GHOSTS OF CINEMAS PAST
Today's movie megaplexes may offer endless cinematic choices, but as buildings go, they all look the same. But once upon a time, movie theaters were marvels of gilded opulence, evoking romantic palaces and faraway exotic temples. Over time, many of these landmarks fell into disuse or were demolished. But you can still enjoy a new or classic film on the big screen at one of these historic movie theaters — if you know where to look.
The Fox Tucson Theatre opened in 1930, featuring movies and vaudeville acts on a regular basis. Today, the Fox shows classic movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" on an occasional basis, but it's better known as a performance venue for concerts and live shows. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 for its distinctive Southwestern take on Art Deco and exceptional acoustics.
FOX THEATRE: RESCUED FROM THE WRECKING BALL
The Fox closed in 1974 and was threatened with demolition when it was purchased 1999 by the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation. The renovation took six years and cost more than $14 million. A gala re-opening celebration was held on New Year's Eve 2006. The auditorium holds 1,164 patrons for events and screenings.
The Castro, a striking Spanish Renaissance-style theater, is one of the few movie palaces built during the Roaring '20s remaining in the Bay Area. Designed by local architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the Castro opened in 1922 and showed first-run films until 1976. It changed hands several times in the following years but continued to operate as a movie theater. In 2001, relatives of the Castro's original owners acquired the theater and restored it.
CASTRO THEATRE: A THRIVING NEIGHBORHOOD INDIE CINEMA
HISTORIC PARK THEATRE
Estes Park, Colorado
There's a reason why "Historic" is the first name of this movie theater: It's the oldest movie theater building west of the Mississippi that's still in operation. Built in 1913, the striking "Tower of Love" over the entrance was added in 1926 by then-owner Ralph Gwynn to symbolize the love of his life. In 1984, two years after narrowly avoiding demolition, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It shows first-run movies on a single screen.
HISTORIC PARK THEATRE: A DISTINCTIVE NEON MARQUEE
The Rocky Mountain climate can be unforgiving, and over the years the theater has suffered damage from wind, lightning, and floods. It's been carefully maintained and restored over the years, including the restoring the neon marquee in 1982 (owners had to get a special variance to do it because city code banned neon signs). The theater and its landmark tower narrowly escaped destruction when a fire destroyed the adjacent Park Theatre mall in 2009. Recent upgrades include a new screen in 2015 and digital projection system in 2013.
Built in 1926 as a Paramount Pictures movie palace, the Tampa Theatre showed many different kinds of movies in its life, from studio new releases to B movies, before closing in 1973. Local movie buffs and city leaders rallied to save the building, and it reopened in 1977 as a non-profit venue showing first-run and classic movies and hosting live events.
TAMPA THEATRE: AUDITORIUM BRINGS OUTDOORS INSIDE
The Zebulon Theater has been entertaining patrons in this small southern Georgia community since it opened in 1936. Named after the owner's husband, this single-screen theater seats about 350 people, though when it first opened it could seat almost double that number. Today, it is now operated by the non-profit Regional Community Center.
ZEBULON THEATER: A WELL-PRESERVED GEORGIA PEACH
Des Moines, Iowa
The Varsity Theatre opened on Christmas Day 1938, replacing an older theater with the same name. Located near the Drake University campus, the streamlined Art Deco gem could accommodate 600 people when it opened, three times the capacity of the old Varsity around the corner. Unlike other old-school cinemas, this one still shows first-run films.
VARSITY THEATRE: A FAMILY-RUN BUSINESS
This one-time vaudeville house opened in 1919 as the Majestic Theater, but was converted into a single-screen movie theater five years later. The rechristened Antioch Theatre operated under a succession of owners until 2014, when it finally closed. But thanks to a few determined locals and a successful Kickstarter campaign, the theater was restored and reopened in 2015.
ANTIOCH THEATRE: RENOVATIONS GIVE A NEW LEASE ON LIFE
When the Artcraft opened in 1922, it featured vaudeville performances and silent movies, plus a new technological marvel: air conditioning. The theater was renovated in 1936 and again in 1948, giving it the streamlined brick facade and glass-block windows it still has today.
