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.jpg2. 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.jpg9. 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.jpg13. 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.jpg14. 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.jpg16. 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.jpg17. 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.

26-california-movie-palaces-list.jpg26. California Theatre
345 S. 1st Street, San Jose, CA 95113

According to the San Jose Redevelopement Agency, the California Theatre is “one of the best-preserved examples of late-1920s motion picture houses in the country.” The theater was home to pretty much every iteration of “theater house” entertainment, hosting vaudeville shows and films with 3D and Cinemascope. It closed in 1973 before first being purchased (twelve years later) by the San Jose Redevelopment Agency and eventually being reopened as a “modern performing home for Opera San Jose and other performing groups.”

27-chicago-movie-palaces-list.jpg27. Chicago Theatre
175 N State Street, Chicago, IL 60601

The 3,880 seat theater opened in 1921 and was promoted as the “Wonder Theatre of the World.” Crowds often packed the theater to capacity and mounted police were required for crowd control. The theater was redecorated in preparation for the 1933 World’s Fair—including repainting the fourteen murals. Ronald Reagan announced his engagement to first wife Jane Wyman at the movie palace.

28. Congress Theater
2135 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647


This Classical Revival movie palace was built in 1926 and at one point could seat over 2,500 moviegoers. Oprah Winfrey filmed the introduction to her television show in the lobby of the theater, which is currently being restored with the goal of re-opening by 2017.

29. Village Theatre
820 Orange Avenue, Coronado, CA 92118


“Hand-painted murals by Disney muralist Bill Anderson adorn the walls of the Village Theatre in San Diego’s Coronado, depicting classic San Diego scenes such as the downtown skyline, Hotel del Coronado and Balboa Park. The Art Deco, 195-seat main theater opened in 1947, and today includes two smaller theaters (45 people each) and the latest 3D technology.” —Susan B. Barnes, USA Today

30. Coronado Theatre
314 N Main Street, Rockford, IL 61101


This theater cost 1.5 million to build in 1927. The opening show featured the silent film Swim Girl Swim—roughly 9,000 people came to the three showings. The theater houses one of only two Grand Barton Theater Organs that feature a dragon design. John F. Kennedy made a stop at the Coronado during his 1960 presidential campaign.

31-crest-movie-palaces-list.jpg31. Crest Theatre
1013 K Street Sacramento, CA 35814

“It was originally opened in 1912 as the Empress Theatre, a vaudeville palace. It later operated as the Hippodrome theatre. On September 14, 1946, the Hippodrome’s marquee suddenly fell to the pavement below, killing a bystander. Shortly after the tragedy, in 1949, the building was completely remodeled and revamped to its current form as the art deco Crest Theatre. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was one of the premier first-run movie palaces in the Sacramento area.” —Crest Sacramento website

32. Starlight Whittier Village Cinemas
7038 Greenleaf Avenue, Whittier, CA 90602


“A news account in 1931 reported that architect David S. Bushnell was preparing plans for a theater, costing $90,000, seating 1,000 and to be leased to a theater chain. Because of the depression, according to the Whittier Historical Society, the lease was broken and the owner, Aubrey Wardman, ended up operating the theater with the architect serving as the manager.” —Ron Pierce, Cinema Treasures

33-egyptian-movie-palaces-list.jpg33. Egyptian Theatre
135 N. 2nd Street DeKalb, IL 60115

This theater was built in 1928-29 as part of the Egyptian revival movement that was brought about due to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Rumor has it that there are secret messages hidden in the architecture, and the theater is said to be haunted.

34. El Capitan Theatre
6838 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028


El Capitan opened on May 3, 1926. The theater initially presented plays and slowly moved into showing movies. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane premiered at the El Capitan in 1941. The theater is now owned by Buena Vista Theatres—a subsidiary of Walt Disney Motion Pictures, and for that reason is a popular venue for Walt Disney Studio film premiers—The Jungle Book recently held its premiere at El Capitan.

35-grand_lake-movie-palaces-list.jpg35. Grand Lake Theatre
3200 Grand Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610

The grand Lake’s sign was designed by Theodore Wetteland and is supposed to be the largest rotary contact sign west of the Mississippi River. The sign is 52-feet high, 72-feet wide and consists of 2,800 colored bulbs.

36. TCL Chinese Theatre (Grauman’s Chinese Theatre)
6801 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, CA 90028


This iconic movie palace opened in May 1927 with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. Over the years, many premieres have taken place at the venue, including George Lucas’s Star Wars. Grauman’s has also hosted three Academy Awards ceremonies.

