The Coleman Theater on Main Street in Miami, Okla., is today a gloriously preserved relic of a long-gone age when grand movie palaces, even in America’s smaller towns, were centers of social and cultural coming together.
The popularity of the studios’ broad-based mix of genre dramas, comedies and musicals peaked at 80 million tickets per week in 1939. Prestigious “A” films that played on thousands of screens, especially during the Great Depression and World War II, were often uplifting portraits of major figures and events in history, the sciences and the arts — lessons in political, social and moral responsibility. More often than even a town’s churches, its movie theaters cut through class and economic strata to create a shared civic experience, a crucial coming together of diverse peoples for a few hours of benign community. Historians have accurately called these large-scale shrines to cinema during Hollywood’s Golden Age “secular temples.”
A new exhibition in the lobby of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, “From Nickelodeons to Picture Palaces: America at the Movies, 1910-1960,” features dozens of photographs of movie exteriors and marquees collected over six decades by Tom B’hend and Preston Kaufmann. An Academy press release states:
Tom B'hend (1917-1994) and Preston Kaufmann (1956-1998) were collectors of material related to motion picture theaters and theater organs. B'hend was a theater-organ enthusiast and Kaufmann was an author and head of Showcase Publications. Accumulated by B'hend from the 1940s onward, since 1972 the collection had been expanded and maintained by Kaufmann, who made arrangements for its transfer to the [Herrick] library prior to his death in 1998.
While most of the collection consists of photographic prints (15,000 images), the full tally includes 24,000 items, with 5,000 negatives, 500 slides and 3,000 postcards, including this one from the Coleman Theater, an artist’s rendering made near its opening date on April 18, 1929:
Movie-palace façades are widely featured in the collection, but many photographs are also windows into the social history of the United States, from kids lining up for a menu of cartoons and serials on a Saturday matinee at the Queen in Honolulu in 1947 …
… to the simple brick façade of the Rex Theatre in Leland, Miss., in that annus mirabilis year 1939 — evidence of the “other America” as startling as the photographs of segregated drinking fountains that served as daily insults to African-Americans.
There are plenty of interiors as well, such as this one of Joe Gibbs Spring playing the Barton console organ at the Orpheum Theater in Springfield, Ill.:
A January 1932 photograph of New York’s famed Astor and Gaiety theaters on Broadway at 45th Street showcases the chock-a-block lining of movie palaces in America’s major cities. (Both theaters were demolished in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis.)
Even when I was a film student in the 1960s, Hollywood Boulevard, from the Pantages (home of the Academy Awards ceremony from 1950-’59) east of Vine Street to Graumann’s famed Chinese Theater and the El Capitan to the west, was a thriving complex of several dozen movie theaters.
It was at the Vogue on Hollywood Boulevard that Carol and I first saw Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Recently, the Vogue was renovated and transformed into a supper club.
The eclectic nature of the collection is suggested by this audience photograph from 1956:
Most of the audience comprises nuns in full habit, waiting for a screening of The Ten Commandments. You can easily imagine this audience’s reaction to God’s manifestation to Moses at the Burning Bush as he bestowed on him the two stone tablets, but what can one say of the sisters’ reaction to the sexual frenzy and idolatry of the Israelites as Moses descended Mount Sinai?
If this were not amusing enough, what about this marquee from the Rialto Theater in Oakland, Calif.? Clearly, the exhibitor is less than thrilled with that week’s fare.
Drive-ins are an all-but-forgotten footnote in cinema-exhibition history today, but older generations still fondly remember the “passion pits” and the awkward groping that went on inside cars as the windows steamed up (and babies were occasionally conceived). A more innocent enterprise was stuffing friends into the car trunk to minimize the tabulated head count at the ticket kiosk, a technique that ended only when the drive-ins began to charge by the car. It was an era when double bills plus a cartoon were standard fare, with the program beginning in still bright twilight on the nearly washed-out screen.
My wife, Carol, grew up in Miami, Okla., and an outing to the movies with her sister Charlene was a Saturday ritual. The Coleman Theater, pictured at the opening of this piece, was too upscale to descend to the chaos of a “kiddie matinee.” So, the girls biked to the smaller Glory B a few blocks south on Main Street.
The program usually included half a dozen cartoons — Carol’s favorite was Tex Avery’s Droopy Dog — serials such as Rocket Man and Flash Gordon, and especially the “B” features of singing cowboys. Her favorite cowboy was Gene Autry, whom she sat next to, star struck, on a flight in the mid-1990s a few years before he died.
My go-to movie theater, the only one in town, was a single-screen, no- architectural-frills venue befitting the largely blue-collar community of Norwalk, Calif.
The Norwalk also had raucous Saturday kiddie matinees, which I ritually attended nearly every Saturday, only to return Sunday morning — for a few years, the theater doubled as the site for the town’s Catholic mass until a proper church, St. John of God, was built a mile to the west.
The Norwalk was caught in the frenzy of early 1950s 3-D movies. I still remember the rainy night in 1953 when my dad and I went to see John Wayne in Hondo. Somewhere during the first reel, the dual-interlock projectors went out of sync, and we watched the rest of the film in fuzzy 2-D.
Hondo was photographed by Archie Stout and Robert Burks just before Burks began his glorious color collaborations with Hitchcock. (He had already photographed Strangers on a Train and I Confess for Hitch in black-and-white.) Stout was a king of the Republic and Poverty Row Westerns, an ex-forest ranger who specialized in “dirt pictures.” Stout’s next and final credit was another picture with “Duke” Wayne, The High and the Mighty, an imperiled-airline thriller that for years gave me a healthy fear of flying.
A decade later, I was an undergraduate at the still all-male Loyola University in Westwood (now LMU). Our local movie theater was a wondrous temple designed in retro tribute to the Deco era. The Loyola, located on the east side of Sepulveda Boulevard just south of Manchester, had opened on Oct. 3, 1946, with the 20th Century Fox feature 3 Little Girls in Blue.
By 1979, it had become the Divine Light Mission of the Guru Maharaj Ji. A few years later, it morphed into a movie theater again, this time as a revival house like the legendary Fox Venice. It was a brief stay before the execution by a developer who bought it in March 1982; it was remodeled to serve as office space as LAX pushed farther north. Although the classic box office still proudly rests below the marquee today, and the 50-foot avian-shaped spire juts into the sky just a few blocks from LAX’s north runway, the once glorious edifice is now a prosaic complex of medical offices.
There is one great success story, however. Recently, I completed filming a feature in Atlanta titled An Actor Prepares, starring Jack Huston and Jeremy Irons. The opening sequence, a lifetime-achievement tribute to Irons’ character, a veteran movie star, takes place on the stage, in the upper lobby and in the men’s room of the Moorish-inspired Fox Theater on (what else?) Peachtree Street NE. The Fox opened on Christmas Day 1929 and featured an organ with 3,622 pipes, the “Mighty Mo.” The organ is still there and remains active below the stage apron. The theater also has a movie screen, but the Fox is now principally a venue for music, dance and theater performances. As I stood on that stage with my crew, I felt a part of the near 90-year history of one of America’s few remaining movie palaces.
Today, of course, VFX/CGI-laden comic-book movies compete for aural supremacy in Dolby ATMOS sound in cheesy, stadium-seat multiplexes whose thin walls barely separate the aural chaos of competing screens.
The B'hend/Kaufmann archive is part of the Herrick's Digital Collections and can be previewed here.
Here is a mashup of moments of people at the movies, a nostalgic mirror of a time before texting invaded theaters, before “home theater.”