Movie theaters used to be even more of a show than the movies were
During Hollywood’s golden age — the 1920s through 1940s — nearly every American city and town had its own movie palace. Whether an extravagant, neon-clad jewel or a more modest structure, the neighborhood theater was a center of community life. Designed in a wide range of flamboyant architectural styles, America’s historic theaters have entertained millions, first as vaudeville houses and later as movie theaters. They live on in the Boston area: the Coolidge Corner, in Brookline; the Somerville Theatre; the newly renovated Paramount, downtown.
My attachment to these theaters is both artistic and personal. I’ve had a long-held interest in 20th-century American popular culture, specifically in the visual aspects of that culture: design, graphics, architecture. I grew up in Baltimore and went to the movies at the Senator, a 900-seat theater built in 1939. I didn’t know much about Art Deco then — I wasn’t even aware of the term — but I just knew there was something different and special about that theater.
The theaters can be very grand, like the Tampa Theatre, in Tampa, Fla. Built in 1926, it transports the moviegoer to a lush Mediterranean courtyard. The Tampa’s influential architect, John Eberson (1875-1964), created an open-air illusion with a twilight “sky’’ of twinkling stars and floating clouds — a popular 1920s style dubbed, fittingly, “atmospheric.’’ Today, the Tampa is primarily a performing arts house, but continues to show classic films, with audiences enjoying music played on its vintage 1,400-pipe Wurlitzer organ before each movie.
The theaters can also be small, such as the Sands, in Brush, Colo. It originally opened as the Emerson, in 1916. The current owner, Joe Machetta, changed the name after purchasing it, in 1958, in honor of the Rat Pack’s favorite Las Vegas hangout, the Sands Hotel. The theater’s vintage popcorn machine remains in use today.
Since 1996, I’ve been seeking out these theaters to photograph them. I shoot on color film (not digital) and use no artificial light. For interiors, I employ only the available light in the auditorium. That means long exposures. Long exposures bring out details in a darkened setting that one wouldn’t otherwise see with the naked eye. It’s one of the important things to me about this project. There is a sense of mystery to working this way, and it brings such a descriptive quality to the photographs.
For exteriors, I prefer to shoot at dusk — that time of day photographers and cinematographers often refer to as “magic hour.’’ It actually lasts about 15 minutes. To stand there and watch the light change is really wonderful. As daylight fades, electric lights become more prominent, and the balance of these two very different types of illumination dramatically shifts the appearance of the scene.
You can see the two kinds of light at work in my pictures of the Senator and the Roxy, in Northampton, Pa., which is another favorite of mine. With its intimate scale, it functions as the visual center of Main Street.
Another small-town theater is the Palace, in Lockport, N.Y. It opened in 1925. Many details of the original decor remain, including the mural over the proscenium arch portraying the allegorical figures of Literature, Tragedy, and Music. The Palace remained a single-screen theater until 1999. After closing for several years, it reopened as a community-run performing arts center.
The surprising thing isn’t that the Palace eventually closed, but that it lasted so long. As the post-World War II boom fed suburban growth, many downtown palaces fell into disrepair or closed. Most Hollywood studios owned the theaters exhibiting their films. This practice ended in a major antitrust case and legal ruling known as the consent decree of 1948, which further weakened these theaters. Multiplexes later presented stiff competition for single-screen theaters by offering a choice of films at one convenient location.
Some of these architectural treasures have been saved, finding new life as performing-arts centers, but most are lost forever. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the single-screen historic theater atop its Most Endangered Historic Places list.
Stefanie Klavens is a Boston photographer. “The Art of the Movie Theater: Photographs by Stefanie Klavens’’ runs at the National Heritage Museum, in Lexington, through May 31.