Sunday, 11 December 2011

They Call Them ... Picture Palaces

History of the American Movie Palace

In the beginning, moving pictures were pioneered by Thomas Edison, best known for his development of the electric light bulb and the phonograph (the predecessor of the record player). He was the first person successfully to demonstrate moving pictures to the public. His early experiments followed the same pattern as his phonograph, with the pictures recorded on to a wax cylinder. As an historical note, Edison did not work alone. He had other scientists and engineers working with him in his laboratory and while a lot of Edison's inventions and technologies were directly credited to the man, there were others who equally deserved credit that went un-named. In 1889, Edison handed the development of the moving pictures project to a young Scotsman named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Dickson stopped working with cylinders and began work on a system that used strips of celluloid film, the same material that was being developed for still photography.

Dickson's camera was called the Kinetograph. It used rolls of film about 35mm wide with rows of holes down the sides to allow the film to be pulled through the camera at an even rate by gears. At the same time, Dickson developed a viewer for the films that was called a Kinetoscope. One person at a time would look through the viewing piece at the top of the box. The film ran through a series of pulleys in a continuous loop, so that it could be watched over and over again without rewinding.

Edison's earliest films lasted for about 20 seconds or less because of the amount of film you could put into the camera. They were first demonstrated to the public in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. By the following year, a "Kinetoscope parlor" had been opened in New York, with ten machines showing different films. At right is an early Edison film from the same time period, converted to an animated GIF. "The Sneeze" is presented here uncut in its full length.

In order to understand the attraction to viewing these short films, you have to remember that at the beginning of the 20th century, the common person did not travel more than 25 miles away from where they were born. Their life experience was limited to the things that were commonplace in their community. Things that were not in their paradigm were considered pretty exotic and it was quite something to see things outside of their worlds. No one had seen moving pictures before, so even a few moments of action was astounding. The first movies were nothing more than studies of real life. Animals, city life, and the new modern wonders such as the aeroplane and the horseless carriage were common subjects. People who saw those films were voracious in their appetite to see more and know more of the world around them. As the technology progressed and longer moves could be made, they began to tell short stories, but even then, they were under a few minutes long.

Kinetoscope parlors sprang up all over the country and rows of Kinetoscopes were added to existing entertainment venues like penny arcades. Operators attempted to attract customers through sidewalk displays and through wide entranceways with the doors set back or entirely removed. This made the space of the interior and exterior continuous and drew people in from the sidewalks into the venues. It became an enduring feature of movie theater construction still employed today.

The first Nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh in 1905; the proprietors of the Smithfield Street movie house in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania renamed their operation the "Nickelodeon" by combining the word "Nickel", the price of admission, with "Odeon," the ancient name of Grecian theaters. The popularity of the theater was enormous and other "Nickelodeons" soon appeared around the world. Over time, the terms Kinetoscope and Nickelodeon would become synonymous to the same machine and type of establishment as other entrepreneurs adopted Nickelodeon as the name for their places of business. In the United Kingdom, another popular term for these theaters was "Fleapits" because of the perceived lower-class status of their patrons.

In 1904, a 24-year-old William Fox started the Greater New York Film Rental Company with the purchase of a run-down Nickelodeon in Brooklyn. With its success, he purchases more Nickelodeons. With his fledgling chain of theaters, Fox fought against the movie monopoly of the Motion Picture Patents Company owned by Thomas Edison. Edison held his film patents tightly and using his power, his company's vast financial resources, and the incredible popularity of his Kinetoscopes dominated the market in America. The fight ended in 1912 when the Supreme Court rules in Fox's favor. The age of the kinetoscope was coming to an end.

As motion pictures progressed to short subject films, they were presented in the manner that they are shown today, with a film projector shooting the image on a large screen for a large group of people to watch simultaneously. The exhibitioners much preferred presenting a single film to a mass audience since showing one film on one set of equipment to many instead of one person meant a lot more profit was to be made. Gone were rows and rows of many machines and having to individually maintain them. In their place was a single projector, much like the ones we use today. These establishments were very simple, spartan, smoke-filled, dingy and dark, they were nothing more than simple rooms or store fronts that had either a white-washed wall or a linen sheet hung up on a wall to act as a screen. The chairs were loose and placed into rows to suit the room. In the middle or rear of the room sat the projector with its operator, who might also act as the ticket vendor. Accompanying the film, was a piano, often played by a girl or matron from the neighborhood, using whatever music she had in her repertoire at the moment. Still, for a nickel you could be transported into a fantasy world on the screen. In addition to short narratives and other genres of films, such as "Scenics", which were essentially views of the world from moving trains. Nickelodeons often included other attractions such as illustrated song slides, song and dance acts, comedy, live dramas and other features that allowed them to compete with vaudeville houses. Nickelodeons happily operated like this for a number of years, partly because of the low-cost to set up, partly because should the venture fail, converting the space to some other form of business would be easy to do. The popularity of these affordable, entertaining, and highly profitable venues was such that their numbers mushroomed to approximately 8,000 in the United States by 1908.

