Certain movies practically are their locations: Cinema Paradiso, The Last Picture Show, The Projectionist, Buster Keaton’s silent classic, Sherlock Jr. The last two involve fantasizing projectionists, while Cinema Paradiso and The Last Picture Show involve small-town memories of a returned successful artist.
The movie theater in Cinema Paradiso wasn’t actual, but a confection based on the memories of its director, Giuseppe Tornatore, of his hometown in Sicily. To get a sense of how the mind of a director searching for location actually works, here’s a quote from movie-locations.com.
Giancaldo (fictional name for the town), is based on the director’s birthplace of Bagheria, a short train or bus ride to the east of Palermo in northern Sicily...Although scenes were filmed in Bagheria, the famous town square [in the film] is Piazza Umberto in the village of Palazzo Adriano, about 30 miles to the south of Palermo...
The ‘Paradiso’ cinema was built here, at Via Nino Bixio, overlooking the octagonal Baroque fountain, which dates from 1608. The set obviously didn’t survive the filming, but you can still recognize the nearby house onto which Alfredo projects [the film] I Pompieri Di Viggiu (The Firemen Of Viggiu) ... Just to the west, the two churches seen in the film face each other across the piazza.
Like Tornatore, the novelist Larry McMurtry based The Last Picture Show on a reminiscence of his hometown of Archer City, Texas, fictionalized in the novel as “Thalia.” Peter Bogdanovich, his director, dubbed it “Anarene;” in the film, but no matter, the real Archer City served as the location for this 1971 movie. At the time, the town movie theater, the Royal, was closed down, just a shell, superficially spiffed up to become a temporary stage-set. This is where it gets interesting. According to movie- locations.com,
In the Nineties, ambitious plans to restore the theatre finally bore fruit and, after 35 years, the Royal opened its doors again [this time] as a successful live theatre.
The movie had become a classic, curated by the Library of Congress, and the Royal began attracting tourists. These days it hosts the Texasville Opry, the Late Week Lazy Boy Supper Club and numerous plays and performances. Its career as a dedicated movie house is over, but as a live venue, the Royal has only just begun; and largely on account of the movie!
Let’s not ignore either of the projectionist flicks, Keaton’s Sherlocke Jr., and that weird indie, The Projectionist, both of which involve the craft of projection. I don’t know if the movie house in Keaton’s flick is or was real (if you happen to know, please tell me!), but the movie theater featured in The Projectionist, is an amalgam of several, according to IMDB:
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.
If you’ve never seen this 1970 movie, I strongly recommend it. Rodney Dangerfield plays the sleezy and utterly-believable manager, and Chuck McCann, the dreamy projectionist who eventually morphs into Captain Flash. Its unreality, based on the delusions of the projectionist himself, is its greatest charm. He longs for nothing more than to be a hero in a movie, that is, to cross over into the screen.
Which brings us to another movie that contains a movie inside it, The Purple Rose of Cairo. Woody Allen’s 1985 comedy presents a woman who falls in love with a fictional archaeologist, resulting in that character walking literally off of the movie screen and into real life. The film takes place in Depression-era New Jersey, but the theater where Cecilia (played by Mia Farrow) sees fictional Purple Rose over and over again, is named after The Jewel movie house in Brooklyn — one of the first theaters in Allen’s old neighborhood to show foreign films, and perhaps his favorite theater. Movie house scenes were actually filmed in the Kent Theatre on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush, still operating today.
According to the New York Times, Allen,
....recalled seeing cartoon double features for 11 cents at the Kent when he was young; entry came with a gift, like a comic book or a toy gun. He said the theater was “a pleasant addition” to the neighborhood, as it was the last place you could see a film before “it vanished into movie oblivion.”
How many directors, novelists and screenwriters have one or two hometown movie theaters on the shelf of their imaginations?
L.A. is, of course, the Mecca of movie house locations, perhaps most recently the Rialto (not the one in the downtown district, but the one in Pasadena), which serves as a locale for Sebastian and Mia’s first date in La La Land. Sadly, it appears to have morphed into a church. Ah well.
What is it about the movie theater within the movie? Maybe the whole deal about filming inside a theater is a kind of grown-up dollhouse longing, the famous theoretical “fourth wall” of theater broken down, for easier entrance?
Afterthought: Check out this formidable list of L.A. theaters that have served and continue to serve as locations.