Fortunately, the next Google offering is dead-on, the Wikipedia entry: “A movie palace (or picture palace in the United Kingdom) is a term used to refer to the large, elaborately decorated movie theaters built between the 1910s and the 1940s. The late 1920s saw the peak of the movie palace, with hundreds opened every year between 1925 and 1930. With the advent of television, movie attendance dropped and many movie palaces were razed or converted into multiple screen venues.”
What happened between 1976 (when a couple of us went personally bankrupt trying to keep our single-screen palace open and in the black) and now, to make it possible for someone to call a strip mall theater a palace? At a party several weeks ago, I described to a young woman I met, the title of the book I’m about to publish (the subject of this blog), Starts Wednesday, Coming of Age in a Movie Palace, and she asked, all innocence, but what exactly was a movie palace?
Was--or is? If you’re lucky enough to live in L.A., it’s is — there are plenty of choices, including the Orpheum and most of the Grauman houses — such as The Egyptian Theater, The TCL Chinese Theatre — for more just check out the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation. In New York, on the other hand, home of some of the most spectacular palaces ever built (The Regent, The Roxy, The Strand) all that’s left is the Paris — not really a palace at all, but a very very nice art house. The Ziegfield, which came too late and lacked a certain magic, just closed. I’d like to count the Village East, which has an amazing history, including Yiddish Theater, but the main auditorium has been twinned and stacked. It’s also, arguably, not a palace at all by virtue of its modest size (1200 seats), although its Moorish elements make it very elegant.
In Ben M. Hall’s The Best Remaining Seats, a movie palace is defined as beyond opulent — that is to say luxurious. It is that very quality that caused me and a few of my friends to abandon all reason and go head-over-heels in debt in 1976 trying to save a way of life that was clearly dying. The carrara marble and decorative plaster of the outer lobby, the two-foot wide mahogany pillars in the inner lobby that frame the glass separating the auditorium from that lobby, mosaic-tiled fountains, stained glass everywhere — even the thirteen exit signs and “fire hose” doors, alabaster lamps (of which there were once 24), a 3 manual 30 rank Wurlitzer organ (gone to a pizza parlor out west before we arrived, but still evident from its elevator that rose out of the stage). And the stage itself: a full fly-loft with a six-story red and gold brocade curtain.
Now that’s luxury! I could (and will) go on — as I have already in this blog and in the book that will soon follow it.
At this moment, like so many former movie palaces nationwide, the St. George is a working theater. Although its original dedication to single-screen cinema is no longer sustainable, it and a number of its sister palaces nationwide have been preserved as shrines to the very human desire for beauty — and, yes, luxury — that brought people out of their homes, when there was no TV or radio or internet, to sit in the dark watching shadows, with strangers.
Here in America, we don’t have a Taj Mahal or Alhambra — our past isn’t long enough for that — but there are hundreds of surviving theaters. It’s tempting to go out with a description of Radio City or Grauman’s Chinese or the Atlanta Fox, all famous, but big isn’t everything. I just found a description of a theater you probably haven’t heard of, one I want to visit next summer:
The Ohmann, located in Lyons, 14 miles north of Seneca Lake, first opened its doors on December 6, 1915, making this treasure one of the three oldest operating movie houses in New York State. On opening day the theater boasted a red velvet curtain, an organ and 750 padded wooden seats. Downstairs, patrons could find "retiring rooms" for both men and women. The vintage Deco marquee still greets visitors coming through the downtown business district. And to top it all off, the theater is still owned by the Ohmann family.
It’s not a palace, but who cares? It’s family-owned, and sometimes charm is better than glamor!