Wednesday, October 01, 2008

PARALYZED IN THE DARK - a tribute to the movie palace

"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, 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 we give to you...for your entertainment. You are the monarch while the play is on!"

- June 1929 newspaper advertisement for San Francisco’s ‘fabulous Fox Theater (right)

In 1960, fading movie queen Gloria Swanson posed majestically against the half-gutted backdrop of the soon to be demolished Roxy Theater in New York City. It was a fitting tribute to the old time movie palace once christened ‘the Cathedral of the Motion Picture’ by its founder Samuel L. Rothapfel. A Swanson movie had opened the Roxy to great pomp and fanfare some thirty years before.

But by 1960, Hollywood was already in a bad way – financially speaking - and the movie palace itself in even worse condition to weather the changing tide in audience tastes and dwindling theatrical attendance from the onslaught of television. A decade earlier the U.S. government had forced a split between theater chains and movie studios; seen as an antitrust move that would generate more free market enterprise for the independent distributor. Instead, it crippled both the theatrical and production apparatuses and sent an already fragile entertainment industry into a tailspin toward receivership en masse.
(above: the gargantuan lobby of New York's Roxy Theater circa 1940)
Movie palaces, with their four to six thousand plus seating and lavishly appointed lounges had suddenly become expendable behemoths of a bygone era that independent theater management simply could no longer afford. Even if the theater itself was part of a larger retail and/or hotel complex, it often failed to provide its own sustainable income.

Like the great dinosaurs of the ancient past, these majestic creatures of stark and surreal beauty from a not so distant age, and not to be found anywhere else in the architectural landscape, became the undeserving recipients of shoddy attempts at ‘conversion’ into more mainstream and commercially viable multiplexes during the mid-1960s; gutted to make way for bargain department stores, parking garages or, when no other usefulness for their vast cavernous spaces could be deduced, slated for the wrecking ball to make way for an ultimately far less artistic structure entirely void of such refined opulence.

With so much confusion, careless mismanagement and blind ignorance in play, is it any wonder that so few of the grand picture palaces of yore have survived?

Not all is lost, though so much has been relegated to the dust bins of history. After the cavalier purge and demolition in the mid to late 60s, the early 1970s saw a sudden revival of interest in these crumbling paradises, most immediately from civic-minded cultural preservationist groups who aggressively campaigned to raise money and save their picture palaces that had fallen on hard times.
(above: Virginia's Loews Carpenter Theater)
This move towards preservation came too late for the Roxy, as it did for New York’s Paramount, Chicago’s Paradise, Detroit’s Michigan Theater and San Francisco’s ‘fabulous’ Fox – the latter described as ‘irreplaceable’; all victims of the wrecking ball.
(above: Illinois Uptown Theater auditorium)
The tragedy of this shortsightedness is that a considerable loss of architectural greatness unique to the era roughly between 1929 and 1939 will likely never be repeated again. It is no longer feasible to build such epic monuments to entertainment. Arguably, the talent for design and construction no longer exists. Hence, the current relegation of our movie going experience sends audiences into nameless, faceless ‘big box’ multi-screen complexes; a trend likely to continue long into the future.

Today’s multiplexes cannot compare to yesterday’s movie palaces; either in scope, luxury of presentation or in their sheer ability to dazzle us with the houselights left on. As the ultimate place of worship for what entertainment used to be – an art form – in a way, the creation of today’s multiplexes mirror popular entertainment; temporary, slickly marketed and disposable. Hence, the magic has gone out of going to the movies.

here are success stories too. New York’s gargantuan picture palace – Radio City Music Hall (left)– has managed to live through the age of instability to be regarded as a cultural icon for the performing arts; with live stage shows, limited movie engagements, classic movie revivals and its world famous Rockette Christmas show spectacular dazzling spectators. From coast to coast, preservation groups have taken up the challenge of raising badly needed monies to refurbish, restore or merely preserve and maintain the theatrical establishments.
(above: the Avalon on Catalina Island. Left: Dallas' Majestic Theater)
The St. Louis Theater, as example, has been preserved as well as transformed into Powell Hall (the namesake derived from Walter S. Powell, whose $2.5 million dollar endowment saved the aging film palace from certain demolition after 1966). The magnificent art deco Paramount Theater in Oakland California was lovingly cared for by the Oakland Symphony from 1970 until 1975 when receivership of the Symphony forced a sell-off to the city of Oakland for one dollar.
Today, the city of Oakland continues to market the Paramount as a Theatre of the Arts. In Ohio, the Ohio Theater was rescued by a group of local citizens turned preservationist experts; their meticulous efforts in restoration effectively resurrecting the authenticity of the theater’s original construction. And in 1981, St. Louis’ Fox Theater became the subject of a rescue effort launched by Leon Strauss – recreating virtually all of the old time opulence with painstaking attention to every detail.