Attendance was growing from a few people into the hundreds at a time and because of that, the old ways of showing films were beginning to have serious safety considerations. New local and federal public safety laws started to have a direct bearing on the theaters and their construction. In the Nickelodeon, should there be a crisis, the most common being a fire, people would panic with no regard for others to the front doors. Chairs would be tossed about and human stampedes would cause as much injury or death as the event that sparked the exodus. Fire was the number one threat. Stage lights, the abundance of people smoking, and the nitrate-based film that was being shown was highly flammable, were all threats to send the theaters up in flames very quickly. As new theaters were opened, new laws began to have an effect on how and where the theater operators could exhibit their films. Store fronts just could no longer work was makeshift cinemas. The new entertainment wonder had to evolve.

The "next-generation" theaters often began as failed opera houses, concert halls, or churches. The popularity of the motion pictures was so great, pretty soon all of the available buildings with some form of an auditorium were taken and demand was still not satisfied. With the establishment of local, federal, and industry safety rules coming into effect, it soon became obvious that it would take new buildings that would incorporate safety features such as emergency exits, an asbestos curtain that could be rapidly dropped to act as a barrier between the audience and a fire on or back stage, and a separate projection room that separated the equipment and the very flammable film from the audience. Smoking in the auditoriums was also banned as a further safety measure. While some older theaters and halls did undergo conversions, it was often much cheaper to build a new building from scratch.

While films were being shown in the Nickelodeons, the new wonder was not well regarded by upper society. By taking the movies out of the "fleapits" and into "proper" halls that were befitting patronage of refined gentlemen and ladies, it was hoped that someday the fledgling industry would be held in the same high regard as the other "arts"; ballet, symphony, and opera. Moving into converted and purpose-built theaters did a lot to achieve that goal. Built in 1902, Tally's Electric Theater in Los Angeles was the first permanent structure devoted entirely to movies. Nickelodeons fell out of popularity as audiences increasingly preferred the comfortable and clean, well-appointed surroundings of larger theatres, better-quality musical accompaniments and well-dressed ushers. Even smaller cities could boast of 'pleasure palaces' doubling as community centers seating a thousand and more.

While this was a few decades away from the Great Depression that started in 1929, times were turbulent and life was much more harsh than people know it to be in the 21st century. People loved escaping their worlds by getting involved in the stories this new modern marvel told them. Entrepreneurs soon caught on to the idea of extending this fantasy world from just the screen image to the whole experience of going to the movies. New movie theaters were built not only to hold larger audiences, but the entire scale and grandeur was put into overdrive. Because of these buildings having such opulence and extraordinary architectural beauty, a new term was coined. These were not mere theaters or cinemas; they were Palaces, where the average patron would be treated as royalty. The picture palaces were such a commercial success, between 1914 and 1922, 4,000 opened in the United States.

The Regent was America's first motion picture palace. It opened in New York City in 1913. The Regent was located in a working class neighborhood uptown from the 'legitimate' theater district. A reporter for the Motion Picture News declared that the opening night audience "was the kind to be found at the best playhouses. Judged by their decorum and sincere appreciation, they might have been at the opera." Indeed, going to the movie had gone from plopping down on a chair with a beer stein in one hand and your cigar in the other, to putting on your finest wardrobe to see and be seen alongside society's finest.

After dominating the motion picture industry, The Edison company's reign gave way to a handful of film companies that rapidly achieved "vertical integration" of the industry. Vertical Integration in this instance means that the company controlled every aspect of the "product" they manufactured. The film studio "owned" the players and film production team by contract; they controlled the subject matter and totally financed the movie. Once it was made, they studio would then self-promote the film and distribute it to be shown at theaters that were wholly owned by the same studio/corporation. Vaudeville circuits like the Keith-Albee became absorbed into motion picture corporations like RKO and Loew's.

