American Movie Palaces: 50 Living Relics of U.S. Film History

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American Movie Palaces: 50 Living Relics of U.S. Film History

The movie palaces of the 1920s evoke memories of a time when going to see a movie was about an entire experience, starting with your walk up to the brightly lit marquees, through the extravagant lobbies and finally to your seat where the first talkies were shown and where vaudeville acts of all types enthralled audiences. These venues served as an escape from the Great Depression and war—a time to forget about your troubles and revel in the presence of the Mighty Wurlitzer. With so many 3D, “live-action” and CGI-heavy films, seeing a movie has become less about the entire experience and more about the film itself (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Feeling very Art Deco, we’ve compiled a list of 50 great movie palaces where you can still see films (or some type of production) and experience the atmosphere that fostered filmgoing.

1. Senator Theatre
5904 York Road Baltimore, MD 21212


Built in 1939 for an astounding $250,000 dollars and named one of the top 20 theaters in the world, the Senator Theatre hosts movie premieres for native Baltimore directors John Waters and Barry Levinson.

2-del_mar-movie-palaces-list.jpg 2. Del Mar Theatre
1124 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Built in 1936, the Del Mar was frequented by Alfred Hitchcock when he lived in Scotts Valley. The building underwent extensive renovation in 2002 and still shows weekly midnight movies and a wide variety of big-budget and independent films.

3. Byrd Theatre
2908 West Cary Street, Richmond, VA 23221


Built in 1928, the Byrd Theatre takes its namesake from the founder of the City of Richmond, William Byrd II. This “Movie Palace” was the first cinema in Virginia to be built with a sound system. The theater has remained in surprisingly unaltered condition for the past 80 years and has operated almost continuously since 1928. Today’s patrons can expect to pay $1.99 for a movie, perhaps worth the drive to Richmond for the savings if the 18-foot, two-and-a-half ton Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier suspended over the auditorium isn’t enough.

4. Uptown Theatre
2906 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55408


The Uptown Theatre opened as the “Lagoon Theater” in 1916 and is one of the oldest theaters in the Twin Cities area. After several name changes and a fire in the late 1930s—the theater reopened and underwent major renovation and upgrades. The Uptown has a 60-foot tower that at one time featured a rotating beacon of light that could be seen for miles. It was the first three-sided sign in the country and as such, had to be approved by civil aviation authorities.

5. Tampa Theatre
711 N. Franklin Street, Tampa, FL 33602


Built in 1926, this theater was the first commercial building in Tampa to offer air conditioning. Its interior boasts a Mediterranean courtyard and a realistic night sky complete with twinkling stars. Faced with the same fate as many dilapidating movie palaces, the community rallied and saved the theater, and today it now hosts more than 600 events each year.

6. The Plaza Theatre
1049 Ponce De Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30306


The theater opened in 1939. In the 1970s the Plaza became an X-rated adult cinema and live burlesque theater. The Plaza has since been renovated and come under new ownership and is now the longest continuously operating theater in Atlanta.

7. Coolidge Corner Theatre
290 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA 02446


Built in 1906 as a church and redesigned as an Art Deco movie palace in 1933, this theater has been open to the public throughout the decades that followed. Originally, the theater only had one screen but later added two and then four.

8. The Franklin Theatre
419 Main Street, Franklin, TN 37064


The Art Deco marque of the Franklin Theatre first lit up in the summer of 1937. Closed in 2007 for eight million dollars’ worth of renovations, the Franklin Theatre is the community’s first LEED-certified historic restoration project. (According to the Franklin Theatre’s website, LEED is “aimed at improving building performance in the areas that matter most—energy savings, water efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions.”)

9-kentucky-movie-palaces-list.jpg 9. Kentucky Theater
214 E Main Street Lexington, KY 40507

This theater first opened in 1922. A large fire from an adjacent restaurant caused extensive damage to the building in 1987, and after five years of renovations, the theater reopened in 1992. In 2000, the theater and its manager were embroiled in scandal over the showing of an X-rated film. Charges were eventually dismissed and the theater and the city reached an informal agreement to not show X-rated films in the future.

10. Tennessee Theatre
604 S Gay Street, Knoxville, TN 37902


This theater was built with a Wurlitzer installed at the time of its opening in 1928. In 2000, the organ was shipped to Reno, Nev., where it was restored piece by piece in a painstaking effort to return the organ’s appearance to its original design.

11. The Paramount Theatre
713 Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78701


This 100-year-old theater once housed Sam Houston’s office, the War Department of the Republic of Texas and the Avenue Hotel. The Paramount Theatre plays a large role in the SXSW film festival held in Austin each year.