These examples, and others like them, are reasons to remain hopeful about the future of so many picture palaces that continue to lay dormant across the United States. There is always hope. But in the beginning; there was much more – skill, artistry, excitement and pride; the hallmarks of genuine greatness for a primitive dumb show that had quite suddenly captured the public’s fascination.


Despite their mind-boggling elegance that could rival even some of Europe’s grand opera houses, movie palaces were more of a necessity than a luxury during the early part of the 20th century. At the movies’ infancy, it had been quite acceptable to show silent shorts in refurbished store fronts along the already constructed downtown core. Primitive Kinetoscope projection devices were hardly capable of blowing up an image to vast screen proportions while maintaining integrity and sharpness of the image. In any event, audience appeal for the movies in general had been deemed as limited and fleeting at best by the critics.
(right: California's Wiltern Theater, lobby)

However, in 1893 Thomas Edison made a good showing of a series of short subjects at the Chicago World’s Fair, showcasing rarities that the common patron found exotic and beguiling.
These first movies were nothing more than life studies but the patrons who saw them quickly developed a voracious appetite for more of the same. Within a few short years, technological advancements had paved the way for longer movies structured around crude narratives.
(right: the grand lobby of San Francisco's 'fabulous' Fox Theater)

In no time at all, early Kinetoscope parlors were becoming as popular as the penny arcade. Then, in 1905, the first Nickelodeon debuted in Pittsburgh, PA – launching a franchise that would soon grow to monumental proportions. Even so, the movies and their showplace venues quickly acquired unflattering monikers like ‘the fleapits’ to denote class distinction. Live theater was for the highbrow. The movies appealed the lowest common denominator.

Determined to break that line of distinction, in 1904 entrepreneur William Fox established the Greater New York Film Rental Company with the purchase of a dilapidated Nickelodeon in Brooklyn. Thereafter, Fox quickly set about creating a monopoly of theatrical establishments.
(right: lobby of the historic 'Los Angeles' Theater)

The Kinetoscope gave way to the single projector and the first legitimate movie ‘theaters’ were born. Plain and primitive, these early theaters attracted enough attendance to warrant new legislation in both local and federal public safety laws. The chief concern then was fire, since movies were shot on highly flammable nitrate stock and patrons frequently enjoyed their cigars in the isle, while hot stage lamps were precariously located near fabric drapes.

Hence, the new generation of movie theaters began with the dream merchants acquiring failed opera houses, concert halls and churches – buildings already up to code that had been specifically designed to hold large congregations of people. The problem was simply one of supply and demand – the public’s insatiable interest in the movies outweighing the number of available properties that could be incorporated to show them to a large audience. More and larger auditoriums were needed.

It is one of the ironies of the movie industry that its purveyors – once common folk themselves - suddenly became multimillionaires. Hence, this rise in the movie’s stature amongst popular forms of entertainment demanded a more mainstream and cultured setting in which to showcase them. At the same time, old established forms of entertainment like ballet and the opera were readily falling out of favor and patronage.
(left: exterior of Frisco's Fox Theater)

There were obvious pluses to acquiring these venues for the movies; most notably, in that they already contained the essentials of space and structural requirements necessary to accommodate an audience. Furthermore, they were clean and well-appointed in luxuries far surpassing the movies’ current venues.

