Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Architecture of Cinemas

As I have stated here before, my parents never went to the movies. I really don't know the reason why, but they didn't. As a result, I really did not start going to the movies regularly until I was about 13. I can still remember the first movie theatre I ever went to because it was one of only three (counting the drive-in) in the county. It was the Cinema in Moberly. The Cinema was one of the oldest theatres in the nation even at that time and still showed its days as a "movie palace." Perhaps because the Cinema was the first movie theatre I ever attended, I have always been fascinated by cinema architecture.

Hard as it may be to believe today, the movie and the movie theatre did not come about at the same time. Originally, movies had to be viewed on either Kinetoscope or Mutoscope machines. To watch movies the viewer had to look through a lens in the machine; as a result, on any given Kinetoscope or Mutoscope, only one viewer could watch a movie at a time. These machines filled the penny acades and "peep shows (a "peep show" being a penny arcade devoted to solely to Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes)" of the late Nineteenth century.

The way people watch movies would be changed in the mid-1890s when a number of different individuals would hold public screenings of motion pictures. The first public screening of a motion picture was held by Charles-Emile Reynaud at the Musee Grevin in Paris, France. His Praxinoscope displayed animated drawings, among the earliest cartoons. It seems quite possible that Reynaud's invention influenced fellow Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumiere, who invented the Cinematographe, a device which could act as both an motion picture camera and a projecter in 1894. That same year Woodville Latham and his sons Otway and Gray started development of their own movie projector, the Eidolscope (the system the Lathams developed for looping film--the Latham loop--is still used in modern day projectors). The Lumiere brothers would display their first film shot with the Cinematographe in March 1895 at meeting of the Societe d'Encouragement a l'industrie Nationale in Paris. On April 21, 1895, the Lathams would show the first film they had shot with their Eidolscope to reporters. It is believed to be the frist public screening of a film in the United States.

Perhaps more signficicant than either the Latham or Lumiere's demonstrations of their inventions to American cinema history is the first public screening of movies for a paying audience. It took place on April 23, 1896 at a Vaudeville theatre, Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City (curiously enough located on the corner of 34th Street and Broadway where Macy's now stands....). The movies were only part of the bill at the theatre that night, as they would be at other Vaudeville theatres around the country in coming years. It would not be long, however, before the movies would find venues of their own.

As to what constituted the first cinema in the United States, sources are conflicting. Many consider it to be the Vitascope Hall, which opened in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 26, 1896. Others maintain that the first cinema in America was Tally's Electric Theater, which opened in Los Angeles in 1902. Ultimately, perhaps it doesn't matter who was first. Cinemas would soon start springing up all over the United States. The early theatres were often simple affairs, operated out of storefronts and often using little more than benches for seats. Motion pictures continued to be shown as part of Vaudeville theatre's bills and eventually the Vaudeville theatre would leave its mark on cinema architecture. The big time Vaudeville theatres were often ornate affairs, with classical facades, plush seating, and even oil paintings. In 1913 a movie theatre opened in New York City that utilised the architecture of the better Vaudeville theatres. The Regent featured a Venetian palazzo exterior, with an auditorium done in Spanish-Moorish design. Its wall panels were satin and it even featured a ceiling mural. While the Regent was fancier than many theatres of the time, it nearly failed. Its owner Henry Marvin had to call upon impresario Samuel L. Rothapfel, who would later open Radio City Music Hall, for help. Rothapfel saved the Regent. Regardless, more ornate movie theatres would follow.

In 1920 the San Francisco Fox opened in the city of the same name. It was done in Baroque and French Renaissance style. The theatre not only featured antique furniture and paintings, but its own hospital for the medical emergencies of patrons! The famous Roxy Theatre was opened by Samuel L. Rothaphel (his nickname was Roxy) in New York City in 1927. It is often considered the greatest cinema ever built. The Roxy could seat almost 6000 people and featured a hospital, a radio broadcast studio, and washrooms that could handle up to 10,000 people. Grauman's Chinese Theatre opened the same year in Hollywood, California. The theatre was built in Chinese style, complete with pagodas and temple bells. It features many statues and fountains. As a tourist hotspot (this is where the footprints of many celebrities can be found), it is one of the few theatres of its time period to still be open. Because of the sheer opulence of these various theatres, they came to be known as "movie palaces." It is hard to argue that the term is not fitting.

From the Twenties into the Thirties, cinema architecture made a dramatic change. The Old World opulence of the movie palaces, often utilising Baroque, Renaissance, Gothic, and other sophisticated designs, gave way to Art Deco as the preferred architectural style. Film and architectural historians have always debated why cinemas made the shift to Art Deco, but I think it was simply a case of changing tastes in architecture. The period from about 1925 to 1945 was the era of Art Deco. This was the period during which the Daily News Building (1930), the RCA Building (1932), and, the most famous of them all, the Empire State Building (1931) were all built in New York City in the Art Deco Style. Art Deco was then the architectural fashion of the moment. Indeed, it might well have been unusal if cinemas had not followed suit in adopting the Art Deco style.

