Thankfully, a movement to preserve and restore theaters is afoot nationwide, growing stronger by the year, as people in towns and cities across America revive spaces that started out as theaters and morphed temporarily into supermarkets, tile warehouses, basketball courts, even parking garages.
Several years ago, I attended the League of Historic American Theatres’ national conference in New York City, keen to pass out cards and chat with people from all over the U.S.A. who have gone to the mat for one or another imperiled older theater. As I noted the day after the conference,
“The new theater partisans I sat with...were older and wiser than I was when my friends and I (in our mid-twenties) signed on the dotted line to lease a 2672-seat theater in New York City, expecting to support ourselves from the enterprise. In most cases, the people I met...were less aspiring entrepreneurs than volunteers who had kept their day jobs, even if they did raid the 401K to keep the local Rialto from becoming a Red Lobster. That hypothetical Rialto, is these days likely a not-for-profit, eligible for grant money and tax abatements. As my husband (a former partner in our long-ago misadventure) is quick to point out, “We were a not-for-profit — we just didn’t know it!”
It’s important in this tear-down culture to celebrate the salvation of lovely old buildings (even if that Parisian taxi-driver might consider them recently-built merde). A successful theater restoration project at the Fox Theatre in Hanford, CA deserves attention. On March 20, 2014, that theater’s once magnificent ceiling collapsed. The man behind the restoration effort, one Dan Humason, walked into the theater and thought a bomb had gone off. “Every chair in the 1,055-seat theater was covered in white powder and debris....” Two years and four million dollars later, the theater and its ceiling have been restored, the original electric stars shining — lit, these days, by LED technology.
Humason is, apparently, a go-to kind of guy: “If I run out of projects,” he told the Fresno Bee, “I’ll die.” He confesses that the theatre “owns me,” a sensation I recall from my theater management days forty years ago, while I had the privilege of locking and unlocking the St. George Theatre. With its 2672 only partially broken seats, its tar-stained chandeliers and leaking dome, the St. George held a group of us hostage — at the very least as servants, at best, as freelance archeologists. Humason makes a connection to archeology too, something about a lost ring under a seat. Spoiler? Nah — read the Fresno Bee!
There are all kinds of theater mavens. I’d like to close with a nod to Matt Lambros, a remarkable photographer whose passion for old theaters shines through his work and words making him, in a way, a visual archaeologist. Here’s a paragraph from his blog (After the Final Curtain), so gorgeous I couldn’t resist sharing it: “As I write this I’m sitting in the audience in one of my favorite abandoned theaters, waiting for a 15-minute exposure to finish. The air smells faintly of stale popcorn and wet paper, and the brightest thing in the room is the finished photograph on the screen of my camera. It’s warm spring days like this, when the contrast between the living and the dying is so stark, that I’m reminded again of the startling beauty of decaying buildings.”
Stale popcorn, oh yes.