It became increasingly harder for individual independent entrepreneurs to show new first-run film in their houses because none of the studios would allow their films to be shown on screens not owned or in partnership with a studio. In the eyes of many, this created yet another set of new monopolies that caused almost all of the independent exhibitors to sign into a studio network agreement, sell the theater to a studio, or close their doors. Of course, legal challenges were filed, but it took almost 4 decades for them to wind their way through the United States legal system. Before the legal challenges found their way to the Supreme Court, the damage had done. In a few short years the studios totally controlled movie production, distribution, and exhibition in the U.S. The "Big Five" were Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), Warner Brothers, Loew's (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Fox (Later 20th Century-Fox), and RKO. By 1929 Paramount operated 1200 theaters with Fox close behind at 1100. In 1930, these five film companies took in approximately 70% of all box office receipts in the United States.

Many of the studio heads, architects, and picture palace managers were first-generation Americans: among them were William Fox, a Hungarian and Samual Rothapfel, son of German and Polish immigrants. Their experiences as first-generation Americans might have given them a different perspective on American consumer culture, but instead they became some of its most ardent champions, and their theaters became some of its most unforgettable monuments. Most of the great palace were designed and created by three architectural firms: Rapp and Rapp, John Eberson, and Thomas Lamb for "the Big Five" studios. (The one major exception to this was the Atlanta Fox Theatre, as it was not originally conceived to be a palace, but rather the local Yaarab Temple for the Atlanta Shriners. Its design was sourced through a local design contest that an Atlanta native won.) A healthy competition of sorts was to be had between the three architectural firms to see who could out do the others. Each new palace was becoming "the new modern wonder of the world". Most movie palaces were built employing themes from Europe's grand architecture. The rule of thumb was the more ornate, the better. A few took on other themes such as artificial outdoor settings.

Everything about the movie palace was designed, like other products and advertisements of the age, to make the average citizen feel like a celebrity, a millionaire, or royalty. When the San Francisco Fox opened in June of 1929, newspaper and magazine advertisements proclaimed: "No palace of Prince or Princess, no mansion of millionaire could offer the same pleasure, delight, and relaxation to those who seek surcease from the work-a-day world, than this, the Arcady where delicate dreams of youth are spun...Here in this Fox dream castle, dedicated to the entertainment of all California, is the Utopian Symphony of the Beautiful, attuned to the Cultural and Practical...No King...No Queen...had ever such luxury, such varied array of singing, dancing, talking magic, such complete fulfillment of joy. The power of this Purple we give to you...for your entertainment. You are the monarch while the play is on!"

In large towns, it was common for more than one movie palace to be built and it seemed where multiple theaters were, there was a very healthy competition to make the next theater bigger, better, and more over the top. Even in small cities and towns where there was no competition, the theaters that were erected were more lavish than the citizens of that area had ever seen albeit not on the scale or opulence of those in the really big cities. While they were not true movie palaces, these theaters were an important part of American culture. In the smaller towns, theaters became cultural centers for their societies. Societal life began to revolve around what was going on at the Theater. In addition to the photoplays, the theaters would be rented out for special events such as school graduations, traveling lectures, community theater, and weddings. It was very common (and still so today) for theaters to open their doors on Sunday mornings to be used by new church groups that were just starting out that didn't have their own sanctuary.

The Great Depression took its toll on the palaces. Theater attendance dropped from 90 million per week in 1930 to 60 million per week two years later. During the same period, the number of operating theaters fell from 22,000 to 14,000. People were doing good just to survive, and going to the movies was now a rare luxury. So theater managers had to trim their own operations just to keep the doors open. The first thing to go was the number of live acts. They soon learned that by making the program shorter, they could have more than one show a night, which meant more revenue. Pretty soon, all that was left was what was on film. Despite their best efforts, many theaters did not make it and were being boarded up. San Francisco's Fox Theater went dark in 1932, just three years after it's opening, when William Fox defaulted on the rent and declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter. His studio was reorganized as Twentieth Century-Fox in 1935 and resumed film production. Paramount suffered a similar fate: receivership in 1933, bankruptcy, and reorganization in 1936. Loew's was part of Fox when it went into receivership, but it emerged separately as MGM a few years later. RKO declared bankruptcy in 1934 and reorganized in 1939. Universal sold its theaters as a stopgap measure but went into receivership anyway in 1933, to be reorganized in 1936. Only Warner Brothers, Columbia, and United Artists survived the Depression with their theater empires intact. As the economy slowly recovered, the picture palaces that survived the Great Depression began to enjoy a renaissance. By 1932, Sixty million people went to the movies each week