Here it must be pointed out that simply because Art Deco became the dominant style in cinema design, that did not mean opulence did not leave movie theatres. Done in Art Deco design, the famous Radio City Music Hall definitely qualifies as a movie palace. At the time it opened, Radio City Music Hall was the largest theatre ever built in the United States. The Paramount Theatre built in Boston in 1932 is another example of an opulent, Art Deco movie palace. It seated 1700 and was built specifically for talking pictures.

The Great Depression was not a particularly good time for the movie palaces. From 1930 to 1932, the number of theatres nationwide dropped from 22,000 to 14,000. Many theatres used giveaways, such as dishes and other objects, to lure audiences back into theatres. Others would hold raffles for household appliances. Theatres had hit hard times like everyone else. World War II saw theatres recover a bit and soon new theatres were being constructed. These theatres differed from the extravagant movie palaces of the Twenties and the Art Deco cinemas of the Thirties. The availability of varous materials being restricted because of the war, concrete and glass were most often used to build the new theatres. Unfortunately, hard times would hit theatres again in the late Forties into the Fifties. Television and the proliferation of other pasttimes stole cinemas' audiences from them. The drive-in theatre largely took over from the movie palaces of old. By the late Sixites, the drive-ins would face a new threat. Multiplexes, often housed in shopping malls, began appearing. Multiplexes could show several different movies on their multiple screens, making it hard for both drive-ins and the older theatres to compete. Many of the old movie palaces saw their last days during this era.

As I said earlier, the first theatre I ever attended was the 4th Street Cinema in Moberly. It was acutally one of the oldest cinemas in the naiton and certainly one of the longest operating. It was built in 1913 and lavishly outfitted, with gold leaf, white marble wainscotting, and mahogony doors. It had lost much of its glamour of past years when I first entered its doors, but it was still a beautiful theatre. It closed its doors when B & B Theatres opened the new Five and Drive a few years ago. Fortunately, they donated it to the Moberly Historical Society who are in the process of restoring it.

The other theatre of my youth was the State, which stood just down 4th Street from the Cinema. The State was also a fairly old theatre, having been built in 1922. Like the Cinema, it had lost much of its glamour by the time I attended it, although it was still an exquisite, old theatre. What I can remember of the State is its red velvet drapes and white marble. I seem to remember old timers telling how the major releases would be shown at either the Grand (also called Halloran's--it closed down before I was born) or the Cinema. The State usually got the cowboy B pictures and other shoot 'em ups. Sadly, when the State closed, it was converted to office space.

Yet another theatre of my youth was the Kennedy Theatre in Kirksville. It opened in 1927 and done in a Colonial Revival design. With a seating capacity of 1122, it was one of the biggest smalltown theatres I'd ever been in. It was also one of the most beautiful theatres I'd ever seen. I used to go with my brother to the midnight double features they had there on Saturday when he was attending NMSU. Indeed, it was Kirksville's home for The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Unfortunately, the Kennedy closed in 1985 and was demolished in 1992 for a bank parking lot. Personally, I think they should have torn down the bank and turned it into a parking lot for the Kennedy... Anyhow, you can see a picture of it here, along with pictures of Moberly's old State and Cinema Theatres.

Huntsville also had its own theatre, although it closed before I was born. The Roxy Theatre is a bit of a legend in Huntsville. I am not exactly sure when it opened, although I know it was open for many, many years. My brother claims that he can still remember its sign from childhood. Sadly, I have yet to find any pictures of the theatre (for some reason every photo of Huntsville during that era is of the other side of the street). The Freemasons currently are located where the theatre once was. Salisbury still has its theatre, the Lyric, which opened in 1924. I went to a movie there once in grade school, but I really don't remember much about its interior. Its exterior in its heyday was Art Deco. Sadly, its exterior has changed since then. It no longer even has a marquee, simply a sign reading "Lyric."

There are three other theatres I should mention here. One was the Liberty in Mexico, Missouri. I never attended the theatre, although I had driven past it plenty of times. It was built in 1920, making it one of the earliest Art Deco thetres around. I remember that it had much more neon than either the Cinema or the State did. It also had an unsual colour scheme--brown. Sadly, it closed in the Eighties and was demolished in 1995. Another theatre I should mention is the Missouri Theatre in Columbia. It opened in 1928 and was originally a Vaudevile theatre. Bob Hope and the Rockettes had both performed there at different times. Its architecture is baroque, complete with a chandelier and gold leaf. The Missouri closed in 1988, but was purchased by the Missouri Symphony Society, who use it to this day. The third theatre I wish to mention is the Paramount Theatre in Abilene, Texas. It was built in 1930 in a Spanish/Moorish design, with lots of neon. I did not go inside it last time I was in Abilene, but it is absolutely beautiful on the outside, particularly at night when the neon is lit up. If anyone reading this ever is in Abilene, they must see this theatre.

I have to say that I miss the movie palaces of old. I remember that when I was growing up, much of the pleasure in going to the movies was simply in looking at the surroundings of the Cinema or State theatres. In today's multiplexes too often the only thing to which look forward are the previews and the movies, and sometimes not even that. I think if I ever strike it rich, I might try to buy the Roxy from the Freemasons and restore it to its former glory. I can't think of too many better things than owning my own movie palace.

1 comment:

m. said...

I like Kaliedoscopes (sp?) the best.