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Old Movie Theatres

So... as I mentioned in a previous post, somewhere down below, a couple of months ago I bought the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a small movie theatre in Santa Fe that has been dark since Trans-Lux closed it down in 2006. We've been busily restoring it ever since, and hope to reopen in August. More news on all that will be forthcoming, as we get closer to the grand re-opening. My builders and designers assure me that all is going well, even though the place looks a total mess right now. That's the way it goes with construction; it has to get a lot worse before it gets better.

But I don't want to talk about the Cocteau just now, but rather theatres in general. I've always loved old theatres, especially the grand movie palaces of the 20s and 30s (the Cocteau, I hasten to add, is not one of those, as it was built in 1984), and the vaudeville halls that came before them. Buying the Cocteau, and putting its restoration into motion, has rekindled that old love. We've lost way too many of these beautiful buildings in the past half-century. Today's multiplexes are, with a few rare exception, soulless sterile cubicles with neither beauty nor personality. Sure, they are functional... but for me at least, they will never match the old halls.

I was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey. In my childhood, Bayonne had five movie theatres, every one with its own distinctive character. Four of them were on Broadway, Bayonne's main drag. The Strand burned down when I was very young, so I have no clear memories of it... but I recall the DeWitt, the Lyceum, and the Plaza vividly... and even the Victory, a gargantuan mausoleum the old timers all called "the Opera House," since that's what it had been. All of them are gone now. Bayonne has no movie theatres at all at present. The DeWitt, the best of them, has been a McDonald's for a quarter century. Whenever I go back to Jersey to see my family and see the golden arches where the theatre once stood, I want to weep and gnash my teeth.

The Bayonne theatres were not the only places I saw movies as a kid, however. Jersey City is just north of Bayonne, and at the heart of Jersey City is Journal Square, where three huge movie theatres once stood. The Loew's Jersey, the State, and the Stanley were true movie palaces, dwarfing Bayonne's smaller and less ornate theatres. That's where my family would go (by bus, of course, we did not own a car) once or twice a year to see the BIG pictures. They had huge screens, huge lobbies, huge auditoriums with seating for thousands. And my god, but they were ornate. Cathedrals of the cinema... they impressed me more than any of the [many] real cathedrals that I've visited since

But sad to say, Journal Square fell into decay in the 60s and 70s, and people stopped coming there as they once had. Inevitably, that took its toll on movie attendance, and one by one, Jersey City's three great movie palaces ran into trouble. The Loew's Jersey was mutilated and turned into a triplex, its huge auditorium divided down the center aisle to make two halls, while the balcony became the seating for a third. Even that did not arrest the decline; the Loew's closed all the same, and sat empty for years. At one point it was almost knocked down, but thankfully some preservationists stepped in and saved it. It has now been restored as a performing arts center, and still screens movies from time to time. Next time I'm back in Jersey, I'd love to visit it again.

The State's fate, alas, was crueller. That one the vandals cut up into a six-plex. Which did not work either. Urban decay took its toll, the theatre closed its doors, developers got hold of it, and they knocked it down. Offices and shops now fill the space where it once stood. The State was never quite the equal of the Loew's or the Stanley, but I probably saw more films there than in the other two. I mourn it.

And the Stanley... well, that's what prompted this long, rambling, nostalgic post of mine. The Stanley was not quite as ornate as the Loew's, but it was, I think, more beautiful. Sitting in its auditorium, beneath a ceiling painted to resemble sky, you almost felt as if you were outdoors. I always loved seeing films at the Stanley, and I was heartsick when it closed. Unlike the State and Loew's, however, the Stanley was never cut up into a multiplex. Instead, purchased by the Jehovah's Witnesses, it became a church and meeting hall. And it continued to decay...

Until now. For while blundering about the internet, I discovered that the Witnesses have recently restored the Stanley... adding a few religious touches that were not part of the original decor, to be sure (there were no murals of Jehovah in a chariot when I saw LAWRENCE OF ARABIA there), but otherwise coming damn close to bringing this magnificent building back to its original glory.

Do I wish the Stanley was still showing movies, rather than being a church? Sure, I do. But it still gladdens my heart to see it returned to such splendor.

I'm not a religious guy (unless you count movies as a religion), but this makes me wish the State, the Lyceum, the DeWitt, the Plaza, and the Victory had all been turned into churches too. At least we'd still have them.


