Alfred Zydower recalls an early fascination with movies before he’d even seen one.
Alfred Zydower is no stranger to coping with trauma, and movies seem to help. Having escaped Nazi Germany with his family shortly after Krystallnacht, the 91-year old Madison Heights resident has followed a winding road before settling into retirement here. Over the years, he’s taken in an immense repertoire of more than 40,000 films — outpacing many a Netflix binger well before streaming was available.
Speaking to the Jewish News on a balmy afternoon, he recalled an early fascination with movies before he’d even seen one — a relationship that dates back to his childhood in Fürstenwalde, Germany, which was near the lakeside community of Bad Saarow.
Known for its healing waters, Bad Saarow proved a popular summer spot for a lost generation of Jewish entertainers, who would often canoe into town. Celebrities like Max Schmeling (who fought Joe Louis twice throughout the ’30s) and his wife, Jewish screen actress Anny Ondra, frequented the area — at a time where interfaith marriages like theirs seemed fairly common.
As the godson of a local rabbi, Zydower was introduced to several such “big shots” and stars who attended Fürstenwalde’s synagogue (Bad Saarow, itself, lacked one). Around the same period, the Zydowers had a family friend who played often in the theater and would bring him props to play with. Though he was only free to see a few movies in his childhood, both due to his age and because of increasing restrictions under Hitler, the ones he caught and the aura that surrounded them combined to make an impression.
Life in Shanghai
That all changed when he and his family fled to Shanghai, China, where he quickly became a regular moviegoer. At the time, he caught films like Black Friday (about the onset of the Great Depression), Snow White and Tarzan and the Green Goddess for about a dime a ticket. For Zydower, the experience of moviegoing itself — the feeling of a theater or of a star onscreen before him — often seems to make as much or more of an impression than the particulars of a certain story.
He rhapsodized from his backyard about seeing Here Come the Waves in 1946, starring Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton, at the Cathay Theatre in Shanghai. The 1930s-era art deco movie palace boasted 12,000 seats but was largely empty — a space Zydower had mostly to himself.
Zydower displays in conversation a special affinity for actresses, mourning Hutton’s early death (“she got a bit carried away in her life”) while expressing a longtime fondness for Barbara Stanwyck.
Moviegoing for Zydower seems entwined deeply not just with the experience of seeing each work of art, but also has become wrapped up in the longer life films take on in memory — though he finds older films to be more durable.
“Some of them, they stay with me forever,” he said. “I can still talk about them, and I still know exactly who was in them. Now today, you see some movies — yeah, they entertain you. But afterwards? It doesn’t leave much behind.”
Zydower suggests some of this may be due to the loss of stars and the relationship that viewers could form with them across their many frequent works.
“Most movies they are making today, it’s very seldom they have top stars like they used to have before,” he muses. “Even though you never met some of them in real life, you felt like they belonged to you.”
Life in America
But Zydower remains sensitive to painful recollections. Movies that address the Holocaust can stir memories of both the hate he experienced and the violence he observed and heard about against those around him.
“It upsets me terribly,” he says of watching Holocaust-themed films. “I start crying.” Even now, he describes a sense of disbelief at the horrors he’s heard of and seen.
Fortunately for Zydower, his time since his arrival in America has been almost exclusively free of antisemitism and hate.
“I tell you, the minute I got off the boat I felt I was in paradise. When I arrived in San Francisco, the driver — who had to be Jewish — he told us that Israel had been created that day.”
Immediately upon arrival, he made the most of the country’s then-penchant for showing double features.
“By the time I came to America, I only had seen 174 movies. And I was 18 years old. In San Francisco, I went almost every other day — the theaters were open night and day. There was this one on Market Street, I’d go and watch two movies. And then, the next day I would again watch two.”
The habit continued when his family migrated to Detroit, and he began working in industry. Zydower still vividly remembers a range of neighborhood theaters in Detroit that have gone over the years; the Linwood and the Jersey were frequent fixtures in his life, and he still remembers when each would rotate its weekly programming.
Today, Zydower’s vision has declined enough that he can no longer drive, and theaters have been closed amid the pandemic. But he still watches a lot at home on Amazon (he praised Once Upon a Time in Odessa, a recent series about a Jewish gangster) and appears lively and undaunted even amid a historically difficult time.
When asked if movies provide an escapist function, he agreed they often can, especially in “the bad times.” As an example, he recalled a conversation overheard in Shanghai between a couple, a pair of foreign refugees contemplating the price of a Strauss operetta; they were weighing, as he and his family often did, the value of an artistic experience against what they needed to survive.
Whether escapist or not, Zydower’s story suggests the experience of watching movies has largely been worthwhile. Though not every film’s a winner, impressions of the finest viewings, stars and theaters seem to live on for him as vividly ever.
“I tell you what,” he says of Here Come the Waves, a long-ago viewing experience among an incredible many: “I remember every bit no matter what.”