Hartford's Past: Amateur Historian Shares Memories of State Theater
By Susan Campbell
January 03, 2012
Calvin Vinick's father was a master cabinetmaker in downtown Hartford who restored antiques for Connecticut's bold-faced names. He also obliged the managers of the nearby State Theater by putting posters in his shop window that advertised upcoming acts.
And oh! What acts. Dizzie Gillespie, Lewis and Martin. Peggy Lee. Frank Sinatra. Ella Fitzgerald. Eddie Cantor. Gene Krupa. Benny Goodman. You name the star, and they most likely passed through Hartford to play at the State Theater on Village Street.
In return, the theater gave the Vinick family free passes. Calvin Vinick went to his first show, a mildly risque revue, at age 10. And he was smitten. Through high school and college, he spent most weekends on the front row of his second home, drinking in the acts. He was at State Theater so much, in fact, that his parents worried about his future. It's one thing to have stars in your eyes, and quite another to put food on the table.
Vinick learned some magic tricks, but he was no Blackstone, and so he fed his dream by becoming an amateur historian of State Theater. He pasted news stories into scrapbooks, and added his own critique of shows that included movies, vaudeville acts, fights, big name bands, beauty contests — though it was the big musical and comedy acts that drew him.
According to the Courant, when the theater opened in the '20s, it served as an outlet to the 150,000 people coming to Hartford theaters every week. Small towns had their local bijous, but only Hartford had the State. The theater was renovated in 1936 for $75,000, with seating capacity at about 4,000. Through the town's entertainment heyday of the '40s and into the mid-'50s, those seats were mostly full for the weekend shows.
And there sat Vinick, drinking it in. He watched stars' entrances, their exits. He made note of the lighting, the costumes — right down to whether their shoes were shined, and then he'd rush home to write down his critiques.
About a Peggy Lee show from the late '40s, he wrote: "Peggy is a very confident singer. I think that she is a little conceited."
He thought Frank Sinatra was short and extremely skinny, but he was still adored by the audience. Vinick wrote that Sinatra's "hair was cut short and was unevenly parted in back. It looked as though he were getting bald-headed." Tony Bennett sang "soothing-like," but "seemed a little shy." Comedian Gary Morton (who later married Lucille Ball) endured some hecklers on the front row (though not Vinick) and then had the spotlight thrown on them. Vic Damone made "an impression on the girls." Bob Hope acted "natural."
Vinick copied the jokes of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, which were mostly ad-libbed interactions with the audience. He copied jokes from other comedians, too, which he tried out later to mixed results.
Over time, Vinick obliged his family and became an accountant. He toyed with a career as an agent, or a band booker, but he and a buddy booked precisely one band — friends of theirs — and that was that.
By 1956, the bloom was off the rose, and luminaries such as Tony Bennett and Edie Gorme were playing to a less than full house. A picture in a yellowed 1962 Courant photo shows a wrecking crew ending another era in Hartford's "fast-changing scene." "The building must go," said the photo's cutline, "to make way for redevelopment."
Vinick will still occassionally thumb through his scrapbooks, with newsprint so old, it scatters like confetti when touched. Vinick volunteers, and takes tickets at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. That's where he approached me some weeks back about his scrapbooks. He was apologetic. Probably nobody cares, he said, but he had these notebooks, a window back in time.
And some things don't change. When the last ticket-holder goes by, he finds a seat and there he sits, making mental notes of the performers' entrances, their diction, their costumes, the lighting.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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