Could America lose her remaining grand movie palaces?

A tweet from Mod Betty alerted me to this article about the fate of old movie theatres, affectionately known to their fans as, and originally designed to be, “movie

The restored Palace Theatre in Crossville, Tennesse, was lovingly restored by the townspeople after suffering decades of neglect. This Art Deco beauty is now surely the jewel in this small town’s crown!

palaces”, with the advent of digital film. The clicking and whirring movie projectors most of us are familiar with are on their way out—some to the scrap heap, others (I dearly hope) to museums.

The enormous projectors being replaced with new digital projectors capable of screening digital, not 35mm, film—digital, of course, offering a much crisper image. I imagine this is a space saver, too, as stacks of reels—to say nothing
of nearly automobile-sized projectors—will no longer be necessary. Moreover, it will save both the movie studios and theatres money—according to this MovieFone article, studios will save about one billion dollars a year when all they’ll need to do is send movies to theatres with a click of the computer mouse.

Now, though I rarely see movies in theatres anymore, for a variety of reasons, I am of course a big fan of a better picture and more economical way of getting movies to viewers. But this change from 35mm to digital could have unforeseen side effects. For one thing, the marvellous and beautiful movie palaces, built in the early parts of the twentieth century—many of them (like the Redford) rescued from demolition or simply the slow death of neglect and deterioration—could once again find themselves on the endangered places list.

With the future of motion pictures headed quickly toward an all-digital format played only on pricey new equipment, will the theaters be around? Or will they be done in by the digital revolution that will soon render inadequate the projectors that have flickered and ticked with a little-changed technology for more than 120 years?“Our guess is by the end of 2013 there won’t be any film distributed anymore,” said John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theater Owners.

Sparta's Oldham Theatre at night

Originally the Rivoli Theatre when it opened in the 1930s, Sparta, Tennessee’s Deco-Moderne movie palace was renamed the Oldham at some point. Unfortunately, though the splendid marquee and Art Deco facade remain, it is no longer a movie theatre.

This may not sound like that big a deal, but this technological shift could harm the vintage theatres that have been showing first-run films, especially if they don’t have live shows, like many old theatres do, or survive by showing classic films exclusively. Drive-in theatres are in danger, too. Replacing the original film projector can cost $70,000-$80,000 a screen—not a terrible hit for your local megaplex, but for the small, independent theatre, particularly the movie palace variety that may only have two or three screens, it’s a big hit indeed, and one that might be utterly insurmountable for many. A weather-safe digital projector for your local drive-in can cost about $150,000.

Not only that, but the cost of upgrading the theatres’ electrical systems in order to accommodate the new equipment is high as well—and all of this is money, notes Palace Theatre (Buffalo, NY) board member Phil Czarnecki, that could be used to continue work on the restoration of the usually ornate theatres.  Talk about a difficult decision to make!

But for the community-owned Palace and other small and historic movie houses, the merging of nostalgia with high-tech is a dauntingly expensive proposition. Yet one, most agree, that is critical if they are to keep attracting audiences to their light bulb-studded marquees. The cost is more than double the price of a top-of-the-line film projector.”The Riviera Theatre is listed on the historic register, but we are not a museum,” Executive Director Frank Cannata said from the 1927 theater north of Buffalo, “so it’s important that we stay current … and staying current isn’t always affordable, as we’re all finding out.”An estimated 500 to 750 historic theaters currently show movies, according to the Theatre Historical Society of America, though it adds no one has formally researched the number and the estimate is conservative.

Detail of the Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio, giving a tip of the hat to The Bard himself.

I would be very interested in learning how many of those theatres can and do put on live shows, and how many show classic films instead of newer movies and second run movies. Even so, those showing first-run movies can find themselves waiting almost two months for a print, because fewer and fewer 35mm prints of movies are in circulation.

“This is another major threat to these theaters which were largely rescued and restored by grass-roots local efforts,” said Karen Colizzi Noonan, president of the THS, which records and preserves theaters’ architectural and cultural history. “It is so sad that after all that hard work and dedication these groups now face another huge challenge just to survive.”

Sad—and frustrating! I plopped many a dollar into the donation box at the Redford during its restoration, and would hate to see it harmed by this—though they do have the advantage of a real stage where live shows are performed as well as an orchestra pit (the same goes for the Coleman Theatre Beautiful). Already, many old movie palaces are holding all sorts of fundraisers and seeking various grants in order to stay in business. Most communities rally around the handsome old theatres, but in difficult economic times, everyone is feeling the pinch, of course, so there’s much less for residents to give, however much they’d like to help.

If the prospect of seeing America’s majestic 1920s, 30s, and 40s theatres slip back into decline after so many have been rescued is not enough, though, there is something else one cannot help but be worried about. Edward Summer, president of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, delineates the his concern:

…he worries that existing films that won’t be digitized will be forever lost to audiences if the equipment isn’t there to show them.”Every motion picture made between 1894 and right this minute is on 35 mm film and those films not only still exist, but those film prints are the only way to see them,” Summer said.