37. Lafayette Theatre
97 Lafayette Avenue, Suffern, NY 10901


The Lafayette Theatre takes its name after Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. The theater opened in 1924 with the silent film classic Scaramouche. Today, the theater is the only historic single-screen movie palace showing first-run films and classics, which are still accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer before showtime.

38. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
1400 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64105


This 3,000-seat theater opened in 1921 and was the first theater in Kansas City to contain a nursery for parents in attendance. The basement also contained a space for animals used in the vaudeville shows, including, according to Bryan Krefft in Cinema Treasures, “cages for animals as large as elephants (and elevators big enough to carry them up to the stage) and pools for seals.”

39-oriental-movie-palaces-list.jpg39. Oriental Theatre
2230 N. Farwell Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53202

Built in 1927, this theater actually has no traces of Chinese or Japanese artwork, instead drawing inspiration from East Indian décor. The theater is the world record holder for continuous showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has been played every Saturday at midnight since 1978.

40. Orpheum Theatre
200 N. Broadway Street #102, Wichita, KS 67202


Designed by architect John Eberson with the design concept of a garden in old Andalusia, this movie theater was opened in 1922 and served as an adult film venue in the ’70s and as a theater for Spanish films. The auditorium has been painstakingly renovated and now hosts films and other performing acts.

41-paramount-movie-palaces-list.jpg41. Paramount Theatre
2025 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

At the time of its opening in 1931, this theater was the largest on the West Coast, seating close to 3,500. An authentic restoration of the building was completed in 1973 and the venue now hosts many events, including a return to “Hollywood’s Golden Era” film series with the Mighty Wurlitzer serenading before the curtain rises.

42-pickwick-movie-palaces-list.jpg42. Pickwick Theatre
5 S. Prospect Avenue, Park Ridge, IL 60068

This theater was named in 1928 by the Mayor of Park Ridge for the title character Samuel Pickwick in Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers. The building is widely recognized for its marquee and 100-foot tower, which appeared in the opening credits of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.

43. Redford Theatre
17360 Lahser Road, Detroit, MI 48219


At the theater’s opening in 1928—it was hailed as “America’s Most Unusual Suburban Playhouse”—which features a three-story grand foyer and Japanese-inspired décor. Today, the theater shows bi-weekly films ranging in genres. Spring and Fall film festivals featuring the Three Stooges films have grown in popularity over the years.

44. Roxie Theater
3117 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103


Touted as the “oldest continuously operated cinema in the United States, and the second oldest in the world,” the Roxie opened in 1909. In the course of its 106 years, the theater has hosted virtually every variant of the form.

45. Warnors Theatre
1400 Fulton Street, Fresno, CA 93721


Originally built in 1929 to accommodate vaudeville acts and live animals, this theater was later purchased by Warner Brothers and became the second West Coast city to have a Warner Brothers motion picture theater. Today, the venue hosts many events, including a Classic Film Series.

46. Colonial Theatre
227 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460


“For more than 110 years, the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pa., has stood the test of time. Built in 1903, the vaudeville house was even featured in The Blob with Steve McQueen; each July, the theater hosts ‘Blobfest.’” —Susan B. Barnes, USA Today

47-gem-movie-palaces-list.jpg47. Gem Theatre
111 West 1st Street, Kannapolis, NC 28081

The Gem Theatre opened in 1936—a few years later the building was reduced to ashes due to a fire. Rebuilt in 1948, the theater has been in operation ever since and is one of the only movie theaters that offer balcony seating.

48. York Theatre
150 North York Street Elmhurst, IL 60126


Originally opened in 1924 and designed with a Spanish motif, the York changed to an Art Deco style in 1938. According to the theater’s website, “An archeological dig was made by some of Classic Cinemas’ workers to uncover the original orchestra pit. It now holds a two-manual seven-rank Barton pipe organ, that was originally installed in the Rialto Theatre in Champaign, Ill., in 1925.”

49. KiMo Theater
421 Central Avenue NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102


The name “KiMo” translates to “mountain lion” in Tewa. The theater’s style fuses the décor of Native American cultures with the flamboyancy of Art Deco. The building faced demolition in the late ’70s but was saved when voters approved the City of Albuquerque to purchase and renovate the structure.

50-hollywood-movie-palaces-list.jpg50. Hollywood Theatre
4122 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR 97212

“When the 1,500-seat Hollywood Theatre first opened, a local advertisement called it a “palace of luxury, comfort and entertainment unsurpassed by any theatre on the Coast.” The Hollywood was the last venue in Portland built as both a vaudeville house and a movie theater. Though sound was not fully introduced until 1927, there was plenty of lively sound in the place—provided by performers of all kinds, plus an eight-piece orchestra and organist.”

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