Remember the Movie Palaces?
When I was a kid, movie theaters were magical. These days going to a movie is as thrilling as visiting the dentist. The first movie I remember seeing was Bambi. It was in a downtown movie palace (all the movie theaters were modeled on palaces in those days). There were uniformed ushers with flashlights who would find you a seat and shush you if you got too noisy. There were always fancy architectural themes to the decor, lavish lobbies with grand staircases and plush restrooms. I remember the exotic patterned carpets. Going to a movie was very special and you dressed up, just like for Sunday School. (Oh wait, you don’t dress up for God anymore either.)
When we moved to the suburbs, we didn’t make the trip to downtown as much and most of the movies we saw were at the drive in but when we moved to the country, our small town had a movie theater which became a focal point of my young social life. The Vogue was no palace but it had it’s share of pretension. There was no grand lobby or stairs but there was a small lounge next to the restrooms and a separate balcony room for parents with noisy kids. On weeknights, they played current movie releases, usually in one or two night stands but on Saturdays, it was all organized for kids. There was always a double feature with westerns or pirate movies dominating. In between there were the previews, a cartoon, a newsreel and the highlight of the day, the serial. This was usually a very hokey science fiction story and it was always the excuse not to miss a Saturday. We lived five miles out of town and so my folks would drop me off at noon or so and pick me up at 5. I think the movie cost a quarter, popcorn was 10 cents and a candy bar 5 cents. You would meet your friends and enjoy the afternoon completely unsupervised. It was heaven.
In high school, the Vogue was a little too intimate and ordinary for a date. Going to a movie meant driving the 30 miles back to one of the movie palaces in the city. That was where you found the first run movies and got the glamor of big time entertainment.
Those palaces started to die in the 60’s with the growth of the suburbs. By the time I started my working life in Los Angeles, the movie palaces were largely abandoned or converted to porn venues. To survive, some were divided into two or more theaters just like the old mansions surrounding downtown were converted to dingy flats The last gasp for movie palaces in the movie capitol was built in the 70’s, The Plitt in Century City. It was a modern venue but with the grandeur of the old palaces and it was a palace that made great movies even greater. We say Jaws there and Star Wars and nothing compares to the grandeur of a great movie surrounding you in a grand viewing space like the old Plitt. Alas, the magnificent Plitt was only a moment in time and quickly replaced with some more profitable use.
These days there is no place to get an old fashioned movie experience. The new movie multiplexes have all the personality of a shoebox in spite of the comfortable reclining stadium seats and over-loud three dimensional sound.
I’ll still go to a movie from time to time but the thrill is gone. There is no magic to these shoebox venues playing social effects overloaded features with little plot and no human interest. I remember the days when going to a movie was an event. You would go to a movie just to get away from real life and escape to the fantasy. The old movie palaces helped with that escape. Maybe the movie was a dud but you still spent the time in an environment that made you feel special. A few hours in the movie palace and you could go back to your hovel knowing that it wasn’t who you really were. Going to a movie doesn’t do that any more. All you get it the movie.