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. Continue reading


Win a weekend at a historic (gorgeous) Virginia plantation!

If you have followed along on my Flickr stream, you know I am a big fan of the state of Virginia. In my estimation, it’s one of the most beautiful in the nation—to say nothing of all the history present to lure a gal passionate about America’s Revolutionary period

Bucolic; Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

and the leaders of that battle. George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, is my favourite place in the world—so it’s no surprise that I’m always plotting another photo shoot tour of the Old Dominion state of Virginia. (As a matter of fact, I’m very much longing to head back to Virginia—the level is about the same as my longing to return to Route 66 for more photography time!)

If you adore Virginia as I do—or if you’ve never been to this great state and would love to visit—there’s a great opportunity for you to do so, and help preserve a piece of our history and help a fledgeling small business to boot. The folks who’ve just leased historic Belle Grove Plantation, which stands guard along the Rappahannock River in Port Conway, are offering everyone the opportunity to win a weekend at the plantation, which they’re turning into a bed and breakfast!

All they are asking is for a little help—for you to make a donation, one as small as $10, to help them restore three of the home’s original outbuildings, which date to the 1790s (you can read about these wonderful pieces of history here). Each suggested donation amount comes with a number of opportunities to win this weekend trip, so you’ve a very fair chance to win this in my estimation! Besides, it’s such a wonderful opportunity to be a part of preserving history ourselves. The Darnells hope to raise $30,000 to repair the original late 1700s dependencies, protect the foundation from eroded grading, and other general care for this grand early American home—where James Madison was born!—about to be opened to the public for the first time in its long and amazing history. The winner of this lottery of sorts will not only win lodgings for the weekend at Belle Grove, but a gourmet breakfast each morning, a wine and cheese reception, the grand tour of Belle Grove, and a gift certificate for a full tasting at a local vineyard. It sounds like a perfect Virginia weekend to me—or the perfect start to a full week in Virginia!

So, do pop on over to Belle Grove’s donation page and send a few bucks over. You will be helping a wonderful couple preserve another little bit of our history…and you might win a fabulous weekend besides!

I also encourage you to follow the B&B’s blog. The Darnells are sharing all sorts of history and some wonderful photos, too. Not to mention some pretty fun-to-read antiquing scores. 😉


Does it really matter where “here” is?

John's Modern Cabins, Route 66 Missouri

Time Slipped Away From Me
John’s Modern Cabins along Route 66 in Missouri

As voraciously as I read, I really and truly ought to pass some of the things I consume onto you, oughtn’t I? Let’s give it a shot.

My work as a documentary photographer has inevitably led to my having an interest in preservation. Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing like shooting an abandoned, run to ground place like John’s Modern Cabins on Route 66, for instance. Being in and photographing a lonely site like that fills the imagination with a rush: questions about its appearance in better days; wondering who the last person to lock the door and walk away was, and what was going through their mind; curiosity about those who lived or overnighted there; wondering how long the spot is for this earth.

The decay is rather enthralling, and many a writer has attempted to nail down why so many have such a fascination with dilapidated, crumbling homes, motor courts, and other once-bustling, now-silent places. Despite being a photographer who loves documenting the present state of such premises, I’m not entirely sure about the source of the pull myself. For me, part of the appeal is my deep interest in history. However, I also gaze at such places and can’t help but think that those who lived there or frequented them are now gone, and the buildings are soon to follow—though so often the structures we build outlast us. There’s not a lot of discussion about mortality in our culture anymore; perhaps our fascination with these places has taken its place—a sort of allegory.

Anyhow (bunny trails are a specialty of mine). Despite my love for endangering my life and limb by photographing abandoned places, as my photographs of places like Mount Vernon, restored sites on Route 66, and more show, I love seeing a place spiffed back up for posterity to enjoy, too. Indeed, it’s important to me, because more and more, these places are our only connection to our history; it’s very important to keep them around! There’s also a great deal to be said for walking the same gardens as Thomas Jefferson, for visiting the homes of men like James Madison,Patrick Henry, Henry Ford, the Dodge

Patrick Henry's Red Hill

Inside Patrick Henry’s Red Hill

Brothers and Henry Clay Frick (lots of Henrys there, hm), for enjoying the streets of a Williamsburg or Greenfield Village. These experiences provide things that reading simply cannot do, important as study is.

Last week, I read this post about preservation from Ken over at Passion For The Past: Preserving History. If you don’t keep up with preservation news during your busy days, you may not know that there’s actually a lot of controversy surrounding preservation when it involves tearing a place down, moving it, and rebuilding it, but there is. If you ask me, some folks become downright irrational, preferring a place be destroyed on its “home soil” rather than being saved by removal and re-building in a safer spot, even one where it will be maintained for the rest of time. Instead, they cry and scream that the building’s context will be lost, and after that happens, it will no longer be as historically valuable. As Ken says, they can’t see the forest for the trees!

He shares with us a few examples—such as Firestone Farm, originally built in Columbiana, Ohio. Due to its location, the farm didn’t get many visitors after opening as a museum in 1965, so Harvey Firestone’s elderly sons gave the home, barn, and all of the furnishings to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. As a result, not only has Firestone Farm been saved, millions have walked through the hands-on living museum, learning about Harvey Firestone and his achievements in a very tangible way.

More shocking to me, though, was learning that the home of Noah Webster himself was nearly destroyed and would have been lost to us forever had it not been Henry Ford and his Village. Can you believe it?

Let’s go back to Mr. Ford and the original discussion of uprooting buildings from their original sites, thereby stripping them of their historical context, all in the name of historical preservation; I don’t believe many are aware that Ford had actually saved numerous buildings from certain demolition. One in particular, the home of Noah Webster, was already in the process of being demolished when Ford put a halt to the wrecking ball, had the old home dismantled and then shipped from its original Connecticut location all the way to Dearborn, Michigan, where now our children’ children’s children, and their children’s children children, may be able to see this home where the original owner wrote his first dictionary.

Gracious. Sometimes I can’t help but think we Americans can be awfully stupid. Thank God for Henry Ford—who also saved the Illinois courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law as a young man.

Continue reading