“It’s over,” a glum film executive said at a holiday fete. TV won.”
Will there be movies or even, the subject of this blog, theaters? — in what we’re beginning to dream of as the “After” time? And wasn’t it all really slipping even before the Pandemic?
A friend sent me this tidbit:
The highest-grossing silent film of all time was an anti-war picture featuring the popular actor Rudolph Valentino in his first starring role; he would go on to be a superstar. The film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was based on Vicente Blasco Ibáñez's 1916 bestselling novel of the same name. At the time, the film brought in $9.2 million in domestic sales, or about $381.1 million today.
Actually, it was the sixth highest-grossing silent, but who’s quibbling? The fact remains that it was big — as in “Boffo Socco,” a film that has “legs”— as Variety, which coined these aphorisms, might have said at the time.
What’s happened to the movie business? Or you could simply do a fill-in-the-blank: What’s happened to the book trade? to grocery stores? restaurants?
More importantly, when Covid finally is as pervasive as the common cold, just an annoyance, what will happen if we all simply decide to stay home?
People are quitting their jobs or failing to look for new ones in droves. Would Rudolf Valentino or Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford recognize the world we’re living in? Metropolis, a pre-cursor sci-fi of the twenties, fails entirely to anticipate what’s become of so-called civilization.
Theaters — live or movie — at this juncture are hardly full of people. Will all the trouble we’ve gone to to preserve the great movie palaces (where Valentino made my mother, an early fan, swoon) be lost?
Since the silents started this rant, I’d like to dedicate the rest of this post to the rise of movie palaces in general. Here goes:
“The clouds that once floated over a thousand balconies have drifted away for good. The machines broke years ago. One by one the stars have blinked out, their tiny bulbs blackened... dead stars in the cold outer space of grimy atmospheric ceilings.” Ben M. Hall chose those sentences to end his memorable book about movie palaces, The Best Remaining Seats, evoking the darkened ceiling of an atmospheric theater (a palace whose very ceiling, in an electrified take on Trompe-l'œil, imitated the open sky). By 1961, when the book came out, palaces — atmospheric and otherwise — were going down fast. Only a year earlier, in 1960, Gloria Swanson had posed for Life in a sumptuous gown in the fresh ruins of New York’s most famous palace, the Roxy. Ms. Swanson had starred in The Love of Sunya, the silent that opened the Roxy in 1927.
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; 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. 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.
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 2672 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 just yet. You’ll read about it soon enough in the full book, Starts Wednesday, that will in due time follow this website.
Some twelve years later — 1988 — and 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.
The week it 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...”
BTW, clouds “drifted” thanks to a series of mechanically-synchronized slide projectors or “cloud machine” hidden in the recesses of a theater’s dome.
Ben M. Hall, who passed suddenly and violently in the rough-edged 1970‘s, might have taken solace in knowing how many grand movie theaters, atmospheric and otherwise, have survived. 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.