A movie palace is just the opposite of a cathedral really, no natural light at all; in fact daylight would seem like a violation of a theater’s darkness. Movie palaces — like the one I helped to run in 1976, to which this blog is dedicated, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island — aren’t cathedrals at all, but great caves, like Lascaux or Altamira, those paleolithic wonders: lightless, but soaring and filled with imagery. Early humans lived in caves, so no wonder that in the last century, which was always erupting in world wars, we busied ourselves building not cathedrals, but magnificent Caverns of the Motion Picture.
I found this interesting reflection on the transformative experience of movie palaces:
“You went to have an out-of-body, almost spiritual experience, helped along by the temporal displacement of being in an ancient outdoor ruin, or a pagan temple. The movie palaces of the 1920s were going for the vestigial memories of mankind unreeling their imaginations in ritual spaces, what was known as theater to the ancient Greeks but which still had an odor of burnt offerings. It's no accident that the earliest movie theaters, the nickelodeon arcades and bijous, were essentially magical caves.”
I’m not sure I would credit the nickelodeon arcades with the same magic as a Wonder Theater, but I’m apparently not the only one who reverts to paleo in a movie palace; and I love that bit about ritual space. If my friend Clifford found the rose window of Chartres transfixing, well then, how about a 70mm screen with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, several stories high and lost in a kiss? That’s why there is no daylight in these almost-sacred spaces.
Here are five filmic caverns you might, sometime, want to get lost in. Since I don’t know where you live, I’ve tried to cover as much of the continental U.S. as I could manage.
• Starting on the West Coast, it’s painful to select just one, but I’m going for cave-like interiors, and it seems to me that the Los Angeles Theatre conveys that sense of intimacy mixed with grandeur. Designed by S. Charles Lee and finished in 1931, it was to be the last of the Broadway theaters in Los Angeles, rivaling the Roxy in New York, for its amenities: not only a “screaming” room for petulant babies, but a ladies‘ lounge with sixteen separate “compartments,” each featuring a different type of marble. It also had a prism system that conveyed the image of the on-going movie to patrons not in the auditorium. But why would you stray from that auditorium, with its 65-foot wide proscenium and gold-threaded Louis XIV original house curtain, its ornate “boxes” left and right of the stage? Theaters that feature boxes, which, in movie palaces, are mostly false, give that cave-like feel to a domed space, since caves have recesses. Indeed, the ceiling of the Los Angeles is stamped with a series of recessed medallions to increase that effect.
• Heading East, we can stop for tacos and a movie in San Antonio, Texas, to visit a 1926 Meso American-themed cavern of a movie palace, the Aztec (currently Aztec-on-the-River). Originally a 3000-seat wonder, it was designed by the firm of Meyer & Holler (think Egyptian and Chinese theaters, in L.A.), and incorporates elements of ancient Aztec design complete with polychromed plasterwork, duplicating murals, massive columns and Mayan-themed temple statuary.
• How can you do a tour of cave-like theater interiors and not include an atmospheric? So we’ll stop off in Akron Ohio (at the turn of the twentieth century, the rubber capital of the world) for a glimpse of night stars in the dome of the Akron Civic Theatre. Those are electric stars, of course. Is it a paradox, a cave with stars?
• On the road again, we’ll head for Richmond, Virginia where we might catch a movie and listen to the originally-installed Wurlitzer at the Byrd, a 1,400-seat theater that is still almost exactly as it was on the day of its opening in 1926, quite a boast for a movie palace post-millennium.
• And that brings us at last to my coast, the East one, where I’m in a quandary, because I know so many theaters to choose from. I think I’ll indulge myself and close with the St. George Theatre itself. After all, I ran it for a year as a movie theater; and it’s the St. George that got me started writing and thinking about movie palaces in the first place. It is the most cave-like theater I know, an amazingly intimate space, for one that housed originally 2,672 seats. I didn’t fully appreciate that intimacy until I went to hear Gladys Knight at the restored Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Opulent as that theater most certainly is, it’s more horizontal than vertical, so lacks intimacy. The St. George is “stacked,” with an upper balcony within shouting distance (sans mic) of the stage. The dusky statuary in faux boxes left and right of the stage, the recessed dome, and the depth of the carving in and around that dome give my home theater, still miraculously standing and operating again as a theater, the sense of a great cave, Lascaux perhaps, or even the Luray Caverns!
Try some theater spelunking of your own some time!
Speaking of the south rose window at the back of Chartres that seemed, to my friend, to float in space, isn’t that what a giant illuminated screen in a darkened movie palace does? It’s all about light and darkness.