Architects and builders continued to construct some movie palaces in the 30s during the Great Depression. Art Deco replaced the previously employed styles of architecture and became the standard in palace design. Although Art Deco was originally started in Europe, it had greater achievement in architecture and interior design in the United States and today is pretty much recognized as an American art form. Art Deco was derived from another artistic expression, Art Nouveau that developed in the 1880s. Art Nouveau was a concerted attempt to create an international style based on decoration. Art Nouveau designers believed that all should work in harmony to create a "total work of art," or Gesamtkunstwerk: buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewelry all should conform those principles. Art Deco first appeared in the 1920s. It is a "modernization" of many artistic styles and themes from the past. You can easily detect in many examples of Art Deco the influence of Far and Middle Eastern design, Greek and Roman themes, and even Egyptian and Mayan influence. Modern elements included echoing machine and automobile patterns and shapes such as stylized gears and wheels, or natural elements such as sunbursts and flowers. The modern art movements of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism influenced Art Deco; however, it also took some ideas from the ancient geometrical design styles, such as Egypt, Assyria and Persia. Art Deco designers use stepped forms, rounded corners, triple- striped decorative elements and black decoration quite a lot. The most important thing is that they are all in geometrical order, and simple formats. If one is looking for appropriate words to describe overall Art Deco as a design style, "streamline" and "speed" come to mind. During the Great Depression, Art Deco buildings had very little protruding ornamentation and have very flat, streamlined looks. During the years when Art Deco as a style was in fashion the term Art Deco was not used. The terms. Modernistic, Moderne, or Style Moderne referred to this style until the term Art Deco was coined in the 60's by Bevis Hillier, a British art critic and historian. The name Art Deco was derived from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, held in Paris, where the style was recognized as unique from other art forms.

There are a lot of views as to why the movie palace architects made the transition over to Art Deco. Some feel that the opulence of the Movie Palaces prior to this time was an attempt to legitimize movies as an art form such as opera, ballet, or symphony. Since the masses had accepted the movies, this was no longer needed. Noted palace expert David Naylor wrote: "The architectural treatments of movie palaces were now considered exuberant, if not downright wasteful." Movie historian Maggie Valentine offered another explanation, which tied theater architecture to film content. She argued that the exotic decor of the early palaces reflected the silent, exotic nature of film during that period. The wide use of the Art Deco style in other buildings of the period, however, weakens Ms. Valentine's argument that it somehow arose organically from the film industry or from film content.

My personal take on the conversion to Art Deco is two-fold. I think the main reason it was used in palace design is that since it was a substantially simpler and more streamlined look, it was a heck of a lot cheaper to construct a palace using this form of design. During the Great Depression, cost was a major factor. Secondly, after we were plunged into the Great Depression, which pardon the pun, was depressing, this new art form of the future rallied us to look forward to a most wonderful and spectacular future once we moved beyond the current situation. I do not think there has been any other period in the history of man where we as a civilization have looked so forward to the prospects of a wondrous future. The Art Deco style WAS the future and it was seen everywhere as a harbinger of that incredible future. In my opinion, the 1939 World's Fair in New York is the epitome of this expression with the General Motors exhibition, the World of Tomorrow. I feel the people of that time looked at the Great Depression as a period of transition between one age of man to the next. The old European ornate styles were then considered dated as compared to the sleek new future that lay ahead.

The first Art Deco palace, designed in 1930 by Marcus Priteca, was the Hollywood Pantages at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. While many others were built (and some razed), without a doubt, the most famous Art Deco theater, and undeniably the most famous Movie Palace, in the world, is Radio City Music Hall. More than 300 million people have patronized Radio City to enjoy stage shows, movies, concerts and special events. Everything about it is larger than life and it is undeniably "America's Showplace".

Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Donald Deskey designed the Music Hall's interior spaces. In his design, Deskey chose elegance over excess, grandeur above glitz. He designed more than thirty separate spaces, including eight lounges and smoking rooms, each with its own motif. Given "The Progress of Man" as his general theme, he created a stunning tribute to "human achievement in art, science and industry. He made art an integral part of the design, engaging fine artists to create murals, wall coverings and sculpture; textile designers to develop draperies and carpets; craftsmen to make ceramics, wood panels and chandeliers. Deskey himself designed furniture and carpets, and he coordinated the design of railings, balustrades, signage and decorative details to complement the theatre's interior spaces. It remains an elegant, sophisticated, unified tour de force.

