Movie palaces were ubiquitous by the time I came along, which explains why, in 1976, a hard-nosed crew of us enthusiasts fought so hard to keep the doors of The St. George Theatre, a 2672-seat Spanish Baroque confection in Staten Island, open for business. It was our birthright, we assumed, to watch movies in elegance on a giant screen.
There are no real palaces in these United States, with a few exceptions — Vizcaya in Miami? Hearst Castle in California? The former home of the Archdiocese of New York, once known as the “Villard Houses,” built for the president of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1884? The President lives in a house whose only notable attribute is its whiteness. Palaces--Buckingham, Windsor, the Doge’s domicile — are for princes.
Raised in the 1950’s, I thought of our beloved Cincinnati movie palaces — the Grand, the RKO Albee, and, yes, the Palace (later the International 70), with their extravagant smoking and powder rooms, hall of mirrors (reminiscent of Versailles) and soaring domes, as — echoing the Communist rhetoric of our day-- “people’s palaces.” But in the land of free enterprise, they’d been built to lure the upper crust.
What was the first ever movie palace? Some say the Regent Theater (designed by the estimable Thomas Lamb,) which opened in NYC’s Harlem in 1913, followed almost immediately (1914) by Lamb’s million dollar Strand Theatre on Broadway — back when a million was a million. By 1929 there were already — springing up like so many elegant Chanterelles — roughly 21,000 movie palaces coast to coast. Lamb and his colleagues could hardly keep up.
When the San Francisco Fox opened in June of 1929, newspaper and magazine advertisements proclaimed: "No palace of Prince or Princess, no mansion of millionaire could offer the same pleasure, delight, and relaxation to those who seek surcease from the work-a-day world...You are the monarch while the play is on!"
The whole thing had really started as an attempt to make upscale opera crowds investigate movies, an experience that, prior to 1913, consisted of sitting in “flea pits,” on wooden benches, while ushers waved lighted sticks of citronella (“punk”) to keep the insect population at bay. But as a business-school grad once told me, it’s not the “classes” but the “masses” you want to serve if you’re an entrepreneur, and serve the masses the moguls and impresarios did, with enthusiasm.
So, thanks to all this enterprise and the average person’s desire for a little glamor, we still have the palatial (Grauman’s) Egyptian, and Chinese theaters, New York’s United Palace (one of the original “wonder theaters”), and who could ignore other “Palaces” still at this point listed as standing and operational: The Palace Theatre (Albany, N.Y.), The Palace Theatre (Marion, O.), and The Palace Theatre (Louiseville, Ky.), among so many? No doubt there are other unabashed palaces, so named, still open for business; if there’s one I’ve ignored, please let me know!