Tuesday, April 12, 2011


An abandoned movie theater located in Pioche, Nevada

This past weekend my daughter and I rode in CicLAvia 2011, a urban bicycling event here in Los Angeles in which 12 miles of city streets, stretching from Hollywood through downtown and ending in Hollenbeck Park south of the city, were opened up to all manner of human-powered vehicles. It was a perfect day weather-wise (65 degrees, a slight breeze and only a puffy cloud here and there), a great opportunity not only to get some exercise but to see the city from an entirely different perspective and pace, outside the bubbled protective environment of the automobile.

As we crossed through MacArthur Park and into downtown, my daughter and I began playing a game in which we tried to spot all the buildings which had once been movie theaters and had since been converted into churches, swap markets or some other kind of non-cinematic functionality. Crossing Alvarado to our left (east), we could see the previously grand fa├žade of the Westlake Theater, topped by the giant electrical sign that still holds sway over the street even though the theater itself is long gone. There were many others we could spot in between Alvarado and Spring Street downtown. And of course we crossed Broadway, where many old movie theater facades, and movie theaters whole, still could be easily seen. It was an interesting, bittersweet history lesson as my daughter became aware of a city she had never seen before, one where single-screen movie theaters of unparalleled neon beauty and art deco grandeur once stood as the norm, here in Los Angeles and in almost every city in the country, signaling an entirely different way of consuming and digesting movies on a community and cultural level than that of the high-rise redevelopment-oriented multiplexes of the modern movie-going experience.

I thought of our bicycling trip, and of how much I miss these movie palaces of old, while I was paging through Matt Stopera's stunning heartache of a visual essay entitled ”75 Abandoned Theaters from Around the USA” featured currently on Buzzfeed.com. Each picture connects up with a rural and urban America of movie-watching separated in time and sensibility from instant Internet analysis and social media marketing, when roadshow attractions meant that movies rolled out across the country in waves, not in 4,000-theater tsunamis, when a movie might play on a single screen in large and small markets for several weeks, even months before its audience was tapped out and ready for a new experience. The 75 pictures are split pretty evenly between the expected views of dilapidated frontage signaling echoes of the last picture show, and even more haunting, devastating and often moving shots of the interiors of some of these theaters, empty seats beckoning, slightly askew in the aisles, giant halls overrun with rust and dust and mold and every other manifestation of ruin. Some look like dusty halls of horror, some like the abandoned innards of grand governmental institutions, and some, like photo #11 taken inside an old auditorium somewhere in Latham, New York, like the eerie domed control center of a spaceship sitting in dock somewhere in another galaxy.

These pictures will invite a touch of sorrow for a world long past in the hearts of those of us who remember them, or places dear to us just like them. But I was also grateful that such a gallery exists because it made me remember with greater clarity all the places of my youth, some of which still exist, some of which sit in disrepair like these, and some which have been consigned to fleeting memory, where the movies once came alive for me. It’s hard to imagine the giant multiplexes conspiring with the imagination of worlds beyond their walls shown to us by the movies to inspire us in quite the same way. Movies have changed certainly as much as the places that show them have, and certainly how we see them. But for all the convenience of what Manohla Dargis recently called the 24-hour movie, nothing can really replace the experience of sitting with an audience whose patience and respect hadn’t yet been eroded by the sense of entitlement spawned by home theater luxury in one of these movie palaces, when they looked and sounded their best, when they teemed with the excitement of people who couldn’t wait to see a movie.



Thedriveindude said...

There are plans by some investors to refurbish and re-open the Westlake. It's neon sign was restored a couple or so years back along with a few other signs along the Wilshire corridor.

le0pard13 said...

That is a visual heartache of an essay, Dennis. I agree it is a sad sight to come across closed down movie palaces, especially if you've experienced a night at the movies there in your past. I haven't driven by it recently, but the old theatre I use to project at, the Huntington Park Warner Theatre, was still shutdown as of Dec 2009. Fine post, my friend. Thanks.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks for the link to the post, le0pard13. That place was a beauty.

And DID, that would be exceptionally keen if they got that place back up and running again. Might be just the spark the neighborhood would need. They could cross-promote with Langer's! I'd certainly make it a destination.

Robert Fiore said...

38. Hammond, Indiana . . . I wonder if Jean Shepherd ever went to that one. The collection has a tremendous After the Fall of America feeling to it. I think the reason why is that you feel only a society that had collapsed would allow places like that fall into ruin.

Anonymous said...

This wonderful post has really struck a chord with me.
I miss the cinemas of my childhood here in the U.K. with seats in the balcony and an intermission for refreshments.
Most decent sized towns had a cinema then, each with it's own unique atmosphere, some are now derelict, some are nightclubs and bars and one or two still survive...for how long?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Paul, one of the most wonderful things for me when my wife and I visited the UK for th first time was seeing some of those old cinemas you're talking about. I remember coming across one in Bath that just looked so charming-- very non-ostentatious and so inviting. I hoped in my heart that John Cleese was inside selling "Albatross! Albatross!"

Dennis Cozzalio said...

The Internet is wonderful. Here is the Little Theater in Bath: http://tinyurl.com/3t9zx96 And guessing by the Four Lions poster, it's still alive and well!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Or if you prefer a hyperlink, the Little Theater.

wwolfe said...

Speaking of the great old theaters in downtown Los Angeles, it's worth mentioning that tickets to the annual Last Remaining Seats, sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy, are on sale right now. My girlfriend and I will be seeing Captain Blood, Safety Last, Rear Window, and the Music Man at the Orpheum, the Million Dollar, and the other great old palaces. I'm especially excited at the idea that we can leave the theater after seeing Safety Last and walk down the street to see the spot where Harold Lloyd filmed his most famous scene. Thanks for the great post.