A member of the management staff remarked, at the time, how comforting it was to have at least one theater that wasn’t running in the red! (nice pun, since the tiny theater itself is yellow and red, with red full-length curtains, just like the one that was breaking our hearts down the street). A moveable paper scroll mounted and visible through the proscenium of the toy theater serves as a movie screen, with its own “movie,” “Bobby’s and Betty’s Trip to Jungleland,” a black and white cartoon.
This got me to thinking about miniatures in general and small theaters in particular, beginning with something our web designer, Robin Locke Monda, discovered on the net, a Lego “Palace Theater” set of 2,194 pieces, including its own marquee, limo for the child star arriving for the premier, searchlight, staff, patrons, concession stand, sidewalk of stars, and a tiny viewing area that seats 6. One dad adapted his old iPhone to the opening where the movie should be playing, a perfect fit! His sons watch “movies” there non-stop.
Intrigued, we researched a little further. Dozens of neighborhood theaters, drive-ins, palaces, opera houses and etc. exist as HO- and O-gauge railroad settings for miniature small towns. Some are pre-fab, such as the Plasticville Drive-In I found on YouTube, but most have been carefully crafted by hobbyists from balsa and cardboard. Artists have gotten into the act too. One of my favorite artist-built miniatures is Alan Wolfson's Follies Burlesk (based on the real “Follies Burlesque” at 46th and Broadway in NYC), whose marquee proclaims that The Terminator is now playing—and no doubt has been for years.
Theaters can be edible. We found a few examples of gingerbread designs — none other than Shakespeare’s Globe, (“Had I but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread” --Love’s Labors Lost, scene 1). Then we were on, to the toy theater phenomenon (aka “paper theater”).
In the early part of the 19th century and in the latter part of the twentieth, toy or paper theaters were overwhelmingly popular, especially in Europe. Patrons would attend the Opera, a play or puppet show and then purchase a cardboard replica of that particular theater with sets, props and actors, all to be cut out and mounted, to re-create the performance. Family members might speak as actors, or deliver arias, while paper figures walked a tiny stage. An assortment of people as unlikely as Lynn Fontanne, Andrew Lloyd-Weber, W.S. Gilbert and Charles Dickens — not to mention two Princes of Wales — were and are collectors of paper theater.
From the pages of The Paris Review, we learned that miniaturization — dollhouses, small figurines, toy soldiers, and the like — can be deeply satisfying for adults, who apparently enjoy the feeling of god-like control tiny things offer.
Which leads me back to the 3.5” x 5” Marx toy theater we got for Christmas the year we were trying and failing to control a real seven-story movie palace down the street. We went out of business at the St. George only a few months later, but our Marx “Hometown Movie Theater,” sits on a shelf to the right of the fireplace, and only occasionally requires a little dusting.
Written in collaboration with Robin Locke Monda (graphic designer and media consultant) and my husband — and former theater entrepreneur — Dean Thompson.