At dawn tomorrow, when the final show of an all-night largely exploitation movie binge is over, Washington's first and last grand movie and vaudeville house - Loew's Palace - will close its doors forever.
Demolition is expected some time in May.
The plush auditorium along 13th Street will be replaced by a complex of offices and stores to be built by the Quadrangle Development Corporation. The marble entrance lobby on F Street, which stands on separately owned property, is likely to remain until a developer either "recycles" it into something interesting or tears it down for something modern.
Loew's Palace opened November 4, 1918 - just seven days before World War I was over "over there" - with a patriotic "wiggle picture," "Johanna Enlists," starring Mary Pickford tearing heartstrings to the sounds of a mighty Wurlitzer organ.
The opening of the Palace came at a time when everyone was movie mad. All across the land shining and profitable movie palaces sprang up - their towering electric signs flashing "Paramount," "Loew's" or "Fox" into the darkness of Main Street U.S.A.
As Ben M. Hall, the late historian of the golden age of the movie palace, describes it, life was not really so joyous for the hoi polloi in the Twenties as many of its chroniclers would have us believe . . . For many people it was a time of creeping boredom and frustration . . . The Pianola and the Victrola were limited by the number of rolls and records in their cabinets . . . Only one family in 10 owned an automobile . . .
"So people went to the movies . . . religiously, once a week. Surrounded by forests of classic columns, armies of uniformed flunkies, galleris of oil paintings, and arcades of mirrors; seated in the violet twilight of huge French or Chinese or Italian or Moorish garden auditoriums; soaking up music and laughter and mystery and romance in turn . . . moviegoers found respite from reality, and a whole new dream world come true."
The more movie palaces rose to compete, the more marble and gold, carpets, and chandelier and glitter was lavished on them. "Exhibitors vied for audiences with the energy of peacocks in a mating dance," said Hall.
Lowe's Palace was relatively subdued - more elegant than gaudy. Its architect, Thomas W. Lamb, who also desinged the Ambassador, Tivoli and Trans-Lux here, chose the Adam Style of 18th neo-classic English country houses with their opulent ornamentation.
In those days before charter flights to Europe and its castles, few Americans had seen anything quite that dazzling. What's more, it was theirs - vestibules, lounges, well appointed powder rooms and all - for 25 cents admission.
"The rubberneck buses, you know, the out-of-town sightseers, used to stop in front of the Palace and we'd let people come inside and admire the place," recalls Orangelo ("Angie") Ratto, who was manager of Lowe's Palace during its first 25 years.
When vaudeville went into full swing early in the 20s, you got a lot more for a quarter than a movie and a rich decor. You got a "light overture" by a 50-piece orchestra which rose miraculosuly from the pit and disappeared again when the applause died down.
Lights. Curtain. The Show. Content did not matter. The crowds came to gaze at stars. Most are forgotten. Some may never be: Amos and Andy, Groucho Marx, Olivia de Havilland, Danny Kaye, Peter Lawford Esther Williams in her bathing suit and Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney "in their icecream cone days," as one critic called it.
Joe Monica, who was first vaudeville lighting engineer and then a projectionist for the palace for some 30 years, liked Cab Calloway and a routine called "Minnie the Moocher" best of them all, an act that was "a little risque for its time," he recalled.
Ratto liked Jean Harlow best. She did some songs and talked a little. "I remember she stayed for a week and she was absolutely the best," he said.
After the show came a brief organ concert, a short, a cartoon, the newsreel and then - Wurlitzer crescendo - the featured film.
The most memorable feature film at the palace was "Gone with the wind." It drew 300,000 people, made a quarter million dollars and was held over for seven weeks, despite a policy to change films at least once a week. Most families went to the same movie house every week. "They went for the whole experience as well as the show and the star," said Ratto. "And they expected service."
The Palace had more than 20 ushers, young men in spit and polish uniforms with swagger sticks. Every day, they would line up in the lobby and be inspected like a royal honor guarus. Sunday mornings, Ratto would meet with them for a pep talk.
The Palace was soon followed by a number of other large movie palaces downtown, turning F Street into Washington's "great white way."
Vaudeville ended in the mid-50s when its stars discovered they could make more money in one evening on television than in a week of 29 performances on the vaudeville stage.
The Palace concentrated on select first run movies. They were usually packed at all shows, even in the depth of the Depression. People wanted the escape.
In 1949, despite protest and pickets, a black couple was still refused admission to the palace. Blacks and their own separate and unequal movie theaters further downtown. It was not until spring of 1953 that the Loew theaters quietly started to admit blacks.
In Washington, the golden age of movie palaces was over in 1963, when, despite protests from President Kennedy, leading Congressmen and such community leaders as Patrick Hayes, Loew's Capitol was converted into office space. Much of its sumtuous decor was auctioned.
The following year the Palace was remodeled from what Arthur Tolchin, a Loew executive, called "haphazard brown," to red with black patterns. A Washington Post reporter thought the renovation "as bright and slick as a color film's view of young couples in suburbia."
The last great movie house, other than the Palace, to show movies, downtown, was the Warner, originally called "The Earle," on 13th and E Streets. It is still in fine condition, but switched to occasional rock shows rather than yield to porno.
Ratto attributes the death of the grand movie palaces not only to the downtown malaise and television, but also to a Supreme Court decision in the 1950's which prohibited the big movie makers, like MGM, Warner or RKO, to distribute their films through their own theaters. Only the big concerns, he said, had the money and the drive to keep large theaters going.
Be that as it may, a few cities, such as Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, have restored old movie palaces and turned them into glorious and financially successful performing arts centers. Perhaps Washington could save the Warner.