The Drama of Grand Movie Palaces
The grand movie palaces that still stand are opulent, over-the-top marvels of architecture. The first ones are reminders of America’s obsession with vaudeville, that form of American entertainment that dominated popular culture from the latter part of the 18th century until the film industry stole our attention. The evolution of modern comedy has its roots in vaudeville, where a typical performance could include all manner of entertainers from comics and impersonators, to ventriloquists and magicians, singers, dancers, and just about any type of stage performer you can imagine, all under the same billing. Many of the massive, dramatic theaters built for vaudeville performances and later for motion pictures were designed with grandeur in mind to offer a respite from the hardships of everyday life for the working class and to attract more refined society. Theater owners often used the British spelling of “theatre” in their names to further associate their establishment with high class.
There are three architectural design types of movie palaces. First was the neoclassical style that was formal and ornate. These early movie palaces were originally designed for live stage performances and often had an orchestra pit. Then came the introduction of the atmospheric theatre, designed to give the audience a feeling of being transported, often to an outdoor setting, such as the blue ceiling that looks like the open night sky in San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre. Art deco theaters with a focus on geometry and craftsmanship became popular in the 1930s and were considered more “modern” at the time. Evidence of this style is on display at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
In their heyday, a trip to one of these movie palaces was a special event—people got dressed up for it, and before television was mainstream, it is where they went to view the news in moving images. During the Depression era, theater owners bought dishware in bulk at cost and offered patrons free dishes along with the cost of a ticket.
As times changed, so has the experience of going to the theater. Gone is the intermission, the cartoon before the main feature, and the ashtrays. Of these prized buildings that have survived—many carefully restored after years of decline and neglect—they are glorious monuments of entertainment.