Detroit's Fox Theater (source: Olympia Entertainment)

This Week: Cinema Treasures

Long ago in the dark ages of moviegoing–the 1980s–audiences were forced to pack themselves into cinder-block multiplexes with 50 auditoriums that featured two-foot-wide screens and fold-up chairs. Believe it or not, there was no such thing as stadium seating, Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound, THX certification, or digital projection. Worse, theater chains did not care in the slightest about the aesthetic appearances of their venues–any box would do. Moviegoing today has improved mightily on a technical level, but it's also getting much better on a sensory scale as some exhibitors actually spend money on constructing architecturally interesting theaters. The more elaborate new theaters recall an age when movie theaters were intended to be portals to exotic worlds–fabulous, glamorous, excessive buildings that were dubbed palaces for the common man. In the 1920s and '30s, these huge movie palaces were constructed across the country with thematic styles boldly referencing far-off lands and distant times, from ancient Egypt to mysterious China. A night out at the movies was truly a unique experience whether the movie was any good or not. In the post-war years of suburbanization, however, many of these spectacular creations were bulldozed for parking lots. As city neighborhoods were abandoned for life in subdivisions, downtown movie palaces lost their ticket-buyers to smaller theaters and multiplexes in outlying towns. In the name of "urban renewal," city leaders tried to make their downtowns more attractive to suburbanites by demolishing the now-empty palaces to make room for their cars. It didn't really work, and ironically we are now seeing a resurgence in traditional downtown living–with the surviving movie palaces often becoming cultural centerpieces. Restoration and preservation of these unique buildings is a national trend found in cities large and small as audiences reconnect with the pleasures of attending an event at a genuine movie palace. Cinema Treasures, a website founded by Patrick Crowley and Ross Melnick, is an indispensable resource in theater preservation, not only tracking movie palaces and their current states of existence, but also building an online community united to save our remaining classic theaters. Here, Melnick discusses Cinema Treasures' mission as well as its upcoming book to be published in October of 2004.

What kinds of movie theaters are deserving of preservation?

Cinema Treasures believes in the preservation of any theater with intrinsic cultural, social, historical, and/or architectural significance. We don’t discriminate based on age. Some of the greatest losses over the past ten years have been to these younger "Cinema Treasures," often built after World War II and not given the landmark status they so richly deserve.

How are these theaters different from theaters of today?

There are tremendous differences between the theaters of the past and those built today, but the core element still remains: entertainment.

In the movie-palace era, enormous movie palaces like the Roxy Theatre and Radio City Music Hall were built to accommodate the massive crowds motion pictures attracted. Neighborhood theaters in cities and small town movie houses were also opened en masse, cementing the movie theater’s place as a true community center. Newsreel theaters and little cinemas (for foreign and art films) rounded out a rich moviegoing landscape.

After WWII, drive-ins and suburban theaters with plenty of parking opened around the country, both stressing the new car culture. In the 1950s, widescreen cinema spawned a host of theaters built for Cinerama, CinemaScope, and other widescreen processes, while older houses were retrofitted to respond to audience demand.

The multiplex boom began in the early 1960s as twins began to open around the country, able to house more films under one roof. By the mid-1970s, exhibitors were done opening large single-screen theaters, with the Astor Plaza in New York (1974) its swan song.

In 1995, the megaplex boom began with stadium seating the main attraction, more screens than ever before, and a host of other amenities offered to consumers. These newer theaters were built to bring excitement back to moviegoing and remove the stigma that poorly constructed multiplexes, with poor sightlines, tinny sound, and thin walls had created during the 1970s and 1980s.

As we note in our forthcoming book, Cinema Treasures, in each era, movie-theater design and location has often reflected our desires as consumers and the migratory patterns within a given city or state.

What makes these classic theaters special?

Movie theaters are not just buildings; they house dreams, memories, and culture. The venue is an integral part of the experience.

How many theaters do you estimate are in danger of being lost?

It’s hard to say how many theaters are in danger of being lost at the moment. (So many have been lost over the past 20 years.) In a sense, fire, economic depression, real estate development, competition, and other factors endanger them all.

While hundreds, if not thousands, of theaters have been restored around the country, many of the older houses have not returned to showing movies on a first-run basis. Single screen theaters have a difficult time earning a profit in today’s ultra-competitive market and are often hurt by competition from nearby multiplexes or megaplexes that book more films into more screens with much more flexibility.

Because of that, many older Cinema Treasures have become concert halls, performing arts centers, churches, or mixed-used venues, showing films, hosting concerts and plays and community functions.

Still, too, unfortunately, many are frequently becoming drug stores or renovated into other retail, residential, of office use, often destroying any chance that the theater could be reopened. Each one of these destructive transformations is, for us, a great loss.

In your opinion, which classic theater has been the most devastating loss?

I wouldn’t want to pin it down to one theater for either distinction, especially since we try not to be partisan to any theater or organization at Cinema Treasures. However, there are a short list that almost everyone can agree upon are the great losses, which include: Paramount Theatre, Capitol Theatre, and Roxy Theatre in New York; the Fox in San Francisco; the Mastbaum in Philadelphia; the Paradise in Chicago; the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta; and the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles.

In addition to these older movie palaces, I’d like to add a few others that never get mentioned: the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha; Cooper theaters in Denver and St. Louis Park, MN; UA The Syosset in Syosset, NY; the original Cine Capri in Phoenix; and the old Martin Theatre in New Orleans; among a host of others.

