By 1976, when, with a group of friends, I tried my luck at running a (non-atmospheric but nonetheless exquisite) movie palace — the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, a 2672-seat Spanish Baroque confection) — hundreds more of the grand old houses were closing or about to close, losing their livelihoods, about to meet the Roxy’s fate.
1976-1979 could be said to be prime years of dereliction for movie palaces. Loew’s Kings on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and the Beverly in L.A. were both darkened in 1977; The Victory Theatre in Holyoke, Massachusetts went dark in 1979; The Albee in Cincinnati, my hometown, was demolished in 1977 to make way for a hotel. Its coming demise had a lot to do with why I pitched in to save a movie palace in New York, where I’d come to live. The Michigan Theatre in Detroit was converted to a three-level parking garage in that same year; and the list goes on. The Michigan is perhaps the most touching example of a fate worse than demolition — a French Renaissance dome that once sheltered 4,000 seats, given over to the protection of (what else in Detroit?) automobiles.
There are several reasons why great single-screen theaters were particularly vulnerable in the mid-seventies. The country had been through a serious recession, and whoever was arguably prosperous had moved to the suburbs. Meanwhile, the knock-out punch TV delivered to movie attendance made selling thousands of tickets to a single screening almost impossible: theater operators fought back by building (mostly suburban) multiplexes, a process that had begun in 1963.
Nobody went downtown anymore: derelict palaces in deserted urban settings made movie-going a lonely, even dangerous experience. In May, 1970, at Loew’s Paradise, once the “showplace of the Bronx,” members of an audience watching The Liberation of L.B. Jones, accustomed as they were to small explosions, refused to leave the theater after a pipe-bomb went off in the orchestra pit. Business-as-usual. Police forcibly evacuated the palace, where they found another unexploded bomb.
Six years later at the St. George in Staten Island, a group of us struggled to sell enough tickets to fill at least half of our 2,672 seats, despite fights that often broke out in the auditorium between neighborhood boys; one in particular featured broken beer bottles. Another time there was a gun – but I will not elaborate; you’ll read about it soon enough in Starts Wednesday: a Year in the Life of a Movie Palace, the full book that will, within the year, follow this website.
In 1988, eighteen years after the Bronx pipe bomb incident, a shootout between gang members at the aforementioned Loew’s Paradise — by then divided into four smaller theaters — resulted in an actual fatality. Such was the life in downtowns everywhere, and in the age of palace decline.
Despite thousands of wrecking-ball parties, there have been and continue to be notable victories in the saga of America’s most opulent movie theaters. I’d like to close with a tip of my former motion picture operator’s cap to the Palace Theater in Marion Ohio, saved from demolition by a local arts group in 1976, the very year so many other theaters went dark forever. I began with a description of a typical atmospheric, so it’s fitting that I should end with one. The Palace was one of the last such theaters to be built (1928, John Eberson) and is said to be one of 16 to survive today. Just a note on Eberson: considered to be the great patriarch of atmospheric theaters, he was, like so many involved in the rise of American cinema, an immigrant — from what today would be considered the Ukraine. Beginning with the Hoblitzelle Majestic (Houston, 1923), he designed roughly a hundred such houses, featuring stars in many ceilings, clouds, landscapes left and right of the orchestra that gave the wonderful illusion of being outside. These theaters were shows in their own right, as much as show-places. Remarkably, most of them went up between the years 1923 and 1929; for that decade, Eberson was a busy man.
The week the Palace opened, The Marion Star offered its readers a glimpse of what the new theater’s atmospheric dome might evoke, to a patron gazing up from one of the new plush seats:
“Allow your imagination to carry you to the gentle slope of a moon-lit Spanish hill...a vine covered garden wall, broken here and there with graceful arches. Through the archways spreads the soft light of a harvest moon, and the dim glow casts shadows over the somber colored walls. Overhead myriads of stars [electric light was still a miracle in 1928!] are twinkling in an azure blue sky, and soft, fleecy clouds are drifting gently...”
Clouds “drifted,” thanks to a series of mechanically-synchronized slide projectors or a “cloud machine” hidden in the recesses of a theater’s dome.
Ben M. Hall (founder of the Theatre Historical Society of America) whose words opened this post, passed suddenly and violently in the rough-edged 1970‘s. If he were alive today, I’m sure he’d take solace in knowing how many grand movie theaters, atmospheric and otherwise, survived the seventies and eighties after all. The preservation and/or resurrection of so many palaces proves how important they ultimately were, and are, to their communities, thousands still standing as arts and community centers, churches, live theaters, and yes, Marion proves it — as movie houses.
Don’t miss this recent post on the Avalon, a tiny atmospheric that just closed on the island of Santa Catalina, off the coast of southern California. Owned by the Wrigley (chewing gum) family, it’s safe, I think, for now, and from what everyone says, enchanted.