Thursday, October 11, 2007

Old Movie Theaters

The above photo is of the Strand Theatre in the town Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard (which, for those unfamiliar, is an island of the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts).

It is a simple stucco structure, not anything like the megaplex structures of today, but you can tell even at a glance it is not without a quiet air of self importance. This building brings the world to a small island town in a way that the newsstand or the ferry terminal does not. Perhaps you have such a movie house in your town, or did once.

The Regent opened in 1913 in New York City, and is credited with the being the first in that over two-decades wave of the construction of the movie palace. Once flickers became films and movie theaters became almost as respectable as legitimate theatre, these temples to modern American culture joined the general store and the post office in just about every sizeable town in the US, and some not-so-sizeable ones. Some were ornate and awesome, with liveried ushers and gilt and velvet. Some, like the Paramount in Oakland, California or the Lincoln of Cheyenne, Wyoming were decked out in the new 1930s art deco style, solid and sleek. Some had their own individual flavor of architecture, like the Mexican-cathedral look of the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Radio City Music Hall, which in 1932 when it opened in New York City, was the largest such movie palace ever built at that time, seating nearly 6,000.

The depression brought hard times to the theaters just as it did to their audience, who nevertheless, found the theater to be a unique and comforting refuge. Theaters became the hideout of the unemployed.

The so-called Big Five theater chains were run by the studios which showed only their films, Paramount, Warner, Loews (MGM), Fox, and RKO. Besides the “first-run” theaters you had the “second-run” neighborhood movies houses, which showed the films after their original release, for a lower admission price. Most likely, these second-run neighborhood houses are the ones we spent most of our time in as children, an experience made ethereal by the balconies, the artwork on even the ceiling, and the feeling of occasion not duplicated by the modern cinemas of today.

What movie houses do you remember? Let us know.

For more on the history of American movie palaces, have a look at this excellent website.
That's all for this week. See you Monday. Have a great weekend.

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