If your childhood theater isn’t on the list, I’d gladly add that one as well. That’s the point. Every theater lost is a loss for someone because these places are imbedded in our memories as the scene of our first date, our first movie, our first job, our first time to see Star Wars–whatever it may be. Theaters are like old friends to many of us. Parting is never easy.

Do you think theater preservation has become
more prevalent in the last decade or so?

Yes… and no. The idea of preservation has become more and more popular, I believe, especially by looking at our swelling traffic. But just as the will is there, the cash isn’t. To purchase even a small theater, renovate and restore it, operate it, etc. is enormously expensive and, when finished, often a break-even business at best. Many groups that preserve older theaters smartly run them as non-profit organizations, but the economic downturn over the last four years has made gaining public and private funds for these kinds of projects more and more difficult.

Cities and their citizens have to decide what kind of town they want to live in. When I venture to cities or small towns, I always try and look for their movie theaters. If I see restored, operating theaters in the downtown area, I know it’s a municipality that’s serious about economic development of its center. But if all the movie theaters are closed downtown and the multiplex on the outskirts is bustling, it sends another message altogether.

Today, there are battles being waged around the country right now to save theaters in Pasadena, CA, Huntington, WV, and many other cities. In the end, it comes down to one question: what kind of place do you want to live in?

Has this renewed interest in classic theaters changed the way
modern multiplexes are being designed?

Absolutely. From Loews Cineplex to AMC to Pacific Theatres to Krikorian to Muvico, more and more exhibitors are embracing the past in their contemporary designs or incorporating older theaters (AMC Empire 25, Cinerama Dome, etc.) into their new theaters.

How did you first become interested in theater preservation?

Growing up on the east coast there weren’t a lot of opportunities to go to classic movie theaters. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1996, with so many of its classic movie palaces and modern treasures (like the Cinerama Dome) still standing, I began to realize what had been lost all over the country. After that, I began looking for older theaters whenever I traveled and the passion has stayed with me ever since.

Fortunately, I met Patrick Crowley, Cinema Treasures' other founder, who is an aspiring film director who spent so much time going to the movies he also fell in love with movie theaters growing up.

What is it about these theaters that inspire you?

The sense of excitement of an opening night, their expansive lobby and auditorium, their interior and exterior design, the size of the screen, the marquee. In short, everything. Moviegoing is a truly visceral experience–at least it should be. That’s what architects like Thomas Lamb, S. Charles Lee, Rapp & Rapp, and others always believed–that the architecture of fantasy was instilled in each theater to make going to the movies as exciting as the movie itself.

I wish everyone still built them with that in mind. Over the past ten years, thankfully, a return to that kind of mantra has been apparent here and there.

How did come about?

In 1999, Patrick and I bumped into each other in New York City when I was consulting with, one of the first short film websites, where Patrick was working. We became quick friends when I discovered we had the same tastes in movies. This, of course, led to endless discussions about the best movie theaters in the city and we quickly realized that a film historian and a website designer could make a pretty cool website about movie theaters.

We started with about 125 theaters and 25 photos. We figured that would get the ball rolling to see what kind of community we could build online. Thanks to a lot of press, a passionate and devoted user base, and a lot of hard work from our volunteers, we now house more than 6,300 theaters and over 1,500 photos on the site, while offering daily theater news and more. It’s been an amazing experience and we’re looking forward to the future.

What kind of effect has the website had
in the theater-preservation community?

We get e-mails all the time from people young and old who tell us how they didn’t really think about movie theaters and movie theater preservation until they went to our site. That’s gratifying in and of itself.

More importantly, perhaps, we work with theaters around the world to give their preservation efforts a voice, to alert contributors to send in donations, sign online petitions, attend community hearings that affect theaters, and more.

We’ve also given theater owners, operators, fans, and historians a place to come and talk to one another. Sometimes, during my scant free time (!), I’ll just read through the dozens of comments posted that day and it’s an amazing treasure trove of facts, memories, and voices.

Cinema Treasures has really become a repository of memories and a place where people who love these classic theaters can meet.

What is your ultimate goal for the site?

Our goal is to insure that movie theaters are preserved in the same way as our other cultural institutions. Movies have a special place in American culture. Every time we destroy one of our fabulous movie palaces, we destroy the dreams that came to life on those very screens.

Describe your book project: What will it be like?

Cinema Treasures, by Ross Melnick and Andreas Fuchs, will not only interest anyone working in or studying motion picture exhibition, but just about everyone who loves to go to the movies.

The book showcases American movie theaters of all eras and architectural styles. There are single-screen theaters, twins, triplexes, and, of course, multi- and megaplexes that celebrate the past, present, and future of the moviegoing experience.

In addition to 30 individual theater profiles chosen to represent over 100 years of moviegoing, the main attraction of Cinema Treasures is its tour through the history of U.S. theatrical exhibition–from the penny arcade and nickelodeon pioneers, to the designers and showmen of the movie-palace era, the drive-in developers and widescreen visionaries, and the theater circuits of today. This survey of exhibition history is complemented by hundreds of beautiful photographs, vintage ads, and other fascinating images.

It will be on shelves in October.

If you had to choose a single theater
to see one last movie, which would it be?

I don’t want to play favorites, but here’s the only theater I routinely drive two hours to patron: the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, a 1931, 2,000+ seat atmospheric theater that shows first-run movies. Where else can you find that?

When you sit in that vast auditorium and realize that the Roxy was three times larger, you start to get a feeling for what many of my generation will never experience.

The Arlington Theatre


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