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Out of the Past: Charles Joseph Meyer was the 1920s man of the hour

A VISION OF THE PAST – Charles Joseph Meyer was known for his buildings in the Hamburg area. Pictured above is Odd Fellows Hall, one of many Meyer projects. Photo courtesy of Edwin Beck.
HAMBURG — Charles Joseph Meyer, the great-great-grandfather of Damon Ayer, owner and proprietor of Mason’s Grill 52 on Main Street, was born and raised in Hamburg and, for many years, led the pack of local contractors in the size and the number of construction projects.

The Methodist Church, one of his finer examples, occupies the site of a wooden structure raised in the mid-1920s. The present red brick structure was completed prior to the October 1929 stock market crash and looks as solid and sound today as it did when the corner stone was mortared into place.

The Saint James United Church of Christ – another Meyer beauty – went up at about the same time and also replaced an earlier structure that the faithful had outgrown. These were the heydays for Hamburg’s businesses and for contractors, Meyer in particular, and for faith communities as well, or so it would appear from these and other village churches built in the same era.

Another of Meyer’s spotlight achievements is the former Masonic Lodge building, much of which remains today at the corner of Buffalo and Union streets. In recent years, that stately structure was tastefully reshaped as ElderWood Village at Rosewood.

Over the decades, the Masonic Temple was as much a community facility as it was a members lodge. To the chagrin of many kids, this was the weekly venue for Carl Young’s dance classes. The mammoth hall became the young dancers’ ballroom, complete with its star-studded ceiling. One hour each week, boys and girls learned the dance steps of the day. This was an hour that felt like a lifetime, many complained.

As high school came to a close and graduation drew near, the Mason home became the setting of the senior ball. Some students and their dates would dance the evening away, while nearly all would speak of summer fun and September plans: college, the military, trades, going into the family business, etc. For many, the senior ball was where the curtain went down on old friendships and ancient associations from as far back as kindergarten. No one could know that, perhaps, the Masonic Temple would be the setting for final conversations and last hugs and handshakes.

The Palace Theatre also went up before the 1929 crash and replaced the older version, which stood on the other side of Buffalo Street. This was another Meyer project.

The theater hosted live acts, double features and news reels’ describing wars and celebrities’ lives. Without TV and, with radio still in its infancy, the community yearned for news. The newsreels filled that need and were run just prior to the feature films and generally after the cartoons.

Newsreels brought audiences into closer contact with the events of the late ‘30s; of armies’ tearing up Europe and the South Pacific. Journalists delivered a world in turmoil and, from a marketing point of view, recreated the isolationist America into the major fighting force of the Allied cause, during World War II.

The Palace Theatre presented Hamburg audiences with first-hand milestones in the evolution of movies such as those first filmed in Technicolor, like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind.” A few years prior to color, it would have been the first “talkies,” such as “The Jazz Singer.” Today, it is tough to imagine the thrill of experiencing sound in a movie. The very first time must have felt like being witness to a miracle. Until almost 1930, films were silent and required subtitles and typically a piano player in the pit, pounding out music to create a certain mood and to peak the excitement.

The late Gilbert Webster (1915 – 1997) wrote about Saturday matinees and his own Palace Theatre movie-going days in his youth. He described the silent serials that played, week upon week, as “cliffhangers” that left the matinee audience baited with suspense for the next seven days.

“For only one dime we could get in … to find out if Ruth Roland or Pearl White would overcome whatever fine mess she got herself into. That wait was … torture for … us,” he said. “We’d talk about it on the way to school, each of us speculating, arguing and sometimes making little wagers about the outcomes, which made our movie-going just a bit more interesting.”

Meyer’s Palace Theatre is not only significant for its age and great condition, but it has touched just about every life in Hamburg since the days when Thomas Edison first invented cinema. A landmark, an attraction and truly an institution, it binds together all the generations both past and those now overlapping, by engaging our shared instincts for entertainment and information.

Sources included a genealogical search of Meyer by James Thoman; “Images of America: Hamburg 1910 – 1970” by John Edson and “A Boyhood Memoir of Life in Hamburg” by Gilbert Webster and Edwin Beck.

This column was used courtesy of Edwin Beck.

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