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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 04:13 pm (UTC)
It's the same in Europe. Of the small theatres in my town, only one survives because it went the route of non-mainstream movies years ago. They'll show the odd stuff, the low budget movies, lots of films from other countries (and often in the original language) - we get theme weeks with movies from Italy or Africa, or China, things like that. It works since we have a large university and a rather international public that's open for the more experimental forms of art. We have several stage theatres, too.

But of course, there's the ugly, big Cinemaxx as well. Last time I went there was for Return of the King. Yes, I'm that sad, lol. I usually wait for the DVDs.
Jul. 4th, 2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
Fellow Jerseyan here and completely agree with you George on the multiplexing of America. Sad to remember watching movies as a child when the theater itself was half the show. Those movie palaces made even bad pictures somehow better. Locally grew up in Iselin and we had a tiny but lovely theater, now turned into offices (ugh). Remember sneaking in to see The Exorcist. My mother said I couldn't see it but found a way via the conveniently open side door. Needless to say she found out and went on to tell me that my punishment was knowing that this was what happened to good catholic girls who didn't listen! FYI still no possession yet but it could happen.
Jul. 4th, 2013 05:22 pm (UTC)
Thankfully, our city responds to renovation efforts! Three of our four big, old, movie theaters are still in use. One is still a theater and it's wonderful to sit in that huge balcony and reminisce. Another one is a very busy venue for various small performance arts. All sorts of things end up being done there and they have done a superb job of using the huge, old building. The other one is not a theater anymore, but some other downtown enterprise, but I'm just happy that it was not torn down. Long live the Garland, the State and the Fox!

I am nostalgic about all of the gorgeous, vintage buildings. Enormous stone churches, theaters, hotels...etc. The fact is that these old places are very expensive to build and to maintain (to heat in winter). Difficult to bring up to today's building code standards. Those types of structures are a thing of the past and are simply not being built anymore. I hope to preserve the ones we do have around...if only because they are a dying breed, never to be seen again once they are gone.
Jul. 4th, 2013 06:08 pm (UTC)
It's a beautiful theatre!
Jul. 4th, 2013 08:52 pm (UTC)
Old theaters
Ya I have a old theater near me that was opened in 1938 with its first projector. I'm a child of the 80s so never saw it in prime. Though I love history and can see its greatness. Though wish it was taken back to its original 1 screen because it was split in the 80. Recently it was converted to digital hope they kept the original projectors. I understand because it is still Owned/operated By a small theater company that recently bought the lease from a larger chain. They have put some money into it and are selecting good movies for their clientele. Eventually I would like to see the historical society of weymouth,Ma preserve the Cameo theater to its prewar beauty. Even though as a bigger man it's hard to get comfort in the original seats.
Hope you and your family have a great 4th of July
Huge fan that wants to say thank you,
Patrick St.Croix
Fafhrd Mouser
Jul. 4th, 2013 10:25 pm (UTC)
Bless you Mr. Martin
It's people like you are reason old theatres are still around.

About a month ago I went to see the original King Kong at the Orpheum theatre in Wichita KS. It was build in the 20's and looks grand inside and out. It was an experience seeing Kong in a theatre which might have screened it 80 years ago.

I hope to have the chance to visit your theatre in Santa Fe sometime.
Jul. 5th, 2013 02:54 am (UTC)
Quality presentation starts at the top.
I'm a former projectionist who worked for 19 years, running almost every movie theatre in Toronto in that time, including s few picture palaces, festivals and many premieres in the Festival. I'm deeply saddened by the demise of 35mm film, and those visually magnificent 70mm roadshow presentations, but even more so by the disregard for the quality of presentations that preceded film's abandonment.

Inane slide shows, commercials, endless trailers (3 or 4 are great!) were just the beginning. Now there is 20-30 minutes of junk on the head of any feature and the end result is a consumer of movies who's bladder is full and brain pre-addled before the first frame of the feature flickers to life.

When I put a show together the unobtrusive "non-sync" music would fade and the houselights would slowly dim over 30 to 45 seconds. The company's logo would be shown over the white curtain, which would open as the footlights dimmed in perfect synchronization. Three or four trailers would show, and maybe a corporate policy trailer. Curtains would close, footlights would come up and stay up for a few seconds--longer if we had to change from flat to CinemaScope upstairs. Company logo for the Feature presentation trailer would hit the closed screen and the curtains open/lights down for the duration. AND THE LIGHTS STAYED DOWN until the very last frame went through my projector and the dowser closed! Only then did the audience slowly get brought back into reality. We also ran THX or DolbyDigital trailers where applicable, and I often goosed the volume control a half notch for those 20 or so seconds to put a little 'zing' in the pre-show.

This is the mark of real showmanship in the booth. I loved it and would give my very soul to be back upstairs for the remainder of my days. I implore you to get a good showman or two in your projection room(s). Give them free reign to be creative and don't be afraid to bounce their butts the instant they start short-changing the audience by cutting corners with the presentation. I kept my projectors, port glass and floors clean enough to eat off, spliced with care, checked every single inch for damaged perfs and made sure my apertures were filed with precision; no overshoot onto the maskings from my booths! I always saw my role as the wizard who made the movies work. The master of the flickering beams shooting out of the port glass.