Radio City Music Hall is now the largest motion picture theatre in the world today. Its marquee is a full city-block long. Its auditorium measures 160 feet from back to stage and the ceiling reaches a height of 84 feet. The walls and ceiling are formed by a series of sweeping arches that define a splendid and immense curving space. Choral staircases rise up the sides toward the back wall. Actors can enter there to bring live action right into the house. There are no columns to obstruct views. Three shallow mezzanines provide comfortable seating without looming over the rear orchestra section below. A huge proscenium arch that measures 60 feet high and 100 feet wide frames the Great Stage. It is comprised of three sections mounted on hydraulic-powered elevators. A fourth elevator raises and lowers the entire orchestra. Within the perimeter of the elevators is a turntable that can be used for quick scene changes and special stage effects. The shimmering gold stage curtain is the largest in the world. For more than sixty-five years audiences have thrilled to the sound of the "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ, which was built especially for the theatre. And what's a show without special effects? Original mechanisms still in use today make it possible to send up fountains of water and bring down torrents of rain. Fog and clouds are created by a mechanical system that draws steam directly from a Con Edison generating plant nearby.

Radio City reopened after an extensive seven month, $70 million dollar restoration on October 4, 1999. The Music Hall now reflects its original grandeur of opening night, 1932. The neon marquee has been restored to its original red, blue and gold glory. The same company that manufactured the original has recreated seating in the auditorium. Draperies, wall coverings and carpets have been rewoven in original patterns and colors. Murals and paintings have been cleaned and, where possible, overpainting has been removed. The Stuart Davis mural, Men Without Women, is now back in its original home after almost 25 years at the Museum of Modern Art. Gold, silver and copper leaf has been reapplied to ceilings; metal railings and decorative elements polished until they gleam; chairs, tables and casework reupholstered and refinished. And a totally new one, woven in a pattern that enhances its shimmering glow, has replaced the worn stage curtain.

During World War II, movie theaters hosted newsreels and war bond drives, attracting patriotic and news-hungry Americans by the millions, which hit an all-time estimated high of 85 million patrons each week. Americans packed in existing movie palaces during the war, as a building ban stateside stopped construction of new theaters during WWII for two years. In 1943 a study commissioned by the Navy concluded that a lack of movie theaters stateside contributed to delinquency and high labor turnover. The movie studios and film exhibitors gladly responded to the Navy call for new theaters. During the '40s theater builders relied heavily on concrete that was the most abundant non-restricted material available to them. This construction technique is pretty much the same technique used today to make simple box-like buildings to house an auditorium. Cinema attendance reached its all-time American high in the years following the war, but the revival was short lived. Then everything started to go wrong.

The tide of American consumerism, which had propelled the movie palaces to prestige and profitability, contributed to their decline. The political phrase, "a chicken in every pot" had metamorphosed into "a car in every driveway and a television in every living room." Americans' pursuit of the material Good Life led them to a suburban exodus. Sub-urbanization facilitated by the federal government and automakers in Detroit, and the lifestyle it called for spelled doom for downtown movie palaces. The growth of the suburbs and "urban sprawl" began by repaying the returning World War Two Veterans for their service through subsidies for interstate construction, the GI Bill, and the FHA mortgage program. More and more people were moving farther and farther away from the big cities where the palaces were. The government promoted this sprawl by the creation of interstate highway construction that would allow for people to live farther out from the city yet be able to get to work in relatively short time thanks to driving on a high-speed road. While most cities had yet to come to know modern traffic gridlock, it was soon discovered that once a worker ended his day of work, he wanted to leave the city to go home and stay there. People would not stay or return to the city to go to see a movie.

In 1948, the Supreme Court declared the movie industry's vertical integration unlawful. Until that time, most of the film studios also owned their own movie theater chains that would act as their distribution arms. The court ruled this system was an unfair monopoly to anyone who wished to run an independent cinema with no ties to any single studio. The movie studios were forced to sell off their theater chains. It was soon obvious that many individual theaters could not survive without subsidies from a larger organization or studio. Theaters that could not turn a profit for their new owners were closed or sold off.

Probably the greatest threat to the palaces was television. Between 1947 and 1957, 90% of American households acquired a television. Newsreels were a thing of the past by the early '50s; TV news broadcasts meant people could get the latest news in their homes and much faster. Whereas the news presented on a newsreel was at least one to two weeks old when it was shown in the theaters. From the time television was debuted to the public at the 1939 World's Fair, the TV had gone from a massive structure with a relatively small imaging tube to something that a lot of people could watch with relative ease in a good-sized room. As the manufacturing processes switched from wartime production, televisions were able to be mass-produced at a cost that was relatively affordable. Radio stations were now making the transition to television and the choices of what to watch (and when) greatly improved. While the theaters were in their dark days, the Golden Age of Television had arrived. Pictured at right is the 1951 DuMont Royal Sovereign television that boasts the largest black and white picture tube ever made at 30" measured diagonally.