ARTCRAFT THEATRE: AN ARCHITECTURAL GEM'S NEW LUSTER
This opulent movie palace opened in 1922, showing popular features and short films of the day. Like many older theaters, the Kentucky Theater fell on hard times in the late 1970s and began showing classic, foreign, and cult films in an effort to appeal to a new generation of movie buffs. But in 1987, a fire at an adjacent building caused significant damage, and the theater closed temporarily.
KENTUCKY THEATER: A WORK IN PROGRESS
The theater reopened in 1992 after restoration work was completed. Some of the stained glass ceilings and ornate wall textures remain, and as well as the tile lobby. Some past upgrades include energy-efficient LED lighting, new seats and carpet, and digital projection and sound. The work goes on, however. They're still working on getting the Wurlitzer organ back into shape. It now shows classic movies and new releases in addition to live concerts and the Friends of the Kentucky Theater continues fundraising for further restoration.
COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE
Originally built as a Universalist church in 1906, the Coolidge Corner Theater was converted into a movie theater in 1933 and has operated as a cinema ever since. Operated as a community nonprofit since 1989, the Coolidge Corner now shows new releases from the big studios and indie distributors.
COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE: ART DECO FLOURISHES REMAIN
THE SENATOR THEATRE
Opened in 1939 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this classic Baltimore moviehouse is a classic example of the late Art Deco/Streamline Moderne architectural style. The Senator Theatre has operated as a movie theater ever since, closing only briefly in 2010 and again in 2012-13. Today, it's a first-run theater showing movies on four screens.
THE SENATOR THEATRE: CLASSICS AND TODAY'S HITS, NOW SHOWING
The Uptown Theatre is a landmark in the Twin Cities, opening in 1939 on the site of an earlier theater that had been destroyed by a fire. The cinema, a classic Streamline Moderne-style structure, is notable for its 50-foot neon sign that remains an icon of the trendy Uptown neighborhood to this day.
UPTOWN THEATRE: A MINNEAPOLIS LANDMARK
Ely's single-screen Central Theatre is an architectural youngster compared with other cinemas in this roundup. The Central opened in 1940 and has operated as a first-run theater ever since, except for a brief closure in 2011. It reopened in 2012 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2013.
CENTRAL THEATRE: A PIECE OF NEVADA HISTORY
Jersey City, New Jersey
The Loew's Jersey is one of five "Loew's Wonder" theaters in the New York City era, each of them an architecturally opulent movie palace. The Jersey opened in 1929, showing a mix of live entertainment and movies of the day. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were just two stars of the era to have graced the stage. The Loew's Jersey theater was chopped up into three screening rooms in 1975, but business faltered; it closed in 1986 and was slated for demolition.
LOEW'S JERSEY: RESCUED FROM DEMOLITION
VILLAGE EAST CINEMA
New York City
New York City has plenty of historic movie theaters, but none are older than the Village East Cinema in Manhattan's East Village. It opened in 1926 as a Yiddish theater, a reflection of the neighborhood's once-thriving Eastern European Jewish community. The auditorium and balcony could seat more than 1,200 people. It converted to a movie theater sometime in the 1930s and continued to show movies and occasional live events until it closed in 1988. Four years later, it re-opened as a seven-screen theater.
VILLAGE EAST CINEMA: A NEW YORK CITY MOVIE HOUSE GEM
Hickory, North Carolina
The Carolina Theater opened on Christmas Eve 1934. Although they didn't need it at the opening, the Carolina was equipped with air conditioning, a rarity at the time. In 1974, the theater's balcony was converted into a second screening room. It continued to show first-run films until the mid-'80s, when it switched to a second-run films as a dollar theater. Fun fact: Box office agent Lacy Starnes worked at the Carolina from its opening until 1989.
