Inevitably, what defines a theater as a “movie palace” is its size (arguably 1,500 or more seats) and its spare-no-expense excessiveness. Decor may take the form of blended styles, such as my own beloved St. George Theatre — Spanish/Italian Baroque, 2, 672 seats — which, in 1976, I had the privilege of helping to run, in the twilight of its movie theater career. From its admittedly garish paintings of bullfighters and senoritas in the main lobby, to the unidentified Greek goddesses that flank its stage, left and right, the St. George is, like the United Palace, a mish-mash, which can, admittedly, be either eclectic or just plain too much. There are probably people who sit inside the marvelous gilded cave of the St. George’s auditorium, or even the Spanish Gothic (Moorish?) Theater at Ace Hotel in L.A. and think, “this is too too much.” I am not one of those people, as you may have discovered.
Webster has “over-the-top” as “extremely or excessively flamboyant or outrageous...” Being a lover of well-executed excess, I prefer that definition to one I found in the Cambridge Dictionary, “...too extreme and not suitable, or demanding too much attention or effort, especially in an uncontrolled way.”
Well, either way you slice it, what is a movie palace if not "flamboyant" (Webster’s) and “demanding of attention” (Cambridge)? And yet, only the movies, those luscious waking communal dreams — the spawn of Edison, Muybridge and Vaudeville — could dare to produce interiors that featured electric-star ceilings and giant shrouded statuary. Nothing, you see, could compete for an audience’s attention with the likes of Garbo or Valentino, or the young Charlie Chaplin; or later, when sound arrived, with Bogart, Bergman, Gable, Hepburn projected on a giant single screen.
It’s probably impossible to say which, of thousands of movie palaces, most of which were built in the already-flamboyant 1920’s, is the most over-the-top. Loew’s Kings, on Flatbush Avenue? The previously-mentioned United Palace on 175th Street in Manhattan? But how could you not consider almost all of Graumann’s theaters, especially the Chinese and the Egyptian? The Pantages? The Uptown in Chicago?
Because it’s so easy to flash to major urban areas, I’d like to give the spotlight to a “Moorish/Mediterranean” treasure, the Akron Civic Theatre (2,592 seats) in Akron, Ohio. None other than Marcus Loew himself (“we sell tickets to theaters, not movies”) chose Akron as the site of one of his “special” theaters, an atmospheric, to be designed by the esteemed John Eberson, master of that style of theater architecture. Before Loew happened on the scene, a local dance-hall entrepreneur had begun a theater on the site, but his pockets were empty. Loew bought the half-begun effort at a Sheriff’s sale and began to build.
On its opening night in 1929, Loew’s Akron, as the theater was to be called for a long while, offered audiences a Moorish castle, from whose courtyard the patron can to this day gaze upward at “a twinkling star-lit sky and intermittent clouds moving across the horizon.” Now what can be more over-the-top than a Moorish Castle with stars and clouds in its courtyard, Italian marble statuary, and a staircase which is said to contain echoes of the staircase at the Paris Opera House (which Loew apparently admired)?
Why Akron? In the early 20th century this industrial city was the “rubber capital of the world,” which meant a lot in the nineteen twenties, when “horseless carriages” were all the rage; Marcus Loew was an entrepreneur who knew a burgeoning middle-class market when he saw one. Akron (from the Greek for “elevation”) was on fire population-wise in 1910, continuing to the twenties with an increase of 201.8%, which meant double the number of patrons standing in line to gaze at electric stars, catch a little Vaudeville, and watch a movie.
Like all but a few movie palaces, Loew’s Akron fell on hard times in the seventies and beyond, when movie palaces seemed about as useful to most folks as yesterday’s ball gowns. It was rescued by a lot of determined local citizens, but I’m saving that story for an upcoming blog post on how movie palaces that are still here managed to survive into the new century. It’s a “perils of Pauline” kind of story.
I’d like to thank Val Renner, Associate Director of Programming at the Akron Civic Theatre for getting back to me so quickly, when I’d discovered I wanted to profile the Civic. Should you happen to be driving across upper Ohio it’d be worth a detour to visit the Akron Civic Center and find yourself in a Moorish garden, complete with twinkling stars and drifting clouds...