You wouldn’t think such an item valuable, but if you go to the Urban Remains site, you’ll find one of about that vintage for four hundred ninety-five bucks, along with a lot of other “movie palace artifacts.” Small pieces of movie palaces — most of those theaters now defunct — are apparently worth a lot of money; for example, stained-glass exit signs (the St. George Theatre, under our management, had sixteen). Cast aluminum marquee letters, and whole aluminum words, such as “With,” “and,” “The” and so forth — go for anywhere from a hundred fifty to three hundred dollars. The pricier items are attributable to specific theaters, such as the Cadillac Palace in Chicago built by the famous architects, Rapp and Rapp. An “ornamental cast-iron gold enameled staircase baluster panel” from the Cadillac goes for $695, which is particularly interesting, as that theater is actually back in business.
But for every movie palace/vaudeville house that still stands, and there are many, the list of deceased ones is growing. Statistics are hard to pin down. Cinema Treasures lists “movie theaters” in the United States (a category wider than “movie palaces”). Those that have been “demolished” stand at 12,199, while theaters that have been “closed” number 24, 930; “restoring” and “renovating,” two hopeful categories, together round out at approximately 600. Because the previous list also includes multiplexes, neighborhood houses, and drive-ins, and because such lists change daily, it is difficult to say how many palaces in the US have met the wrecker’s ball, either recently or in the decades since they were built. This is what haunts me when I visit Urban Remains: how many communities might think a grand old space, like Grauman’s Metropolitan (aka The Paramount Downtown) in L.A., demolished in 1962, hardly worth saving, when even a small piece of a decorative frieze from such a theater is worth seven hundred bucks? Developers have probably sold many such houses piecemeal, but knowledge of the intrinsic value of their smallest pieces ought to galvanize whole communities.
When we ran the St. George Theatre, in 1976, we were told by a visiting representative of the Theatre Historical Society that the formal red-and-gold brocade house curtain, with its four-foot gold tassels, was worth $40,000. Even if we had owned the theater, selling the curtain would have been like cutting out the heart of a living being. What happened to that sumptuous cloth is even sadder, but I’ll save the story for Starts Wednesday, the book that will soon follow this blog.
I’d like to close with a tip of my former-theater-operator’s hat to the Carolina in Greensboro, North Carolina. Opened in 1927, arguably “the finest theater between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta,” the Carolina seated 2,200. With a facade and decorative theme that evoked ancient Greece, and a Robert Morton theater pipe organ, the Carolina served movies and Vaudeville, then as a movie house until it fell on hard times in the 1960‘s — when Greensboro’s downtown hub began to fail. In 1977, a local citizen’s group raised over $550,000 to save the deteriorating palace from demolition, and, with volunteer labor, refitted it as a 1,200-seat community performance space. 1977, BTW, was a dark year for movie palaces nationwide, a year which saw the closing of Loew’s Kings in Flatbush and the demolition of my favorite old childhood palace, the Albee in Cincinnati, to name just two hard-luck stories, so kudos to the citizens of Greensboro. Sadly, the Carolina’s original salvation was short-lived. A fire in a stairwell in the 1980s threatened the theater yet again. No problem! The unstoppable community rallied, under the flag of the United Arts Council, staging a “Renaissance” capital campaign, and going beyond repair, to expand and enhance what far-sighted citizens clearly recognized as a treasure.
Today, the Carolina is open for business, home of the local opera company and the Greensboro ballet, to name two fortunate organizations. I know of it thanks to a friend, Eleanor Schaffner-Mosh, who, with fellow citizens, has worked tirelessly to keep it open and vital.
No part of the Carolina’s precious terra cotta is for sale, BTW, and a good thing too.
I wonder, do they have a ghost light?