Built in 1902, Tally's Electric Theater in Los Angeles became the first permanent structure converted as a showcase for the movies. However, the entrepreneurial spirit of theater moguls and their architects would not simply be satisfied with the acquisition of hand me downs. In the west, Sid Grauman became the most prolific exhibitor; moving out to Hollywood to build his famed Egyptian (1922) and Chinese theaters (1927). In the east, Manhattan’s Samuel Rothapfel proved to be the trend setter; first ensconced as manager of the Capitol (1919) before becoming chief architect of a visionary picture palaces too grand to last – the Roxy (1927).
Adopting the edict of film pioneer Marcus Loew, that “we sell tickets to theaters, not movies”, the major Hollywood studios quickly began to horn in on the independents – hiring the best architects who had already proven their worth in designing theatrical venues elsewhere. One of the most promising, Thomas W. Lamb had begun his career designing classical architecture in New York and New England. For Loew’s Incorporated, Lamb embarked upon a level of opulence unseen before for the movie palace. Lamb’s debut of the palatial Kansas City Midland Theater (1927) and two more titanic picture houses in Syracuse, N.Y. and Columbus, OH the following year set the standard for movie palaces elsewhere.
(above: Stanley Theater in Utica. Left: New York's Roxy Theater, the grandest picture palace of them all)
Meanwhile, the amalgamation of Lasky/Famous Players into Paramount Pictures united the creative design talents of ‘Balaban and Katz’ and ‘Rapp and Rapp’ – two rival architectural firms that together expanded their operations in design well beyond Lake Michigan.
Rapp and Rapp built Time Square’s Paramount Theater (1926) as well as other similar movie palaces in Seattle and Portland. They also freelanced, building the Westchester (1930) and Erie (1931) for Warner Brothers; a studio that had first acquired the independent chain of Stanley theaters designed by Hoffman and Henon.

In Hollywood, the creation of United Artists by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin put architect Howard Crane to work with impressive debuts in Chicago and Detroit (both in 1928). But Crane’s prowess in design was most readily exercised for rival film pioneer, William Fox. By 1930, Crane had designed lavishly for Fox on twin 5,000 seat behemoths in Detroit and St. Louis. He had also unveiled his craftsmanship with The San Francisco. William Fox proudly proclaimed that the sun never set on a venue in which his name did not appear.
But within two years, financial hardship ousted Fox from the empire he had worked so hard to build. Although he lived the rest of his days in relative comfort, William Fox would never again participate in either the theatrical or production end of motion pictures after 1932.


“A shrine to democracy, where the wealthy rub elbows with the poor…”
George Rapp

The birth of the movie palace was an instant and palpable commercial success. Between 1914 and 1922 over 4,000 picture palaces opened in the United States. Although the architectural heritage of these leviathans borrowed readily from virtually all the classical models of imperial Europe and other exotic locales, the special needs and design of movie palaces presented unique challenges, not the least of which was their consignment to irregular plots of land.
(right: lobby of New York's Radio City Music Hall)
Movie palaces were among the very first super structures to incorporate central cooling. They were also among the first to utilize incandescent lights to inspire mood and atmosphere.

The initial inspiration for movie palace’s exotic interiors is generally linked to the 1922 much ballyhooed discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb and great hall of Karnak. Overnight, the far away and the mystical had become fascinating to the common man. To this initial mix of intrigue, theater designers borrowed heavily on Oriental elements; the most readily and instantly recognizable of these still Sid Grauman (left) and his Chinese Theater in downtown Hollywood.

Theater exteriors incorporated a large horizontal canopy – usually slightly bumped out in the middle - and a giant vertical electric sign; a holdover borrowed from the early Nickelodeon days. For their time, these signs, with their ingenious nighttime illuminations (a combination of bulb and neon tubing), were cutting edge miracles of design – eye-catching to deliberately entice patrons with the promise of even greater spectacle lurking inside.

Theater lobbies were strategically located on every level; vast, spacious and opulent beyond all expectation in order to divert patrons’ attentions from recognizing how long they had to wait for their tickets and other concessions. While lobbies were brightly lit, auditorium lighting was much more subdued; partly to induce a romantic look and mood, but more prudently so as not to detract from the central focus – the movie screen itself.
(left: lobby of Boston's Keith Memorial Theater, below: stage of California's State Theater)
Most movie palaces also had smoking rooms, men’s and women’s lounges, children’s playrooms and emergency aid areas. The splendor of public amenities extended to the private dressing rooms located below and backstage for the performers who, with increasingly regularity, rounded out the movie goers’ experience with lavish stage spectacles.
In the grander movie palaces it was not uncommon to find more obscure and somewhat bizarre amenities. New York’s Roxy, as example, had a barber shop and billiard room to service its patrons. Chicago’s Southtown had a reflecting pool in its lobby populated by live fish and the occasional flamingo. In their efforts to provide ‘one of a kind’ experiences for the movie-going patron, designers of these fanciful creations cannibalized virtually every conceivable architectural style from the past – combining them when necessary to produce what one critic in 1928 called a “pitiful degradation of…art” and “the prostitution of architecture” with “taste and beauty abased to the lowest degree”.

