By Jamie Jenson | Photography by Steven J. Pallone
When Gia Palermo was growing up in Eastwood, she and her friends would go to the movies at The Palace Theatre all the time.
“Everyone seems to have a story about The Palace Theatre,” Gia said.
Most of those stories, she mused, include Frances DiBella, the former owner of the theatre who was best known as “the lady at The Palace.” Frances’ father, Alfred, built the theatre and opened it in the 1920s. Frances took over after Alfred died.
Gia said Frances, who was a shrewd businesswoman at a time when few females owned and ran their own businesses, would walk through the darkened theatre while movies played and swat her patrons with her flashlight if she saw them with their feet on the seat in front of them.
“She demanded respect for herself and her place,” Gia said.
Frances did much more than carry on her family’s legacy after her father’s death. She created an institution in the heart of Eastwood, a neighborhood Gia believes is really the center of Syracuse.
While Gia is no longer a teenager flocking to the theatre with her friends on a Friday night, The Palace is still very much a part of her life.
As managing director of the theatre since Stephen Skinner purchased the business in September 2016, Gia is at the helm of all things Palace-related.
Today, the theatre is used as a venue for concerts and other programs. There is also an upstairs kitchen and banquet room, which allows full-service catering to patrons.
On the lower level, tucked on the righthand side of the historic building, is the third part of the business, The Palace Commons.
The Mason jar light fixtures and quaint movie-themed ornaments overlooking the counter provide a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the café’s patrons. Gia said Stephen’s wife, Katrina, helped her decorate the space.
Brittany Young, the café’s manager, said the Skinners’ family-oriented attitude is something people can sense as soon as they walk through the door.
“We want people to feel like it’s home,” Brittany said. “It’s not just some restaurant where they stop and grab something to eat. We try to get to know everybody and talk to everybody. If they come in with kids, we try to make it as accommodating as possible.”
Brittany said her favorite part of the job is watching parents come in with their children. She said the parents are always very hesitant at first, warning their children not to touch anything in the café.
“And then I say to them, ‘Do you want to draw on the wall?’” Brittany said with a laugh.
Gia and Stephen painted the wall with chalkboard paint. It gives children an opportunity to express themselves and parents a chance to relax, Brittany said.
The children’s drawings aren’t the only pieces of art on the walls.
The café also exhibits artwork produced by local artisans. For a certain amount of time — usually about a month — locals can display their artistic work in the café. Customers interested in buying artwork displayed can either purchase the art through the café or work directly with the artist.
Local musicians are encouraged to bring their CDs in to be played in the café. They’re rewarded with a free entrée when they do.
Gia said it’s important to The Palace to display talents in the community.
“We were really interested in making this a cultural hub,” she said.
Maria Pence is the coffee bar manager/head barista at the café. The best part of her job is the interactions with customers, especially those who come in frequently, she said.
“You start building relationships with them,” Maria said. “It makes the day more fun and you feel more connected to the community.”
When a regular customer walks in, she usually remembers their order. With a full menu, this is pretty impressive.
The café offers a variety of espresso drinks, coffee and tea, as well as food options for breakfast and lunch. All the meats they use for their sandwiches are freshly roasted and carved on-site. With sandwich names like “The Rock Star” (fresh roast beef, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and horseradish mayo) or “The Emo” (peanut butter, banana and Fluff), eating at the café is a fun and unique experience.
The Palace Commons boasts a selection of Hale and Hearty Soups, which typically aren’t found this far north of the company’s home in Brooklyn. The menu also has vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
Maria said the staff’s care about the customer experience sets The Palace Commons apart.
For the Skinners, Gia said, it’s also about preserving a special part of Eastwood’s history.
“This is a neighborhood anchor,” Gia said. “And it’s really important to them to keep that alive.” SWM
The Palace Commons is located at 2384 James St. in Syracuse. For more information, including hours and menus, visit facebook.com/palacecommons. Customers can also order from the café on Grubhub.