by Joseph H. RADDER
John Basil's story is really the story of his family, his mother, Kay Basil, and his
father Bill, one of the famous Basil Brothers. John's living room is filled with pictures
of his family and their 24 theaters
16 of them all at one time. There was the
flagship 3600 seat Lafayette Theater with adjoining ten story office building on Lafayette
Square. A block up Main Street was the Century. In the neighborhoods, there were the
Colvin, the Genesee, the Strand, the Central Park, the Varsity, the Apollo, the Victoria,
the Riviera in North Tonawanda, and the LaSalle and Rainbo (not a misspelling) in Niagara
Falls, to name but a few our readers will remember.
In addition to motion pictures, both the Century and the Lafayette hosted stage shows. Many of the photographs of his mother that John treasures are with celebrities who appeared there Xavier Cugat, Martha Raye, Lucille Ball, Maureen O'Hara and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. for example. John fondly remembers the times his father took him to meet The Dead End Kids, the Three Stooges, and, at the opening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the original Snow White.
The past ten years of John Basil's life have been fully dedicated to caring for his aged mother with the constant help of a close friend of the family, Maryanne Galley. Kay Basil, last of the original Basils in the
theater business, died on January 28, 2004 at age 99.
A Memorial Service for Kay Basil was held on March 9 this year at the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.
Kalliroy (called Kay in the U.S.) Zaimes was born in Stenimahos, then part of Greece. This was also John Basil's father Bill's home town. Bill fought with the Greek Army during World War I, and after the war, emigrated to the U.S. After Bill Basil had been in America for a time, he returned to Greece to find a wife, and, of the many candidates presented by the townsfolk, he selected Kalliroy Zaimes. They married and came to the United States in 1926.
After John's Dad, Bill, spent several years running ice cream parlors, his brother, Nick, who owned the Clinton-Strand theater, convinced Bill and brothers, Gus, and Tom, who was in Rochester, to join him in the more lucrative theater business. This would eventually become the biggest theater chain in Buffalo, with even more theaters than Shea's. And long after Shea Theaters ceased to exist, the Basil reign continued.
John Basil's theatrical experience led him to Las Vegas in 1965, where he worked for ten years as Lounge Captain at the Sands, where the famous "Rat Pack" appeared (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford).
"I came back to Buffalo in 1976," John remembers. "By that time things had changed in Las Vegas. It became very commercial and synthetic. It got so bad there, I decided to take a break and come home." As luck would have it, the blizzard of '77 occurred shortly thereafter. Yet, he decided he would stay, primarily because his mother needed him.
John Basil was born on December 3, 1929 in Buffalo. Among his most pleasant childhood memories are of the Basil theaters and taking his friends to the movies. "The manager of one of the theaters would come by here on Saturdays before the theater opened up. He had a convertible with a rumble seat, and I would take as many kids in that car as possible, and, of course, we all got in free."
As he grew John Basil became very much a part of it all. "I was totally absorbed in the theater business," he says. He proudly tells the story of the time that Basil's 1200 seat Colvin Theater out-performed the 3600 seat Shea's Buffalo. "The Colvin and the Buffalo opened up at the same time with the same picture. It was the James Bond film, 'Goldfinger'. And, believe it or not, the Colvin out-grossed the Buffalo. From that day on, we got first run movies at the Colvin."
Movie theaters were very elegant in those days. John showed us architect's drawings of the Genesee Theater which was built in the late '20s on Genesee Street near Doat. Its exterior and interior are very ornate. And it wasn't artificial elegance. For example, the marble for the Genesee's lobby was imported from Greece, and the walls were covered with colorful soft fabric and velvet. In the depression days, going to one of those gorgeous theaters made one feel rich, if only for a few hours.
When TV arrived in the early '50s, the Basil Brothers met that challenge head-on. John Basil remembers: "Downtown, the Lafayette had a big mezzanine on the second floor, with sofas, lounge chairs, a television set, and a refreshment counter. You could watch the movie, come out and have a snack and watch TV for awhile, then go back in and see more movies."
Any conversation with John Basil eventually reverts to talk about his family the four Basil Brothers, John's dad, Bill, his uncles Nick, Gus and Tom, his grandfather, John, and of course, his mother, Kay. He showed us two proclamations issued at the time of her Memorial Service, one from Mayor Masiello, the other from Erie County Executive Joel Giambra. Tuesday March 9, 2004 was declared KAY BASIL DAY by the City of Buffalo, when not only she, but the entire Basil family was honored and their wonderful theaters were remembered.
John Basil's life hasn't been all movies and popcorn. During the Korean War, he was in the Air Force under the Strategic Air Command. "We had to encircle Russia with our atomic bombers," he said. "Yes, we actually carried atomic bombs." Apparently over 600 planes were assigned to this task, each carrying an atomic bomb. Little did the American public know that we had the Soviet Union surrounded with countless atomic bombs during the hot war in Korea and the cold war with the Soviets.
A visit to John Basil's home is to realize that the kind of care he and Maryanne Galley gave his mother continues with friends who need them. Such a visit is also a step back into a very important part of Buffalo's history, the happy days of the depression era. Thank you, John Basil, for being part of it.
Joseph H. Radder, a frequent contributor to Living Prime Time, is author of a new book, Young Jesus, the Missing Years. For more information, phone 1-888-280-7715 or visit www.istbooks.com
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