One of the most obvious alternate uses of a closed-down theater is as the location for a movie or show, but in most communities, star wagons aren’t all that common. As you might expect, L.A. is a glowing exception (and I mean “glowing” literally. If you don’t believe me, check out the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation). The Los Angeles Theatre, an S. Charles Lee French Baroque wonder with a six–storey gilded lobby, has appeared in a number of movies. That lobby was, for example, tricked out to pass as a casino in the Justin Timberlake/Amanda Seyfried 2011 sci-fi title, In Time. In Location Filming in Los Angeles, Harry Medved notes, “These downtown L.A. theaters...can double as live theaters, nightclubs, casinos, hotel lobbies or music halls...” The fact that they’re not active movie houses anymore actually makes them highly desirable. In The Big Lebowski, the “Fountain Theatre” where the Dude’s landlord performs is actually the Palace on South Broadway. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore)’s loft is located above that downtown theater.
But what about movies whose plots actually involve theaters, many of which were shot on location in theaters? In what theater was The Purple Rose of Cairo filmed? The movie takes place in New Jersey in the 1930’s, involving a character who is fond of losing herself at the movies and a leading man who literally comes through the screen to fall in love with her (subject, BTW, of an upcoming blog post I’m planning on the concept of “the fourth wall” separating actor from audience). A Brooklynite, Woody Allen chose one of his favorite boyhood movie houses, an unpretentious place still in operation as a cinema, the Kent, on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood. Allen recalls, “You could be watching the most delicate love scene, the most poignant moments, and you’d hear the freight trains go by.... The whole theater would rumble. But I didn’t mind it.” Atmosphere.
How about The Last Picture Show (1971)? Archer City, Texas is author Larry McMurtry’s hometown. After traveling all over Texas, the director, Peter Bogdanovich, and McMurtry settled on, no surprise, what was left of The Royal Theater in Archer, carefully reconstructing its facade. Here’s the process, in the director’s own words, “...The ticket booth and the general entranceway were still there, but we had to fix them up so that they looked functional. The actual theater, the interior, was a burned-out shell.... For the sequences inside the movie theater, we took the company to another town called Olney, which still had a functioning little movie house.” (Silent Screens: the Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theater, 2000, Michael Putnam).
Buster Keaton made, arguably, the first movie set in a theater, The Play House, a silent short about a stagehand with big dreams. It’s a treasure, starring Keaton in multiple roles, but I have failed to identify any actual theater used as a location. Perhaps we can simply credit the theater of Keaton’s fertile imagination!
Ever watch Footlight Parade? It’s a drama based on the life of a showman responsible for booking “prologues” (live shows) for movie theaters in the early thirties. In this pre-code Busby Berkeley/Lloyd Bacon fantasy, a troupe of tireless dancers is bussed from movie palace to movie palace, with minutes to spare, changing costumes in the bus as they go. All of those theater marquees were built on the back lot, and the giveaway is that there are no actual film titles on those marquees. Oh well!
Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, my favorite of all movie theater movies, was filmed in his native northern Sicily. The setting for the village square itself was Piazzo Umberto I in Palazzo Adriano, which is apparently little changed since 1988. For obvious reasons having to do with the plot, the cinema itself was a set constructed purely for the film and dismantled afterwards. Amazingly this multiple (13, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe) award-winner was at first a box office flop.
There are other movies that showcase theaters. I am a fan of the indie The Projectionist, to give one example. I just found this description of its composite theater interiors: “The film's main setting, a once-lush Times Square movie house, was composited with the façade of an Upper West Side cinema and the projection booth of an Asbury Park theater donated by the Walter Reade Organization in return for the courtesy of a first look. (An early scene in the cinema interior was filmed in the screening room of a midtown film laboratory.)”
My long-time friend, Robert Endres, who featured prominently in last week’s blogpost, was for many years the Head Projectionist at Radio City Music Hall. I made his acquaintance in 1976, when he strode into the lobby of the St. George Theatre and asked me, through the bars of the box office, if I knew the manager. That was the beginning of a great friendship, but I digress. Bob apparently has a Beta copy of Rockette, (a television special from the seventies starring Ann-Margret , Beverly Sills, Ben Vereen, Gregory Peck and others) that was filmed largely at Radio City. If we can find a working Beta deck, he says we can borrow it. And so, the show goes on.