Not surprising, many of these designers were European born; hence the first wave of picture palace construction celebrated French and Italian influences. Scottish born, Thomas Lamb (right)pioneered this first wave of lavish escapism. However, it was Austrian John Eberson who took theater décor in a new direction by creating the ‘atmospheric’ theater – romanticized revisions on a Mediterranean courtyard theme; ceilings painted as though they were sky and with tiny pin pricks of light as stars filtering through. Even more startling in appearance were the suddenly popular creations of whimsy anchored to a Spanish Colonial Revival style pioneered by The Boller Brothers; a Missouri design firm.

By the end of the 1920s, the meticulous intricacies of these early efforts gave way to the ultra modern chic of Art Deco pioneered by California architects S. Charles Lee in Los Angeles and Timothy L. Pflueger in San Francisco. Lee’s 1930 designs for the Fox Wilshire may have launched the Deco trend, but it was Pflueger’s Paramount Theater in Oakland that set the standard in 1931.
(Below: auditorium of New York's Radio City Music Hall, and bottom: the lobby as they both appeared in 1942.)
The final jewel from this period opened one year later; New York’s Radio City Music Hall – a gargantuan homage to the end of an era in construction. With the Great Depression biting hard into pocket books even Rockefeller Center’s newest showplace struggled to turn a profit almost from the moment it opened.


In hindsight, precursors to the demise of the motion picture palace seem obvious. The Depression was only half of the story. Blind-sighted by the meteoric rise in popularity of the movies themselves, the dream merchants built their arsenal of glamorous picture palaces too fast – overextending into cavernous spaces that simply could not be filled by a single entertainment.

By the mid-1930s, theater owners were juggling live stage performances, guest appearances from stars of stage and screen, movie premieres and often unrelated weekly contests and promotions as part of their regular repertoire of attractions, just to break even.
(right, top: New York's Paramount Theater. Built as the studio's east coast flagship theater, only the marquee remains in tact today.)

The stylish lobbies that had been designed with care to stand alone as glamorous examples of stunning architecture were now cluttered with poster art and other advertising campaign materials to lure patrons into seeing the movies. By the mid-1940s booths selling war stamps and bonds were also added.

At wars end, the debut of television cannibalized theater attendance by half and the move away by baby boomers from cluttered city centers to the more spacious suburbs meant that movie palaces suddenly found themselves located in ‘out of the way’ districts inaccessible to most of the paying public.
(right: one of the few jewels to remain relatively unscathed; the Chicago Theater.)

Theater owners responded to this mass audience exodus in a destructive way; by subdividing their cavernous auditoriums into smaller venues without much regard for the original architectural design. Balcony boxes were removed; cornices and ornamental coves cut into by partitioning walls. Picture palaces were streamlined, but with little regard for keeping their original esthetic value in tact.
(Above: two views of the Michigan Theater: on the left - the lobby as it appeared in its heyday and right, in 2004 after serving for nearly two decades as a parking garage.)
The more savvy theatrical businessmen revived stage shows and put on rock concerts to supplement their revenue. Too late to save many of the ailing picture palaces, did the cultural tide shift in the mid-1970s toward preservation and restoration efforts, with many state and local theaters being added to landmark registries. In between their initial rise in popularity and this much welcomed resurrection/conversion to ‘performing arts’ centers there came an abysmally dark period of pillaging and dismemberment.

San Francisco’s ‘irreplaceable’ Fox Theater – arguably one of the most lavish of Thomas Lamb’s early designs – was among the first to be hit with the wrecking ball in 1963; two years after Samuel L. Rothapfel’s (right) beloved Roxy in New York had suffered the same fate. The Paramount on New York’s 43rd Street toppled not long afterward; its attached skyscraper still in existence today – marking that point where art trailed off and commerce continued along the road into immortality.

Realistically, not every movie palace of yesteryear can be converted into a contemporary performing arts center. Arguably, perhaps not all of them should. Too many of these remaining aging leviathans require major and costly rehabilitation – well beyond what is either financially feasible or, in some cases, structurally possible. Scores more, like The Michigan, have gone beyond that threshold where any sort of refurbishment would make a difference.
(below: the beautifully restored auditorium of The Ohio Theater in Columbus.)

However, those that do survive and are in a relatively sound condition, and, are of cultural significance to a specific region should at least be deserving of a more concerted effort to salvage them from the brink of extinction; if for no other reason, then because today’s architects of the movie multiplex no longer think along esthetic lines. Theirs’ is a strictly functional domain, where the maximization of audience capacity per screen outweighs establishing a timeless opulence for all to admire. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to preserve and rescue a fair portion of the wondrous historical record that remains left behind. Time is of the essence, but the surreal and sublime beauty of these great picture palaces will always be timeless.

@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).