1976 seems to have been the beginning of the last phase of single-screen theaters in America and elsewhere. Take, for example, the Canton Palace Theatre in Canton Ohio. While our small band of twenty–something entrepreneurs was struggling to keep movies on–screen at the St. George, the Canton (built by the well-known Austrian–born theater architect John Eberson) was simultaneously celebrating its fiftieth anniversary while being shuttered, in preparation for demolition. Other single–screen theaters and palaces that closed and/or were demolished in 1976 include: The Palace in Flint, Michigan, the Warner (Empire) in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Loews Kings on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, NYC, the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb, Illinois, and my own beloved childhood palace, the RKO Albee, in Cincinnati, Ohio. to name a few.
But the good news is that not all of these theaters bit the dust after closing as movie houses. An interesting pattern emerges, if you do a little research. Here’s my own private observation: the larger the city (hence, the more valuable the real estate), the more likely a movie palace was/is to be torn down. Hence, of the palaces listed in the previous paragraph, the Albee in Cincinnati ( a comparatively large city) and the Palace in Flint, Michigan (population roughly 99,000 and a county seat) were torn down. The Warner in Lawrence, Massachusetts (population roughly 79,000) was, as it turns out, also razed. The rest were saved by small-town or neighborhood pride, and the fact that the land just wasn’t all that valuable. The Canton Palace is a classic example, closed in 1976, and, as I mentioned, scheduled for the architectural gallows. Guess who stepped in? According to the Palace’s website:
Just one week before the building was slated for the wrecking ball, the Canton Jaycees stepped forward to act as the holding organization until a group of concerned citizens could be mobilized to make the Palace Theatre a viable business once again. The Palace was held in trust until The Canton Palace Theatre Association was formed. The building reopened in 1980 and the restoration of the theater has been ongoing since.
This would never have happened in Manhattan, where hardly a movie palace survives. Radio City Music Hall still stands, but the Roxy, the Strand, the Rivoli and at least fifty others were less valuable than the land they stood on. Case in point, to quote CinemaTreasures: “Where urban blight had at once shuttered, but saved the Rivoli Theatre from development, a turn around in the city’s fortune made the site too tempting for developers. The Rivoli Theatre, one of the greatest of all New York City theaters, was demolished after closing in June 1987. It has been replaced by a black glass skyscraper.”
The glowing exception to my rule–of–thumb about the value of land affecting the fate of a single–screen palace or theater is, of course, L.A. The home of the movies is also the home of movie palaces. That’s not to say that the Paramount Downtown (a Sid Grauman confection of some 3,000 seats) wasn’t demolished, the lot where it had stood remaining vacant until fairly recently; and there are other horror stories. But by and large tinseltown has done well by its single screen houses and palaces. If you don’t believe me, take a tour of the Lost Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation site and see for yourself how opulent theaters tend to fare on the left coast, in the movie business’s company town. A closed-down palace can serve multiple purposes in L.A.: as a movie location, or a venue for screenings, not to mention first-run movies.
Not so in much of the rest of America. Most places a theater operator depends entirely on revenue from the likes of you and me. To quote a former San Francisco movie theater operator, Gary Meyer, "People will say with the best of intentions how much they love your theater or the programming on your calendar, but when you ask them which movies they saw, the one thing I hear over and over is 'none,’
They tell me they circle everything they like on the calendar and put it all in their Netflix queue."
There’s a moral to this story: go out to the movies!
Next week on my birthday I’m planning to go to The Lion at one of my favorite miraculously–still–single-screen theaters, The Paris in Manhattan. I’ll buy some popcorn and hunker down in the dark, remembering what it was like to count heads as people walked through the red and gold doors of the St. George Theatre, forty years ago.