tony was 16. During the day he usually helped his father lay tile, marble and terrazzo for area residences and commercial buildings. But a relative alerted Tony Sr. to an opportunity: a former firehouse that had shown 16mm movies during the summer was prepared to switch over to a movie house and needed a manager. Sure, there was The Bardavon, Stratford, Liberty and Rialto across the river, and a couple of flicker houses in Kingston. But Tony Sr. was intrigued. A visit with Rosendale mayor Robert Vaughn resulted in a sweetheart rental deal for the new entrepreneur.

The opening night, however, was less than auspicious. The Cacchio men, working overtime at a construction site, were a half-hour late to the theatre. A line had already formed. His mother, Fannie, who had never been a cashier before, stationed herself in the box office and began unspooling tickets at 25 and 50 cents apiece. Uncle Tony and his brother Rocco (Michael’s father) played ushers for the evening. While not a smooth night, it was a much appreciated one.

Others were less accommodating. One day soon after the theatre opened, some Rosendalians, who didn’t quite accept the “interlopers from Poughkeepsie,” gathered outside. In intentionally loud voices, they predicted that “that guinea” would be out of business in six months. Hearing that piqued the Cacchio’s Old World Italian work ethic.

“They never threw in the towel,” Michael Cacchio said of his grandparents. “Normal people would not have kept a business like this going, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year. Non-stop.”

From the start, the Cacchios were more mavericks than businessmen. The first couple of years, Rosendale Theatre would play a new film every two days, and then Wednesday and Thursday double-features. This revolving marquee enervated distributors who preferred that theatres hold over films for weeks at a time, to generate an impressive box office gross. But not Tony Sr. His theatre gained a reputation for its scheduling quirks, and soon found itself low on the pecking order among distributors.

The theatre has witnessed its setbacks. Some were shared by all theatres, like the plummet in attendance once television arrived. Other experiences are unique to this particular movie house, like the week in 1955 when the Rondout Creek rose over its banks, depositing huge swaths of mud throughout the theatre. “They lost everything,” Michael said. Only government assistance and loans kept them open.

Clean floors or not, it came down to the films. Uncle Tony said, “We tried to stay away from rough pictures and vulgar pictures and X-rated pictures.”

“That was the rule of thumb with the family all along,” Michael said. Favorites included the “Ma and Pa Kettle” series, a gentle satire on country life. The lampooning was good-natured and the subject matter familiar enough that area farmers attended faithfully, tramping into the theatre in boots caked with a day’s field work. “The floor was a mess,” Michael said.

When Uncle Tony finally took over the theatre, Tony Sr. happily took a secondary, yet ubiquitous role. Michael Cacchio remembers his grandfather always tinkering with the heating, maintaining the bathroom tiles or just cleansing the floors.

“He was fussy,” Uncle Tony said. “He got all the gum off the floor, then scrubbed it, then mopped it by hand. He’d do it all by himself; wouldn’t ask for any help.”

Even after he suffered a stroke, Tony Sr. kept his routine. Come four o’clock every day, he would ask his son to shave him, dress him in a suit and bring him to the theatre. “Towards the end, I started buying him sports jackets so he looked a little younger,” Uncle Tony said.

After Tony Sr. passed away in 1998, Michael—who had gone to college to study law—returned to join the family business. He brought more than new blood; he brought a different sensibility to the film schedule, introducing independent films to the traditional mix. Michael’s first entry was the acclaimed Y Tu Mama Tambien from Mexico, a road movie that says much about friendship, love and mortality — once you get beyond the story’s puerile vulgarities and brazen sexuality.

Fannie, still the matriarch of the business, allowed her grandson to book the film. Michael recalls one evening during the film’s run, when his grandmother answered the telephone. “It’s a dirty picture,” she warned the caller, “but they like it!”

Uncle Tony and Michael began to share booking duties. But given their opposing sensibilities, how often did one’s choice irk the other?

“Very few, very few,” Uncle Tony responds, prompting Michael to add slyly, “Le’s be honest, Uncle Tony. Let’s keep this real.”

Michael is referring to the week he booked Doug Liman’s drug- and sex-infused youth saga Go, which literally drove people from the theatre. “We had a lot of walkouts with that movie, didn’t we, Uncle Tony? They walked out in droves.”

“We gotta be careful,” Uncle Tony said. “Sometimes we slip up.” The pair consults trade magazines and industry sources for choices, and fields suggestions from film industry contacts.

In 2004, Michael initiated a series of live performances at the theatre, utilizing the extant stage from the former Rosendale Casino stage. Many of the events, featuring local musicians, are benefits for area charities, Democratic politicians and progressive causes. Uncle Tony, whose tastes veer towards conservative radio jocks like Michael Savage, Bob Grant and Rush Limbaugh, acquiesces to his nephew’s planning. “That’s Michael’s department. He’s doing a great job doing that.” A production of The Vagina Monologues will take place in March.

Rosendale Theatre currently remains a two-man operation. Uncle Tony runs the show more often than his nephew. In the past year, however, he has suffered kidney stones on three separate occasions and was forced to close the theatre during hospital stays. Uncle Tony’s nephews Michael and Mark pledge to take over the business when he steps down. (Fannie Cacchio died in 2004 at age 93. Rocco Cacchio died unexpectedly last year. His passing affected his brother deeply. Tony admits that he no longer watches films as he used to.)

Six decades on, Tony Cacchio Jr., retains a sense of pride in his job. “I can’t wait to get here every night because this is my life for 55 years. And I enjoy the people. And ninety-nine and a half percent of the people are great people. They call me Uncle Tony, you know? And they enjoy coming here. And I enjoy seeing them.”

Still, he sits uneasily with changing cultural mores. “See, this picture is all right,” he said, gesturing towards the projector showing The Reader. “But, only thing was, it’s a young man having sex with an older woman.” He fumbles for words to explain this aesthetic outrage, but instead falls silent.

Uncle Tony and Michael support local actors, making it a point to show their films. When the indie drama Frozen River came out last year starring Melissa Leo, the distributor initially turned down the Cacchios’ request to book the film. Uncle Tony informed Leo, who personally made some calls. “She pulled strings for me to get the movie.” Leo also introduced the first screening. (She has since been Oscar-nominated for her role).

Uncle Tony constantly thinks of ways to improve the theatre. His current punch list includes reupholstering the seats, installing new front doors, a new screen, a new furnace and, ultimately, digital projectors. Only then would he be able to transform his underdog theatre into “the Radio City Music Hall of Rosendale.” He might be pleased to learn that many people already consider the description apt.

Rosendale Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebration

Sunday, February 22 at 2 p.m. Admission $15 includes food, a screening of Blood on the Moon and a screening of a student documentary about the theatre. For more information: 845.658.8989 or 845.658.9613.

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