Detail of the Palace of Crossville, Tennesee’s stylish Art Deco door.

What a blow it would be, to lose so many pieces of our culture, all of those little time capsules. Film is fragile enough—as many of you know, it is estimated that 50% of all movies made in the US before 1950 made have been lost due to disintegration, destruction, or…well, conflagration. Yes, we can watch many of the surviving films on TCM and on DVDs, but there is something special and magical about seeing a film the way it really was meant to be seen—on the big silver screen in a luxurious theatre.  As Gary Susman writes about the potential loss of these gorgeous and historic movie palaces (emphasis added),

  And that’s the other thing that’s being lost: the sense of communal experience. Maybe we lost that a long time ago when we subdivided movie palaces into tiny shoeboxes, or stopped caring if we spilled Coke all over the floor for the next patrons to get their shoes stuck in, or started using our cellphones during the movie because we couldn’t bear to be cut off from our own worlds even for the two hours it takes to lose yourself in a story larger than your own. The old palaces, though, were as big and opulent as the Hollywood dreams they housed, and they brought a measure of that Hollywood glamour to cities and towns all over America. Those palaces, including the ones still operating, were dedicated to the idea that there’s something unique about the communal moviegoing experience. Digitization has made movies available anytime on two-inch screens in our pockets, but that has only succeeded in making movies smaller and less special. If the grand palaces survive into the digital era, maybe the grandeur of movies will survive as well.

I could not agree with him more.

I have been lucky enough to be invited into the steel-shrouded projection booths of and TOUCH the old projectors at both the Redford Theatre in Detroit and the projector at the very grand Coleman Theatre Beautiful along Route 66 in Oklahoma. More importantly, I’ve sat in those plush velvet-covered seats with real wooden armrests, glamourous velvet draperies or Japanese reliefs hanging all around me and on either side of the big screen, lights dripping with crystal or glowing through stained glass dimming slowly above me as the tasseled curtain lifts and the big old 35mm projector whirrs to life as other patrons quiet down to enjoy the movie.  Seeing a film in a true movie theatre—a movie palace—is an experience, an event, a real escape. There’s nothing else like it, even if the movie is the same as the one playing at the big-box megaplex; there’s magic in those walls.

I do not know if 35mm film projectors can be saved—though I hope it can be, because there’s something more alive about it than the digital movies, at least to my eyes. Even if the projectors and film remain only in movie palaces—it would be so fitting.

So in addition to supporting your local drive-in, I ask you to find and support your local movie palace if one exists. To lose these opulent beauties, and the films they first screened decades ago, would be an enormous cultural loss—and failure, one we really should not be forgiven for should we let it happen.

To find a grand old movie palace near you, try:

Cinema Treasures

The brightly coloured red and green marquee of the Redland Theatre near Route 66 in Clinton, Oklahoma, is a beautiful example of the “waterfall”-style marquee seen in the 1930s and 40s. Sadly, the Redland, like so many other old movie houses, is no longer showing movies, but serves as home for other businesses. We can be glad that at least the stunning marquee remains!


9 thoughts on “Could America lose her remaining grand movie palaces?

  1. Your post is so well written, thanks for all the great references. We are lucky in Edmonton to have the Princess Theatre, since 1915. It benefits from being on a popular shopping/dining street. The films we see there don’t play at the megaplex’s. (Kings Speach, A Single Man, La Vie En Rose). Currently playing ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. The snacks are right size/right price. The audience’s are far more polite there too. At a megaplex they’re either on their phone or putting their feet in your hair. People don’t seem to know how to conduct themselves in a theater anymore…sad really.

    • Thank you! There is a theatre nearby, the Drexel, that plays more arty first-runs as well. I would love to find such a theatre that played classic films, too, like the Redford back in Detroit—I’ve seen “Singin’ In The Rain”, “It”, “Double Indemnity”, “Dial M For Murder”, “Casablanca”, and many other great films on the big screen there, surrounded by Japanese-themed, pre-World War II beauty (that had to be restored, because of course after Pearl Harbor, it was all taken down or painted over).

      You are right, I think, about the way people tend to behave themselves better in an older theatre. It’s more of a community thing, perhaps—especially since the patrons tend to be the same, week after week. It’s hard to be rude to someone you sort of know. Though of course there was a time when people were polite to all, regardless of the level of their acquaintance. Alas.

        • Oh, I’m so glad you checked the Redford out! I’d love to go back now that I have a bodyguard (ah, marriage) and can photograph away without worrying about anything happening to me (most likely walking backwards off a curb…). Isn’t it a lovely theatre? And the history really is fascinating. “North By Northwest” would be a great one to see there…I forgot to mention that when I saw “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” there, they actually had a model of the Nautilus in the orchestra pit! So cool. And I am such a geek…

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