There are no real palaces in these United States, with a few exceptions — Vizcaya in Miami? Hearst Castle in California? The former home of the Archdiocese of New York, which now happens to be a hotel? The President lives in a house whose only notable attribute is its whiteness. Palaces--Buckingham, Windsor, Versailles, the Doge’s domicile — are for princes and their kin.
Raised in the 1950’s, I thought of our beloved Cincinnati movie palaces — the Grand, the RKO Albee, and, yes, the Palace (later the International 70), with their extravagant smoking and powder rooms, hall of mirrors (reminiscent of Versailles) and soaring domes, as — echoing the Communist rhetoric of our day — “people’s palaces.” But in the land of free enterprise, they’d actually been built to lure the upper crust.
What was the first ever movie palace? Some say the Regent Theater (designed by the estimable Thomas Lamb,) which opened in NYC’s Harlem in 1913, followed almost immediately (1914) by Lamb’s million dollar Strand Theatre on Broadway — back when a million was a million. By 1929 there were already — springing up like so many elegant Chanterelles — roughly 21,000 movie palaces coast to coast. Lamb and his colleagues could hardly keep up.
When the San Francisco Fox opened in June of 1929, newspaper and magazine advertisements proclaimed: "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...You are the monarch while the play is on!"
The whole thing had really started as an attempt to make upscale opera crowds investigate movies, an experience that, prior to 1913, consisted of sitting in “flea pits,”( or “scratch houses”) on wooden benches, while ushers waved lighted sticks of citronella (“punk”) to keep the insect population at bay. But as a business-school grad once told me, it’s not the “classes” but the “masses” you want to serve if you’re an entrepreneur, and serve the masses, the moguls and impresarios did, with enthusiasm.
So, thanks to all this enterprise and the average person’s desire for a little glamor, we still have the palatial (Grauman’s) Egyptian, and Chinese theaters, New York’s United Palace (one of the original “wonder theaters”), and who could ignore five “Palaces” at this point listed as standing and operational: The Palace Theatre (Albany, N.Y.), The Palace Theatre (Waterbury, Ct.), The Connor Palace (Cleveland, O.), The Loraine Palace Theatre (Loraine, O.) and The Louisville Palace Theatre (Louiseville, Ky.)? These are just a sampling: is there a movie palace you've dwelt in, however temporarily?
It might interest you to know that “palace” in English comes from the French, “Palais,” a house for kings or nobles, which took its cue from the Latin, “Palatine,” the name of the most noble of ancient Rome’s exceedingly noble seven hills. The Palatine hill was where Caesar had his house, which kept going through renos until it became (you guessed it) a palace. Nearly two thousand years later, Jay Sarno, a latter-day theatrical entrepreneur and real estate developer, built Caesar’s Palace a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, determined to out-Caesar the Caesars. When A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum premiered there in 1966, United Artists ran a chariot race to celebrate, and ushers dressed as Praetorian guards, proving what exactly? Perhaps that the American fascination with all things over-the-top is a big part of what we’ll leave behind.