Remember This: Rocky Horror fans among the memories of Downtown's Skywalk in its heyday
Karen Bells | WCPO Contributor
7:00 AM, Aug 9, 2017
CINCINNATI -- For years, all you had to do was look up to see a whole other universe playing out above the streets of downtown Cincinnati.
Oftentimes, it was quite a colorful panoply -- men dressed in corsets and fishnet stockings, revelers in gold-sequined tailcoats and top hats, folks of all ilk wearing French maid costumes and magenta manes, and mild-mannered suburbanites decked out as fearsome bikers or oiled-and-muscled bodybuilders.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was the regular weekend midnight feature for countless years at Skywalk Cinemas, bringing out packed crowds of costumed fun-seekers. Weekend after weekend, year after year, they came, performing “The Time Warp” on Fountain Square before climbing the steep steps to the theater to enjoy the mother of all interactive movies. In sync with the movie’s campy plot, these Cincinnatians fired squirt guns at the screen, flung slices of toast and hurled one-liners. During a scene that pans across a crowd of freaky party-goers, without fail audience members would shout, “Look, it’s Cincinnati City Council!” to an explosion of laughter.
Skywalk Cinemas wasn’t the only popular business situated on the city’s system of elevated and mostly enclosed walkways known as the Skywalk, but it surely was one of the most beloved. The two-screen theater is always one of the first places referenced when the Skywalk is talked about on social media or mentioned to locals. They’ll tell you about seeing “Jaws” there and being scared to go into the ocean, or even the neighborhood pool, for many summers after. About crying during “E.T.: Extra Terrestrial” and screaming during “Poltergeist.”
Gregory McGruder, who grew up Downtown, loved to roam the Skywalk grid, traversing the city and frequenting the many businesses that made their home on the unique perch about 20 feet above the city’s streets.
“It was fun to walk across the Skywalk with friends or family. We just thought it was so cool,” McGruder said. “That Skywalk back then would take you anywhere Downtown, for the most part. We’d walk through there and come out maybe on Sixth Street and hit McDonald’s or Burger King, back when they were Downtown. We’d go to Shillito’s and JJ Newberry’s and JC Penney.”
And of course, he frequented Skywalk Cinemas.
“My mom, aunts and uncles would take us to see a movie, then we’d hit the game room and pizza shop, I think it was Pizza Hut, that were on the Skywalk,” said McGruder, of Westwood.
Some of the original, expansive pedestrian pathway remains today, providing a covered walkway for Downtown workers and visitors to travel between corporate office buildings, hotels and some key commercial operations such as Macy’s. But the Skywalk of 2017 is far different than the nearly three-mile grid of elevated corridors that teemed for decades with art, commerce and entertainment.
The pedestrian system was envisioned in the late 1950s by city planner Herbert Stevens, and the first leg opened in 1971, connecting the Convention Center and Fountain Square. From there, the grid of pathways spread throughout the city, and for some years it seemed as if there were pubs, restaurants, shops and other businesses situated seemingly in every segment of the system. Countless bars and eateries had locations on the Skywalk over the years: the iconic Peri’s Pancakes; plenty of diners, delis and pizzerias; taverns and pubs, including the long-running and popular Scully’s on the Skywalk; retailers from a computer store to a shoe store and more; and cool little kiosks and displays outside of large stores such as Pogue’s.
Sue Radley of Bridgetown worked Downtown for more than 20 years starting in the early 1980s and used the Skywalk daily.
“I walked pretty much every lunch hour. The more (segments of the system) they built, the more I walked,” Radley said. “I loved it and used it all the time.”
While she walked, she frequented the Skywalk businesses, perhaps buying a new outfit at McAlpin’s or an afternoon treat at the confectionary that she believes was Fawn Candy.
By the early 2000s, the Skywalk had lost some of its vitality and many of its businesses, and it had fallen out of favor with some in local planning and politics. Common complaints are that the Skywalk poached potential business from street-level restaurants and stores, or that the pathways were becoming hangouts for homeless people or unsafe places for pedestrians. Many people debate that assessment, including Radley, who said she used the Skywalk countless times alone after working late and never once encountered a safety issue.
Nonetheless, much of the elevated grid was dismantled over the following years, although some sections remain.
These days, the Skywalk corridors that do still exist seem to do a fine job of getting folks from point A to point B, out of the elements. On any given day, you’ll see office workers walking through the stretches between buildings.
But what you won’t see much of anymore are corridors filled with locally owned businesses. And it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a man in a corset or a woman in a sequined tailcoat and top hat.
Remember This is WCPO.com's weekly look back at local nostalgia from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.