By then TV had been eroding the habit of movie-going for a couple of decades, a back-and-forth struggle. In 1963, the fledgling American Multi Cinema (AMC) Theatres — originally Durwood Theatres owned by Stanley H. Durwood — opened the two-screen Parkway Twin in Kansas City presumably to cut overhead, but also to steal back some of the viewing audience, by offering a choice of titles. Viewers — used to their Zeniths, Sonys and Motorolas — didn’t seem to care about the relative smallness of these screens, and the trend caught on. A very American crisis ensued: by 1976, there were actually too many screens for the product that Hollywood offered; a sudden 7.5 percent decline in movie theater attendance sent the movie business into a panic.
The average single-screen movie theater operator — most often located in a crumbling downtown area — couldn’t hope to compete for scarce film offerings.
We were that operator. Our unofficial anthem at the St. George Theatre, during the dark winter of 1977 — a parody of an American Airlines ad then running on TV — went something like this: “With our big screen to the north and our snack-stand to the south, we’re the St. George Theatre, living from hand to mouth.”
The St. George ended its days as a movie house with our departure in 1977, the same year the Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn went dark (happily restored a few years ago as a live venue. A number of other great old palaces went dark or were torn down that year, including the Albee in my hometown, Cincinnati, wrecked, then replaced by a Westin Hotel. Right about that time, the St. George went dark; and not too long after our departure, our luminous — if grape soda-stained screen, burned up in a backstage fire that would have taken down the house if the theater’s protective asbestos fire curtain hadn’t fallen and stopped the progress of the blaze. The St. George has survived, a home, these days, for live entertainment, hearkening back to its origins in Vaudeville; so for our theater, a dedicated single screen, with its carefully-preserved curvature to allow for distortion, is probably a thing of the past.
It’s sad, but several generations have grown up never knowing the effect of films like Ben Hur, The Wizard of Oz, or The King and I in widescreen processes such as Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, or Todd-AO. William Paul argues that “Both the architectural screen and the technological screen have changed...in ways that directly affect our perception of the movie image.” He also notes, “The screen itself might have influenced the development of film style.” (1996, Screening Space: Architecture, Technology and the Motion Picture Screen in The Movies: Texts, Receptions and Exposures, eds. Laurence Goldstein and Ira Konigsburg, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 245-6).
In an age when more and more households don’t even own a TV (given its battle with movies, the final irony) hardly anybody knows what watching an epic on a giant screen actually feels like. Still, there are exceptions. In New York City, the venerable Paris Theatre (with balcony seating) still boasts a pristine single screen. And, Lordy, you can always go to L.A.: they have so many restored big screen theaters in that town, you should plan to stay for a year. Check out The Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd., the Vista on Sunset Drive and perhaps the all-35-mm New Beverly, lovingly curated by owner Quentin Tarantino), just for starters. Seattle’s Cinerama Theater is, I’m told, a wonder.
There are scads of single-screen houses listed in Cinema Treasures. How many of them boast a screen big enough to do justice to Lawrence of Arabia (Super Panavision 70) is anybody’s guess, but I remain, as always, optimistic. Meanwhile, teens are suddenly going out to the movies in much greater numbers, and some of them are fans of the 35mm experience, another reason to smile.
It has occurred to me that a recent post serves as a perfect example of a single-screen theater being rehabilitated, NOT in L.A. or NYC, but in Streator Illinois. Hurrah for the Majestic! We’ll have to revisit it when it opens again for movies.
If you think you recognize aspects of this post, you’ve got a good memory. An earlier version appeared roughly two years ago under the same title. For another post that touches on screen size, you might want to check out A Two-Story John Wayne on this blog.
Don’t forget to like Starts Wednesday on Facebook, and check out the Treasures of New York documentary that aired on local PBS stations a few weeks ago...