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.