Last week I toured the Chicago Theatre, a 3500-seat Versailles-tinged Rapp & Rapp palace. Then, after renting a car, I made my way to the marker that indicates the start of a storied highway, old Route 66. To remind you just why I’m taking this virtual journey, you have to know how mythic that road is. Its signature song, written by Bobby Troupe, but made famous by Nat King Cole, contains an itinerary thousands of pilgrims have already followed, even though the Mother Road, as it’s sometimes called, doesn’t exist anymore as part of the highway system. No problem: the National Parks Service, thanks to an act of Congress, is in charge of preserving what they call “the historic Route 66 corridor,” and if you ever plan to motor west yourself, they’ve got plenty of info. The parks service wants you to know about national parks along the way, but I’m interested in old movie theaters, especially palaces, in whatever condition I may find them.
After Chi-town I made a virtual detour in Springfield (not part of the song lyric) at the Route 66 Drive-In... Next stop, St. Louis, where I toured the “fabulous” St Louis Fox, a 4,500-seat Siamese/Byzantine theater, restored to all its 1929 glory. Now you’re all caught up!
I’m cruisin’ into Joplin, Mo., eager to see the Ampersand Sculpture – joys of the road! The sculpture is the logo of Kum & Go, said to be one of the nation’s largest convenience store chains, certainly the one with the oddest name! Written on the ampersand’s surface are graffiti referencing things Joplin’s famous for: Route 66, of course, and those heroes of Joplin lore, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whose apartment above a garage was their hide-out while they robbed various Joplin stores and banks. Their stay didn't end well, involving a shoot-out with the cops. It still exists, having seen service recently as a B&B.
Unfortunately theater preservation has not been Joplin’s long suit, but the magnificent Fox at 415 South Main Street, happily still survives, as a church and a little bit more. A mission-style exterior reveals an opulent auditorium, originally capable of housing 1,179 worshippers (or patrons). It’s landmarked, and well cared for by the Central Assembly Christian Life Center, a congregation that cherishes the theater just the way it always was. (Who knows if older church members recall seeing the movie Bonnie and Clyde at the Fox?) According to Gary Shaw, Joplin’s Mayor, who is also involved with the church, “I remember hearing someone say that these buildings like the old Fox are national treasures...that actually belong to the community...the owners are just caretakers.” I like that! The Fox’s primary role these days is as a sanctuary, but Central Christian has maintained the chairs, carpet, ticket booth, and tapestries. Movies are shown occasionally, and the Fox, like my beloved St. George and many other movie palaces, provides a stage for graduations, weddings and other cultural events. So whether you just drive down Main Street and peek in the door or get lucky and arrive when there’s a movie showing, know that the Fox is standing, in pristine condition, and loved. A lot of other theaters haven’t been as lucky.
Now you go through St. Louis,
And Oklahoma City is mighty pretty.
Oklahoma City was settled in a single day, specifically April 22, 1889. Ten thousand settlers, eager for the land-grab (of former Indian lands) arrived in wagons, on horses, mules, and bicycles, and any other form of conveyance an eager prospective landowner could propel from the start line of the race to a piece of property on which a claim could be staked. The land in question went from “a scrubby patch of grassy prairie,” according to Sam Anderson (author, Boom Town) to a city almost overnight. This, he thinks, may partially explain why O.K.C. as natives call it, is so eager to transform itself in the way of an ideal city. Whatever locals do, they do with enthusiasm: urban renewal in the 1950’s took most of the city’s downtown by storm, leaving ghosts of some magnificent movie theaters. Gone are: the State, the Airline Drive-In, and the Midwest Theatre.
Since the State would have been a theater well worth visiting on this trip west, I’ll content myself with quoting from its Cinema Treasures entry:
Architect W.T Vahlberg designed the State Theatre as Streamline/Moderne. At the far end of a Hollywood chic lobby was a dramatic, sunken lounge.
The auditorium carried a rust colour scheme, featuring stadium style seating with gradual floor rake that became quite steep near the rear of the house, resulting in excellent sight lines. Gorgeous, heavy drapes adorned a gracefully curved screen. Indirect lighting throughout the interior bathed the space in soft hues.
Shortsighted urban development caused the State Theatre to be razed in 1971, a sad loss to downtown Oklahoma City.
Only the Centre Theatre, 1600 seats, which opened in 1947, featuring James Stewart in Magic Town, survives in any true sense. It was closed on April 30, 1976, right smack in the middle of the bad old seventies, when theaters were meeting wreckers’ balls everywhere. But the Centre had the questionable good luck to stand on the site of what would eventually become The Oklahoma City Museum of Art, which restored the lobby and rescued a mere 200 of the Centre’s original 1600 seats. As my husband says, “You win some, you lose some, and some are rained out.” I consider this situation a rain-out.
Before we leave town, I’m stopping for a selfie at The Milk Bottle Grocery, a short red-brick building that stood on old Route 66 beginning in 1930. The giant sheet-metal milk bottle, that tops the building like a steeple, was added in 1948.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico...
Amarillo’s in the Texas Panhandle, around 250-odd miles of dry hot driving. I arrive to find the Paramount, its pueblo/Deco exterior and “blade” marquee intact. It’s part of the carefully preserved Route 66 Historic District! But wait, it’s not a theater anymore, not even a church, but a cleverly disguised office building and (sigh) a parking garage. I thought the Michigan in Detroit was the world’s only movie palace serving as a garage, but I was wrong. The historic district is a marvel, with several preserved gas stations and a motel, but the theater, its crown jewel, is a shell.
The 1,163-seat State Theatre, one of the last remaining downtown Amarillo theaters by the late sixties, is gone too, but not forgotten. I found this moving testimony from a commenter, ronnwood, at Cinema Treasures.
...It seemed an enormous palace of a theater when I went to see my first movie there July 13, 1966, “BATTLE OF THE BULGE”. The Downtown theaters were places that had always existed to me because they were built long before my arrival on this planet. At the time I never had a thought that they would ever be gone. I saw 106 movies at the State. The last was a re-issue of “JAWS” February 14, 1976, my 8th time to see the sharkfest. Somehow the State slipped into oblivion while I was excitedly seeing flicks in all the new multi-screen theaters. In '78 they tried to keep it going by showing Spanish movies...Amarillo National Bank bought up the whole block, leveled everything, building their new Plaza II skyscraper on the east side, and a 4-level parking garage on the Polk St side where the State and Victory Theaters were located. A big concrete wall where flickering lights once beckoned movie goers.
Thanks, ronnwood, for reminding me how I took for granted the palaces in my own hometown. Gone are Cincinnati's Albee, its Grand and Capitol theaters. In the sixties, it was just so easy to go to the suburbs. The palaces were always going to be there, weren’t they?
I’m off to Gallup, New Mexico where, happily the El Morro is open and showing movies! See you next week.