Latest Image Show, For Real: New Book Has Gorgeous Photos From Film Palaces’ Long Fade | Books
CHICAGO — For more than two years, every time I walk past Cinemark 18 in Evanston, Illinois, I wonder what it looks like inside right now. How calm it must be. Is the concession stand sticky? Are the seats dusty? Do the lobby posters promise a summer movie season that the pandemic stopped before it could begin? Like other theaters across the country, Cinemark 18 was crashed; it closed with the first round of closures, never reopened, and finally closed permanently a year ago.
The good news is that AMC just announced that it will reopen the theater later this year. But the existential threat remains: how long can cinemas stay open?
Two years after those stay-at-home orders, we are now streaming; There is no turning back. And so that trusty old Cinemark 18 plans to reopen as AMC Evanston 12, with the space once occupied by six cinema screens transformed into something that isn’t theaters.
I was supposed to pretend to care about the Oscars on Sunday.
Instead, I wondered about the future of the medium itself.
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For an ominous clue, I turned to “Movie Theaters,” a new graveyard slab from a coffee table book by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, best known for capturing Detroit’s evocative ruins. Here, for 300 pages, they open up the crumbling corpses of cinemas that closed, often decades ago. Think of it as a tangible, tight reboot of the virtual doom scroll. Or maybe a coast-to-coast funeral procession.
Anyway, the Chicago area is a little too well represented. There are the decaying walls and flattened seats of the Lawndale Theatre, once a feature of Roosevelt Road, before the building was demolished ten years ago – it hadn’t shown a film for 50 years. There are five pages of Broadway’s relatively bustling Uptown Theater, costing just $1 billion, a rugged rust cleaning and a full repaint far from filling its 4,381 seats.
You get a single image of Central Park on Roosevelt, built in 1917, one of the nation’s first air-conditioned movie theaters; the photograph shows a grimy, bricked-up balcony separated from the floor seating below – an image taken before the building’s ongoing and loving restoration. It’s a hit next to Rockford’s self-explanatory Times Theater: large signs reading “Times” wrap richly across a sad, empty facade. That said, according to the Rockford Register Star, even the Times is changing, thanks to a real estate company’s $14 million scrub announced in December.
Yet no one really expects these buildings to become mere movie theaters again.
As Marchand and Meffre show with palpable Euro-irony, the successes have been mixed. We’ve lost great movie palaces over the past few decades, but we’ve gained, in those same spaces, a dollar store in Berkeley, California; a mattress storage space in Cincinnati; a climbing wall in Denver; a cosmetics store in Toronto; a gym in Brooklyn.
Sometimes, where movie theaters once reflected the dreams of their communities, renovations do the same: old movie theaters have become UFO museums in New Mexico, boating museums in New Hampshire, shooting ranges in Texas.
But above all, given the evidence of these photos, taken over the past decade, we’ve left theaters to rot; collect dust; loose roofs, painting and ornaments. As Ross Melnick, a film professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and co-founder of the website Cinema Treasures, writes in the introduction, it’s hard to tell from these images if we’re looking at the past or the future of cinemas.
In an image showing the old Varsity Balcony in Evanston, among the new ventilation ducts is a proscenium arch that looks like Disney’s Magic Kingdom. (The building is slated to be turned into a 35-unit residential complex) The rich midnight blues of the Kenosha Theater ceiling in Wisconsin still show up in places where the ceiling hasn’t collapsed into a skeletal latticework of iron frame. Where it hasn’t darkened, peeled or succumbed to encroaching tree roots, the gleaming canary-yellow walls of the Gem Theater in Cairo, on the Missouri border, are still striking.
On the marquee of the palace in Gary, Indiana, it still says (minus two letters) “Jackson Five Tonite” – but the photo was taken in 2009, and the marquee was a cosmetic renovation of its facade, done by Miss USA from Donald Trump contest, held in Indiana 20 years ago.
There’s a painted curtain still hanging over the stage, its faded Egyptian stage still bright, but the rest of the room (closed to film screenings since the 1960s) would only function as the already dressed set of a movie. post-apocalyptic horror. (A Connecticut theater in the book even serves as storage for military rations in the event of World War III.)
The interiors of many theaters in these photos suggest that their staff dispersed abruptly. Handwritten sheets of movie times lie on the desks; there are vintage candy boxes, stacks of marquee letters and, at an Ohio movie theater, a coin-operated bathroom scale.
You might assume that the calamity that befell these places came suddenly, violently.
But in fact, many of the theaters in this book have been closed for so long that you see several generations of heartache, from the encroachment of television in the 1950s to the antitrust decrees that severed Hollywood’s control over the theatrical exposure to inner city violence fears, house prices, VHS players, Xbox, iPhone.
Above all, you are looking at the long fade of a way of life and a splintering of vibrant communities that happened so long ago that the ruins became the wallpaper of the neighborhood. Many of the repurposed theaters found in these pages are in other parts of the country. In footage taken around Illinois, theaters tend to exist in neighborhoods – the Colony on 59th Street, Ramova on South Halsted, several in downtown Rockford – still catering to commuter robbery, decades of divestment and years of real estate redlining.
As a lover of movie theaters, however, the saddest parts of “movie theaters” aren’t those crumbling cathedrals, many of which opened before the Great Depression and figured out how to branch out, serving as launch scenes for Benny Goodman (Central Park), tour stops for 1970s rock bands (Uptown) and neighborhood Baptist congregations (Lawndale).
At least for me, who came of age in the 70s and 80s, after the end of many movie palaces, it is painful to see shoebox-sized screening rooms crumble. These were unloved spaces, often created by theater companies carving up sprawling single-screen properties into tiny homes, to add screenings and maximize profits.
They did what they could.
In the end, everything falls apart.