There are obviously many new challenges in the digital world but having a technical staff who is not just knowledgeable of matters projection but also has a passion for the cinematic experience will be a huge asset that no sterile, corporate multiplex can ever match.

Sadly I'm in New Jersey, not Sante Fe, so I can't be of much help, but I'm sure there are many displaced projectionists who could do you proud.
Jul. 5th, 2013 04:20 am (UTC)
Funny how where I live things are the other way around. Where there once was a beautiful theatre there's a Burger King now, but they restored the painted ceilings, the marble staircases, the vitraux... it's a beautiful place that anyone can enjoy. But many smaller, less grand but still beautiful places were bought by JWs and turned into churches striped of everything that made them unique, and robbing the communities of a place of culture. There are some efforts from some people to make a few remaining, closed up theatres into cultural centers, but as usual it is tricky to get funding...

(I wouldn't want to appear disrespectful of JWs, of course, who are just trying to find a nice comfortable place to worship. I just wish there were other choices)
Anthony DeMarco
Jul. 5th, 2013 04:27 am (UTC)
Movie theater in Bayonne
Greetings from Bayonne,

We actually do have a movie theater, its on the back highway (169) which they now call part of 440. I think it's maybe 5 years old. There's all manner of things back there now actually. But we did not have a movie theater for a long time.

I love the Loews george, i think i mentioned it to you a while back actually. I go to movies there as often as I can although they close for the summer as AC is not one of the renovations they made. A game of thrones screening at one of these old theaters would be superb!
Jul. 5th, 2013 04:43 am (UTC)
I was a short boy and I'm a short man. I prefer stadium seating. I didn't have the luxury of seeing movies in grand theaters as a kid. I take that back. My folks took the family to see McArthur at Radio City Music Hall. I remember the experience quite well. As a working teen I saw The Return of the Jedi at the Ziegfeld. That was pretty cool. What a glorious 70mm experience. However, it pales in comparison to experiencing those grand scaled films in an IMAX theater.

The old theaters of my young childhood in Trinidad are likely long gone. I often sat in bench seats at the very front. That area was called pit. Back then you didn't have to get up to buy popcorn. In truth I don't think we had popcorn, but we did have channa. I don't miss watching movies in that type of an auditorium.

When I came to NY the neighborhood theaters had butter slippery floors. And the seats... Yeah I don't miss those days at all.

I take that back. I do miss double features.
Jul. 5th, 2013 06:52 am (UTC)
the dead
the grateful dead played an epic 3 night stand at the Stanley in Sept 1972. Nice room
Jul. 5th, 2013 08:00 pm (UTC)
I adore the 1930's-40's theaters too! You'd probably love the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz, CA. We were so happy when they restored it to most of the original glory it was in 1936 - some pics of it are here: http://www.barryswensonbuilder.com/del-mar-theatre-santa-cruz/ It doesn't really show the beauty of it though - especially when they retouched/painted the ceiling to it's original pattern. The whole art deco tiled theme in there is simply a work of art. It's got lots of fun memories for us there, too. We went to many a midnight movie there, and had a fun meetup with Bruce Campbell once during Army of Darkness night.
Jul. 6th, 2013 05:22 pm (UTC)
Beautiful theatre.
Historical Buildings/Theatres - ShroudedSecrets - Jul. 7th, 2013 08:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 5th, 2013 11:50 pm (UTC)
I may only be 32, but I do remember days when theatres were a spectacle, something much grander than the hollowed generic copies they all are today. Reading your post, I couldn't help remembering seeing movies when I was a kid, and somehow (surprisingly) this left me aching. Aching for this: People used to applaud movies when the end credits rolled; I remember that so well. At the time it felt like nothing but the thing to do, but now that this simple show of appreciation is gone, I really notice the void. When a movie's over nowadays you stand up, you shuffle out along with everyone else, you carry on. Nothing at all special about that.
I think the only place you might still applaud a movie is in an old theatre.... at least I like to think so. I hope that's the case with yours...
Kim Gessner
Jul. 6th, 2013 10:59 pm (UTC)
Baltimore's Senator
When we lived in Baltimore a decade ago, we had the pleasure of seeing Lawrence of Arabia at the Senator, a great old theater. The size of the screen was just overwhelming! I understand it's being restored now, but I think they're splitting it into a multiple screens. Such a shame.

I have also been to a couple of Muvico theaters (Arundel Mills and Pointe Orlando), but I think both of those may have closed. At the very least Muvico no longer runs them. Muvico builds fabulous themed multiplexes that have the feel of the old movie places but still offer modern conveniences. I hope they can continue and rebuild here in Orlando.
Jul. 8th, 2013 03:56 pm (UTC)
Biograph Theater in Chicago
I went to college at DePaul on the north side of Chicago. I saw Braveheart at the Biograph. It is the theater where John Dillinger was shot in the 1930s.
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George R.R. Martin
George R. R. Martin

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