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Jul. 4th, 2013 07:01 am (UTC)
Loew's Jersey Theatre
I was afraid you were going to say that they were tearing down Loew's Jersey Theatre, too! I lived in Jersey City several years ago and was thrilled to find out about the theater just a few minutes walk from where I lived. Saw some great movies there: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Seven Samurai, Rear Window . . . I remember the Stanley Theatre, too, but only from the outside unfortunately (or fortunately?)
Jul. 4th, 2013 07:25 am (UTC)
Seen any Summer Movies?
Star Trek, Man of Steel, World War Z?

Pacific Rim looks like a fun new age monster movie with GIANT ROBOTS! And every time I see that huge sea monster emerge from the ocean I think of Aeron Greyjoy raising krakens from the sea floor.
Jul. 4th, 2013 08:01 am (UTC)
Re: Seen any Summer Movies?
Yes, I am eager to see PACIFIC RIM. Guillermo del Toro is an amazing director.

Saw WORLD WAR Z. Enjoyed most of it (the plane crash that kills everybody but our two heroes was really stupid, though), but the book was much much much better,
Re: Seen any Summer Movies? - Ray Feighery - Jul. 4th, 2013 08:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Ditto - gracht - Jul. 4th, 2013 01:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Seen any Summer Movies? - asahifirsa - Jul. 7th, 2013 10:19 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 4th, 2013 07:45 am (UTC)
I am from Turkey and we don't have many theatres of such splendour. There used to be one in Istanbul. It was the oldest one in Turkey afaik, opened in 1924. Nevertheless, it has recently been knocked down. There were several demonstrations, but they did not help. People were angry more because the building is owned by the state. I am sure the new mall will be crowded with people. I really don't understand, why there should not be any places which do not make money even if they are beautiful and ancient except religious buildings. Also I don't want to accept the insensitivity of people rushing to the shiny but soulless malls which are built at the cost of beautiful historical buildings.

Edited at 2013-07-04 07:47 am (UTC)
Jul. 4th, 2013 07:55 am (UTC)
Amen, brother!
Ray Feighery
Jul. 4th, 2013 09:12 am (UTC)
I truly truly, truly miss the old theaters of my youth.

I was born in Mass and raised in RI (Yes, George on all other things we can agree but I am a Patriots fan I'm afraid ;)

I didn't realize at the time how lucky I was to be in an area with theaters of such character (Still miss the curtains opening!)Not t mention theater groups like Trinity Rep that I got to attend during school!

I've lived in Seattle 25 years now and while they never had as many old theaters, there were several when I first moved here...most in disrepair.

Most of the old theaters have been converted into storefronts. The Egyptian theater on Capital Hill just closed for good.

Even the Cinerama was going to be turned into a dinner theater in the 90's until Paul Allen bought it.

When finished I hope to come and enjoy some movies in your theater.

At the risk of sounding trite it would be great if HBO would do a GoT festival (perhaps to benefit the Wolf Sanctuary)to get things launched off (S1 Fri, S2 Sat, S3 Sun or something like that. It would both get the word out and benefit a great charity...just a thought.:)
Jul. 4th, 2013 10:00 am (UTC)
Growing up in Melbourne, my experiences have been much like yours (grand old dames of the glory days of cinema turned into multiplexes, others allowed to rot, like the State, which was then bought by a revivalist centre and some of its glories returned. They sold it though and it's now an upmarket music venue - I saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds there in c.2002/3

And I lived in Walthamstow London for six years where there's been ten years of near stalemate between the local council and a UCKG, a charismatic church over the Granada, a heritage listed cinema that Hitchcock once went to see movies at (he was from the next town Leytonstone), which had been used and restored by a local cinema group just prior to it being sold to the church, who have let it rot because they basically want to gut much of its features :-/
Jul. 4th, 2013 12:41 pm (UTC)
Urban Paradise
I was born and raised in New York, specifically 125th street and Old Broadway, West Side. I would go to see movies at the Loews, which I believe was near Columbia University, by bus (we also had no car) with my mom or big sister. I loved to see the Hammer horror films and Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. For me this was a time of paradise that will never return, but the restoration of old movie theaters might do the trick. May yours live long and prosper.
Jul. 4th, 2013 01:11 pm (UTC)
Nice little history on a historical theater and what's sure to be a landmark event. Now back to my reread of book five.
Jul. 4th, 2013 01:28 pm (UTC)
I'm a nut for old theaters too. Across the river in the city, everyone knows about the Ziegfeld, but my favorite place to see movies is the main auditorium at the City Cinemas Village East, which has some kind of stealthy old grandeur. They've redone some of the interior so that the main entrance is what used to be a side door and the concession stand is in the old main lobby, so it's easy to miss the fact of its oldness and gorgeousness if you're not paying attention (especially if you're seeing a movie in one of the tiny side theaters).