The movie industry was frantic to counter this new competitor, and in retaliation, they started to renovate their theaters with such luxuries as air conditioning, large "rocking chair" seats, wide screen, Cinerama, 3-D motion pictures, stereophonic sound, and epic films, all of which meant the renovation of existing theaters to accommodate a wider screen and thus the destruction of many elaborate movie palace prosceniums and organ grilles. One of the attempts to get people back into the cinemas by exhibitors (and one that makes me grin) was "dish night", a ploy that was used during the Depression era. For every person that came to the movie, they would get a piece of dinnerware. The idea behind it was logical. By getting the whole family out to the cinema, you'd get a set of dishes for the whole family, then you would return in the subsequent weeks for the other pieces of the table setting (Dinner plates, roll plates, salad bowls, saucers, etc.) From its all time high, theater attendance declined to less than half that, or about 42 million patrons per week continued to decline. In 1991, average attendance was estimated to be a dismal 18.9 million per week, compared to its high of 85 million decades before. Attendance number never really started to increase until the end of the century.

The movie palaces not only faced competition from the evil television, but that also faced direct competition from the theaters that were popping up in the suburbs and a new form of theater that would go on to become another great American icon, the Drive-In Theater. The post-war boom brought in a golden age of the automobile and the love of the car sparked a unique fusion of car and cinema. The Drive-in was very popular with families that could pay a single car admission for a carload of adults and kids. While the parents watched the film, the kids could often go and play at a playground located behind the large parking ground. Couples loved to go to drive-ins for the "unique" privacy being inside your own car provided. America's love affair with the drive-in lasted for about two decades before it began to fall out of favor in the 1970s. Just like the movie palaces they competed with, the property they resided on became highly valued real estate and a lot of them were torn up for other developments.

No matter what the exhibitors did, it was only minimally effective in bringing more people to the movie palaces. It was quite apparent that the days of the large downtown cinema were numbered. One by one, the big theaters were closing as people either stayed home or went to smaller theaters located in the sprawling suburbs that were now being built. Most Palaces were situated on valuable downtown property. With their owners not being able to pay their bills, not to mention the large amount of money required to maintain the palaces, selling off the property to developers was a very attractive way out of a desperate situation. In 1956, Balaban and Katz decided to demolish the Paradise Theater in Chicago and sell the land to a supermarket chain. This was widely considered to be the start of the darkest days of the Movie Palaces where the majority of the great houses were destroyed.

The Paradise Theater was built in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago, and was billed as the world's most beautiful theater and to this day is regarded as one of the greatest movie palaces ever built. After 3 years of construction, the Paradise opened for business on 14 September 1928. Its auditorium could hold 3612 patrons in its "atmospheric" hall that was designed to replicate an open air courtyard with its painted ceiling made to look like a cloud-filled sky on a warm spring day. The photos above left and right shown the wonderful exterior and the Paradise's incredible auditorium. The Paradise put up a fight against its demolition as the demolition crew discovered that the building was built substantially better and a lot stronger than the original blueprint detailed. What was to take a few months took two years to totally raze the building. The demolition foreman committed suicide because of the stress the project entailed.

One by one, the great Palaces fell. For each of the big theaters that came down, new smaller theaters would be erected in the fast growing suburbs. By then, going to the movies had been reduced from something that was a big outing for the evening to something that would last for a few hours. Gone were the shorts, the live acts, the newsreels, and the cartoons. All that was left was the trailers for coming attractions and the main feature. Like the streamlined theaters they were in, so had the movies program. Part of this was simple economics. The shorter the program, the less you had to pay for plus the most showings you could have in one evening. Where in the old system there was one performance a night, if you started your movies around 5, you could get in 2 or 3 shows in the same auditorium.

The photo displayed at left is the great silent film actress Gloria Swanson in a staged photo decrying the destruction of the great movie palaces. While the exact spot she is standing in is not documented, she is standing in the ruins of the New York Roxy Theatre as it was being demolished in 1961. All of the ornate plaster and ornamentation is pretty much gone from the heavily damaged wall, but you can still make out a magnificent column just to the right of Ms. Swanson, which indicates to me she is probably standing where the auditorium used to be. The Roxy was one of the largest palaces to be built with an extraordinary seating capacity of over 6,000 as shown on the photo to the right.