CAROLINA THEATER: A FIRST-RUN MOVIE VENUE ONCE MORE
The Strand Theater opened in 1916 and has been showing movies ever since in this Ohio college town. The single-screen cinema was expanded to a twin-plex in 1982, and the balcony was converted into a third theater in 1986. Locally owned since 1971, the Strand was sold to nearby Ohio Wesleyan University in 2002. It still shows first-run movies on a regular basis.
STRAND THEATRE: A CULTURAL CENTER FOR DELAWARE
Located in a small town about 50 miles south of Tulsa, the Orpheum Theater opened in 1920 as the Cook Opera House in 1920. By 1929 it was showing Mary Pickford movies like "Coquette." In 1974, the balcony was reconfigured into a second theater. Today, the Orpheum hosts classic films, film festivals, and live events.
ORPHEUM THEATRE: SPANISH BAROQUE ON THE OKLAHOMA PLAINS
With an exterior like a rococo palace, the Hollywood Theatre opened in 1926 as a vaudeville house before soon switching to movies. Originally seating 1,500, the main auditorium was split into three small theaters in 1975. The Hollywood remains a tri-plex to this day, showing a mix of first-run and classic films, while serving patrons food and drink, including craft beer and ice cream.
HOLLYWOOD THEATRE: A DOWNTOWN PORTLAND LANDMARK
Originally a bowling alley and pool hall that opened in 1925, it became the Hollywood Theater showing silent films one year later. It's been renovated several times, first for sound film and later to expand the lobby and add a flashing marquee (which had to be reduced again in the '80s). Now they show new releases and classic films.
HOLLYWOOD THEATER: FROM BOWLING BALLS TO BLOCKBUSTERS
Opened in 1915 as the Majestic Theater vaudeville house, Harry Houdini and Katharine Hepburn both have graced this theater's stage. It was converted to a movie palace in the 1920s and was renamed the Paramount Theatre in the 1930s. By 1973, the Paramount was a shabby shadow of itself and threatened with demolition. But locals rallied in 1975, launching a fund-raising campaign to preserve and restore the building.
PARAMOUNT THEATRE: THIS TEXAS STAR STILL SHINES
Park City, Utah
The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 set off a craze for Egyptian-style architecture, arts, and crafts. The Egyptian Theatre, which opened in 1926, reflects that era, decorated with hieroglyphics, obelisk-shaped pilasters, and other exotic details. Originally a movie theater and vaudeville house, the Egyptian closed in 1978.
EGYPTIAN THEATRE: A SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL FOCAL POINT
The Byrd Theatre, built in 1928, is named in honor of town founder William Byrd II. One of the oldest operating movie theaters in the state, the Byrd's French Empire architecture has been largely unaltered since opening, and today is on the National Register of Historic Places and state historic register as well. It shows a regular mix of second-run movies and classic films for $1.99 a ticket. The original Vitaphone sound is no longer, but the Dolby Digital sound is a donation from Ray Dolby himself.
BYRD THEATRE: ELEGANCE OF A BYGONE ERA
7TH STREET THEATRE
Built in 1928 to evoke a dreamy Moorish temple, the 7th Street Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a city landmark. Built in the "atmospheric" style popular at the time, the theater featured a tiled fountain near the restrooms, a beamed ceiling in the lobby, and seating for more than 1,000 people when it opened.
7TH STREET THEATRE: STILL BEING RESTORED
The Avalon is Washington D.C.'s oldest movie theater. It's been showing films since 1923, when it opened as the Chevy Chase Theater. In 1970, a second, smaller screening room was opened. The Avalon continued to show movies until 2001, when the owner declared bankruptcy. After being sold to a nonprofit and restored, the Avalon reopened in 2003.
AVALON THEATRE: MODERN UPGRADES TO D.C.'S OLDEST CINEMA
The oldest purpose-built movie theater still in operation, the Plaza (which has also gone by the Yale, Bijou, and Crystal Theatre) has been open since 1907, making 112 years of movie magic unspooling at the Plaza with no end in sight. Just don’t expect a lot of viewing choices. The two-screen property now shows feature films on one screen and older films on the other. The second screen is also used as part of a historical tour.