There's also an old-theatre-turned-church in Washington Heights (the United Palace Cathedral) that's utterly spectacular, and a huge, gorgeous Loews theater on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn that's currently being restored for use as a performing arts center.
Jul. 4th, 2013 02:15 pm (UTC)
It's crazy to think how many small towns have old, forgotten theaters that just fade away. I'm glad you were able to save one of them.
Ever see a church made into a theater? Those are neat too.
Loren Schmidt
Jul. 5th, 2013 10:31 am (UTC)
The Seasons in Yakima, WA
Old church made into a musical theater. Still has the pews, solid woodwork and stained glass as well as the balconies. Great acoustics--have had a number of chances to perform there (in "The Mikado" and "The Magic Flute" among others) and love venues where you can dispense with mikes and amps.
Jul. 4th, 2013 02:24 pm (UTC)
Will be passing through Santa Fe with family in late July, sorry we will miss the opening as I sure it will be a beautiful place. Have to catch it on the next pass through. Break a leg with the opening! (Mixing superstitions terribly, I'm sure)
Matthew Jones
Jul. 4th, 2013 02:46 pm (UTC)
The Bagdad in PDX
If you are ever in Portland, check out a movie at the Bagdad theater. It is from the 30's and has all the wonderful touches you could hope for - mad flights of fancy carved into the walls, swooping flying carpet murals, epic bathrooms with cherubs. Not as large as your Jersey City masterpieces (I think seating is in the 700-1000 range), but ornate and awesome. It hosts a lot of movie special events, including an annual HP Lovecraft film festival. Plus it is just a 30 block hop over to Apizza Shoals, where pizza nazis (No more than three toppings, no more than two meats, no takeout) make some of the worlds' best wood fired pizzas. Worth the trip if you are ever up in the NW.
Loren Schmidt
Jul. 5th, 2013 10:23 am (UTC)
Re: The Bagdad in PDX
I too thought of Portland's Bagdad, which still sports that classic décor, PLUS you can have your pizza and beer/wine right there if you want.

But my favorite Bagdad experience was attending the Portland premiere of "What the BLEEP Do We Know?" featuring Marlee Matlin because one of the scenes in the movie takes place in the lobby of the Bagdad--keep wanting to look over my shoulder to see if they were really out there *grin*!
Jul. 4th, 2013 02:58 pm (UTC)
Old Theaters & Lost Worlds & Wistful poets
I am 50 and remember being in many a majestic Movie Theater to see great films. I can only remember 1 in Florence Italy when I lived there, but growing up in Rockland County and NYC there are great memories of Grand viewings in the Zeigfield Movie Theater in Manhattan. I don;t recall seeing any movies in the United Palace Theater on Broadway and 179th street, but concerts yes and that theater is INCREDIBLE!! Have you ever been there?
For some reasons the 2 movies that stand out for me the most seeing at the great Zeigfield were, when I was 5, my mother and I sat on the floor in the aisle to watch Fantasia because the theater was full and then in the 90's with a close friend we were 2 of about 2 people for the morning showing during the week of the 1st X Files film.
MAGIC! PURE MAGIC. I totally agree, Film and Theater is ALL the religion I need and I wish ALL theaters were adorned with ornate and lush decor.Nowadays I'd rather watch most things on my big screen and comfy sofa. I did enjoy seeing Les Mis on the bigg screen of course.
Jul. 4th, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)
If you're ever in Milwaukee, check out the Oriental Theatre. It was built in the 20's and made to look like an Indian palace. No church services either - unless you count the Rocky Horror crowd.
Jul. 4th, 2013 04:09 pm (UTC)
Really good post. Read more like an article, than a (not a) blog post.

My next 'opening night' trip to the theater is for the Hobbit: Part 2, tho I'll see more throughout the year.

Speaking of older, classic cinemas, ever been to Mann's Chinese theatre??
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