Several of the Palaces had extra stories above or around the theater for retail and office space. This was a godsend to those theaters because the revenue created by leases helped offset the loss of revenue of the theater itself. But that did not save them all. While the buildings were saved, the theaters were not and the space they occupied was "re-purposed". Some became department stores, some became churches, and others were gutted and made into more retail or office space. The worst bastardization of a Palace occurred with the Michigan Theater in Detroit. The theater was only partially gutted and made into a parking lot. Even the stage, the movie screen, and its curtain were left intact. The ornate lobby became the up and down ramps to the various levels of the parking lot.

The theaters in the smaller towns were a lot luckier than their big cousins. Most were able to stay afloat because they did not have the direct competition of other theaters in the same town. Another factor was that in the smaller towns, real estate was a lot more plentiful and it was much easier to buy a parcel of undeveloped land to build on rather than having to demolish or renovate an existing structure. When a small town theater closed, most of them simply stayed boarded up for years waiting to be rediscovered and used once more by the community.

The late fifties, the sixties, and the early seventies were the darkest time for the Palaces, but after we lost the majority of the Palaces, people began to take notice of what we were losing. Most metropolitan areas had several big theaters and by the time all but one or two of them had been demolished, people began to stand up and fight to preserve what remained. A lot of creative thought went into how to revitalize a building that really didn't make money during its life. Most became omnibus theaters presenting a wide range of different performances. Some became places of worship, while others became dinner theaters. But regardless of what the Palaces became, they all have a common theme of preserving one of the most unique pieces of Americana alive for year to come.
Gary Sweeney in

May 21, 2010, 5:00 pm Tattered Palaces
By KRISTEN JOY WATTS in The New York Times

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
— Norma Desmond, “Sunset Boulevard”

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, who live outside Paris, photograph 20th-century ruins. Although Europe has its own relics, they are drawn to America.

Among their favorite subjects are old movie palaces, built from the 1910s to the 1930s, when excitement about going to the movies was immense and theaters — like the films they showed — constructed fantasy and offered escape. Today, what remains of these spaces is poignant evidence of what going to the pictures used to mean.

“Fastuous and monumental buildings depict the way human beings projected their hopes and phantasms,” Mr. Marchand said.

Mr. Marchand, 29, and Mr. Meffre, 23, first photographed the United Artists Theater in Detroit, a Spanish Gothic confection designed by C. Howard Crane, now a temple in ruin.

Inspired, they began photographing theaters all over America, making images of opulent architecture, sweeping curtains and thousands of seats in front of single screens.

Since the lights went up and the music finished playing in these cathedrals of cinema, office furniture, mattress stacks and bingo games have found homes, “creating surrealistic and absurd contrasts,” Mr. Marchand said, adding that he was — with every answer — speaking for Mr. Meffre, too. “They reflect the way society is fast evolving and forgetting.”

In 2005, when Mr. Meffre and Mr. Marchand first started to collaborate, they worked independently, each bringing his own equipment to shoots. But the pictures they made were so similar that they soon scrapped this method in favor of setting up each image together and shooting with just one camera.

“We are both auteurs of every picture we take,” Mr. Marchand said.

When they’re shooting, they prefer to use available light to respect the original atmosphere. In the darkest of the spaces, this sometimes requires exposures as long as an hour. When absolutely necessary, they rely on handmade battery-powered lights, using them to paint the scene.

Mr. Marchand and Mr. Meffre have often photographed these spaces with the support of preservationists who dream of bringing a theater back to its former glory. Other times, as in the case of the now-demolished Adams Theater in Detroit, they are making images of something that will soon only exist in records and in peoples’ memories.

Mr. Marchand said they have never encountered any ghosts in the old theaters, but every once in a while they bump into strangers whose purpose is unclear.

“We don’t really know what they are doing there, but they’re probably wondering the same about us, so we just say, ‘Hello.’”

Atmospheric "New Mexico"


Our story ends in faded downtowns across America, bleak landscapes littered with shuttered fleapit theaters bearing names such as the Alexandria, the Luxor, the Isis, and the Nile. But it begins, properly, in Egypt.
The time is fall 1922. The place is the Valley of the Kings, where the English archaeologist Howard Carter is searching for the tomb of an obscure 18th-dynasty pharaoh, Tutankhamen. It is a hunt that has been going on for six fruitless years. And yet, though frustrated and faced with imminent loss of his financial backing, Carter refuses to give up. His dogged faith that glory is just a spadeful of sand away—inspired by a few scattered clues to the tomb’s whereabouts—is no doubt a subject of mirth among the British precincts in Cairo.
Then, one day in November, Carter’s men uncover a small stairway cut into rock and leading down to what appears to be a sealed door. Carter’s heart leaps with “ill-suppressed excitement,” as he later notes. Could this be it? Three weeks of cautious, preliminary excavation ensue, revealing a second sealed door. And finally, “the decisive moment.” Carter’s patron, the dashing Earl of Carnarvon, is now on hand, along with Carnarvon’s daughter, the lovely Lady Evelyn Herbert, and Carter’s trusted assistant A. R. Callender. The date is November 26. As Carter will write in The Tomb of Tutankhamen:
With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner [of the second door] … Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”
Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair

Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. “The Egyptian style,” writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, “captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” Perhaps the most famous example of our forebears’ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.
For 19th-century architects and designers, the Egyptian Revival style served two symbolic purposes. On the one hand, though paradoxically trendy, Egyptian motifs suggested permanence and stability, conjuring both ancient wisdom and the type of solid, well-built structure that remains standing through the ages; these associations proved especially useful when designing landmarks such as suspension bridges and water-pumping stations, reassuring a public that might otherwise have expected these newfangled structures to collapse or blow up. At the same time, there was another, nearly opposite association with ancient Egypt: the culture’s mystical, spooky-ooky side, as represented by its death-obsessed rituals, its forbidding animal-headed gods, and its alien-looking hieroglyphics, which, though their code had been broken in 1822, still carried an aura of impenetrability for having long baffled Westerners.
This was the carnival-ready Egypt beloved by showmen and magicians dating back at least as far as post-revolutionary France. And with its potential for socko visuals and tales of forbidden “Oriental” lust, ancient Egypt was a natural subject for early filmmakers, even pre-Tut. There were five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918, including a reportedly steamy 1917 version starring Theda Bara. Mummy movies were another popular genre, pre-dating the 1932 Karloff version by two decades.
Grappling with the import of the new medium, cinema’s first theorists, among them Sergei Eisenstein, coined the once-common metaphor of film as modern hieroglyphics, as a new kind of visual writing. Furthermore, as Antonia Lant, professor of cinema studies at New York University, writes, “There was an association [drawn] between the blackened enclosure of silent cinema and that of the Egyptian tomb, both in theoretical texts and in the use of Egyptianate architectural style for auditoriums.” This is what Charles Toberman and Sid Grauman may have realized, either consciously or intuitively: that ancient Egypt, in its jumble of associations, “offered the cinema both legitimation and the allure of the exotic.”
Those are still Lant’s words. Grauman, who would go on to greater fame as the owner of the even grander Chinese Theater three blocks west of the Egyptian down Hollywood Boulevard, would have no doubt put it more vividly. He was a master of ballyhoo, the sort of showman unashamed to plug a routine premiere as “the night of nights … the most brilliant opening in the history of openings the world over.” He was also one of the rare genuinely beloved figures in Hollywood, where friends such as Fairbanks and Louis B. Mayer nicknamed him “Little Sunshine.” His career neatly paralleled the evolution of motion-picture exhibition from rinky-dink sideshow stalls to movie palaces that were attractions in and of themselves.
Grauman had gotten his start putting on makeshift variety shows in the Yukon during the Alaskan gold rush in the late 1890s, then joined his father in San Francisco, where they built a chain of vaudeville and primitive movie theaters in the early years of the 20th century. One of his greatest if crudest strokes of showmanship was born of necessity: after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed two of his San Francisco theaters, he bought a canvas tent big enough to seat 3,000 people and began staging acts and showing short movies under the banner nothing to fall on you except canvas. But, like other exhibitors in the teens, he soon caught on to the value of architectural razzle-dazzle when it came to packing ’em in. As the theater historian Edwin Heathcote writes in Cinema Builders, “Whereas [legitimate] theatre builders had attempted to imbue their buildings with the cultural symbols of the Rococo and the Beaux Arts—traditions which were seen to lend weight to their status as successors of the Italian opera and the European royal theaters—cinema builders realized that they were bound by no such cultural constraints.”
And how. Grauman’s first outpost in Southern California was the spectacular 2,345-seat Million Dollar Theatre, which he opened in 1918 in downtown Los Angeles, then the city’s entertainment hub. The Million Dollar mixed Spanish-colonial motifs with Byzantine flourishes, a visual stew described by the Los Angeles Times as “bizarre and rugged” in what seems to have been intended as a compliment. But it was Grauman’s second downtown theater, the Metropolitan, which bespoke a truly individual vision. “The lobby was simply bizarre”—that word, again—“with a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase,” writes another theater historian, David Naylor, in American Picture Palaces. “The quote near the base of the sphinx read, ‘You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens.’ ” (One innovation wrought by Grauman’s Egyptian, it seems, was stylistic coherence.)

Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair






Streamlined Modern

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