If downsizing was suddenly the thing, with stadium-style neighborhood theaters rising all over the midwest and elsewhere, then, finally, there was a style, with smooth lines and rounded edges. You know it: in Cincinnati, where I grew up, it was the 20th Century, with its rippled front, vertical neon, and curved marquee; in Mattoon Illlinois, it was a little theater called Time, whose facade of smooth linear red and white tiles completes a marquee with a neon wristwatch at its center. Here in Staten Island, where I’ve spent the better part of my adult life, it’s the Lane -- these days a church -- with Deco neon. It would be almost forty years before the style got a name; meanwhile, lots of folks just called it “modern,” or “moderne” and some said it was “the Hollywood look.”
Busby Berkeley, whose movie sets were largely “Deco” confections, made it possible for broke people to escape their empty wallets. All the lavishness that had once gone into the great palaces went into his movies (Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade for example). A person could -- and did -- get lost in these movies, and the new trim theaters, with their recessed lighting and curved walls were the perfect frames for a Berkeley movie.
Art Deco, Moderne, what have you, is/was the pulse of the 1930’s. In 1929, when Rockefeller Center was on the drawing boards, Roxy Rothafel the great showman and father of — Cathedral of the Motion Picture — the Roxy, signed on to oversee the creation of Radio City Music Hall, an architectural hymn to Deco, if ever there was one. It was the Music Hall, after all, that The New York Daily News compared to “a cosmic tunnel,” a last great movie palace — but in the moderne tradition. An Austrian emigre, Joseph Urban, who designed the New School Auditorium, in NYC, which is noted for its arched proscenium, had been on board for an opera house in Rock Center that never got built. But, some of his ideas ended up in Radio City anyhow, issuing from the hand of a young designer, Donald Deskey. Radio City always reminds me of a great Art Deco train station, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, which as a child made me dizzy with wonder to stand in. In each case, the curved arch, framed in graduated backlit concentric lines of varying colors is simple and elegant, and soothing. Soothing is what people needed, when so many were out of work.
One of the things that distinguishes Deco from the styles and embellishments that preceded it is the materials it takes in. A nickel/copper alloy that came into play in 1906, Monel, was used for door handles, and even whole doors, despite the expense. Monel has long-lasting qualities (resists corrosion) and these days shows up in aerospace and in the guitar strings of certain rock musicians. In the twenties and thirties, it gave Deco that polished look. Vitrolite, aka Pigmented Structural Glass, was another material that came of age at the turn of the 20th Century. You’ve seen this: black structural glass was sometimes silvered to give it a reflective finish. Production of this material has all but disappeared. Although its compressive strength is 40 percent greater than marble, the annealing (cooling) process takes three to five days. Other typical Deco materials include: mica, chrome, stucco, aluminum, steel, concrete, smooth-faced stone, Terracotta and glass blocks. Love those glass blocks, or glass bricks, as they’re sometimes called...
Now for some Deco theaters you ought to check out. Just as Radio City opened after (in spite of?) the great crash, the Oakland Paramount, 3,476 seats extended the age of the movie palace by just a few years, opening in 1931. Imperiled as so many movie palaces were in the sixties and seventies (including my own St. George), the Paramount was rescued by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, refurbished, and is alive and well today.
The Deco style sometimes features graduated shapes, reminiscent of wedding cakes. One such is The Wink in Dalton Georgia, which appears to have a wedding cake on its marquee. J.H.W. Wink, a local, who began construction of the theater in 1941, died before its completion and is said to be buried somewhere on the premises. The theater, some say, is haunted. If true, this means his ghost is attending services of Rock Bridge CC, a Kingdom Seekers church that occupies the theater. For additional Wink lore, here’s a remark from the comments column of that theater’s Cinema Treasures entry:
My Grandfather ran this theater in Dalton from 1941 to 1948. It was under the management of Loews. He moved all over Georgia running their theaters, but started in Dalton at the Wink.
I know some actors that graced the building, as they were told...to me by my Grandfather, my Grandmother (who worked at the ticket booth) and my mother who spent her after-school days there.
I am glad to know it still stands and has been repaired.
Now there’s a serious theater family.
The Senator, in Baltimore, Md., is a veritable glossary of Deco styles and materials. The rippling verticals of the building’s facade feature streams of red glass blocks, alternating with streams of green, and a half-round marquee.
For a taste of what fine old movie houses go through to survive nowadays, check out the Senator’s Cinema Treasures entry. The theater is apparently up and running, since it lists showings for today of The Post, Three Billboards...and Finest Hour. Here's to Baltimore for keeping this treasure.
Last week, I wrote about free-standing Box Offices, with a special nod in the direction of a favorite old theater of mine in Cincinnati, where I grew up, the Mt. Lookout. It strikes me now that the theater’s afore-mentioned half-moon shaped doors (another Deco feature) are what led me to want to write about Deco style in theaters in the first place. The County Theatre in Doylestown, Pa., seems like a great place to end this Deco journey. It has half-moon shaped doors too! And a marvelous success story, so great that its parent company, with the admirable name of Renew Theaters Inc., took over several other Philly-centric theaters, including one I visit periodically when I’m in the City of Brotherly Love, the Ambler. One of my early posts features it: take a peek!
Afterthought: I’ve been weaving a semi-deliberate daisy-chain in the last several blog posts. Two weeks ago I wrote about box office lingo (boffo socko and that kind of thing), which made me think about box offices, so a week ago I wrote about those. Then, because the box office of the theater I was fixating on happened to be Deco, with half-moon-shaped windows in its doors, I thought about Art Deco theaters in general, that whole style.
Coincidentally, this week my husband gave me a fascinating book that features photo-realistic paintings of Art Deco theaters, Popcorn Palaces: The Art Deco Movie Theatre Paintings of Davis Cone. A hat-tip to the authors of that outstanding book, Michael D. Kinerk and Dennis W. Wilhelm, and to Cone himself, a movie-theater zealot if ever there was one. His roots seem to lead to such painters as John Baeder, and Richard Estes and the rest of that gang, with a distant nod to Edward Hopper.
Learning as I go!