12. Uptown Theater
3426 Connecticut Avenue NW Washington, DC 20008


This theater was host to the premieres of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jurassic Park, Dick Tracy, Dances with Wolves, The Guardian and Lions for Lamps. The theater was also one of the first 32 venues to play Star Wars on its opening day in 35 mm with a 4-track stereo soundtrack.

13-state-movie-palaces-list.jpg 13. State Theatre
233 E Front Street Traverse City, MI 49684

The Motion Picture Association of America has listed the State Theatre as the #1 movie theater in the world. Director Michael Moore assisted financially with the restoration of the building, which is now owned and operated by Traverse City Film Festival. The theater still offers weekly 25¢ kids matinees.

14-castro-movie-palaces-list.jpg 14. Castro Theatre
429 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94114

The Castro Theatre, a.k.a. San Francisco Historic Landmark #100, was built in 1922. The theater’s ceiling is “leatherette” and is the last known ceiling of its type in the USA. The concessions and drinks are cash only (with no ATM inside), and the organist plays before each show.

15. Alabama Theatre
1817 3rd Avenue N, Birmingham, AL 35203


Opened in 1927, the Alabama Theatre is known for hosting the Mickey Mouse Club. Formed in 1933, meetings were held on Saturdays where children would perform for one another and watch various Mickey Mouse cartoons. The original Wurlitzer organ—utilized for the sound when showing silent films—is nicknamed Big Bertha.

16-alameda-movie-palaces-list.jpg 16. Alameda Theatre
2317 Central Avenue, Alameda, CA 94501

This theater designed in the Art Deco style opened in 1932 with an original seating capacity of 2,168. It was the last movie palace built in the Bay Area. The theater closed in the 1980s and was later a gymnastics studio. The restoration of the Alameda was completed in 2008.

17-akron-movie-palaces-list.jpg 17. Akron Civic Theatre
182 S. Main Street Akron, OH 44308

Built in 1929, this movie palace is one of only sixteen remaining atmospheric theaters designed by John Eberson in the United States. Atmospheric style refers to a design meant to transport viewers to an exotic location rather than a formal box-like setting for viewing films. The auditorium of the Akron Civic Theatre is meant to “resemble a night in a Moorish garden.” The building was renovated in 2002 at a cost of 22.5 million dollars.

18-alex-movie-palaces-list.jpg 18. Alex Theatre
216 N Brand Boulevard, Glendale, CA 91203

The theater originally called “Alexander” opened in 1925. The design is a mix of Egyptian and Neo-Classical Greek architecture. A 1940s architectural renovation by famed architect S. Charles Lee included the addition of the Art Deco column with neon lights and a starburst at the top. The theater, the name of which was later shortened to Alex, still offers backstage tours.

19. Arlington Theatre
1317 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101


The Arlington Theatre was built in 1931 on the site of the Arlington Hotel which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1925. The theatre was designed in the Mission Revival style, and many of the architectural elements are still preserved today. The venue hosts many events related to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

20. Aztec Theatre
104 N St. Mary’s Street, San Antonio, TX 78205


The Aztec Theatre is yet another notable example of an extravagant exotically themed movie palace built during the roaring ’20s. Decorated with brightly colored columns, murals and of course large chandeliers (which were installed in 1929, the day the stock market crashed), the theater was leased in 2013 with the intention of turning the space into a multi-purpose event center.

21. Bama Theatre
600 Greensboro Avenue, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401


The Bama Theatre was built in 1937-38 through funding from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This building was one of the last movie palaces built in the South. The Theatre now hosts the “Bama Art House Film Series” which screens independent, documentary and foreign films.

22. Boulder Theater
2032 14th Street, Boulder, CO 80302


“Opened in 1906 as Curran Opera House by wealthy billboard sign owner James Curran, the venue featured opera, musical productions and silent movies. In 1927 the first talkie,The Jazz Singer, was presented by Warner Brothers. During the Depression, the theater kept going with double features and ‘Country Store Nights,’ where sacks of groceries were given away to those in lucky numbered seats.” -Boulder Theater Website

23. Biograph Theater
2433 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614


Of all the theaters on this list, one and only one can boast of being the theater outside of which John Dillinger was shot. Granted, that was 82 years ago, so it probably doesn’t affect the modern moviegoer. The venue now serves as a space for live productions.

24. Brauntex Theatre
290 West San Antonio Street, New Braunfels, TX 78130


The Brauntex Theatre opened not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a result, its early viewership consisted of patrons looking to both escape from the realities of the Second World War and keep abreast of the latest developments.

25. Broadway Theatre
216 E. Broadway Street, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48858


The Broadway Theatre opened in 1929 and now hosts concerts, classic films and a local community theater.

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