Along with jazz, Coca-Cola and skyscrapers, our gaudy, glittering, glorious, gorgeous, grand old movie palaces are among America's greatest gifts to Western civilization.
Although this has been widely reorganized for some years now, movie palaces are rapidly becoming extinct. The only thing that can save the last remaining places, like Radio City Music Hall in the Big Apple, the "Chicago" in Chicago or the four theater Playhouse Square in Cleveland, is a new kind of entertainment, as gaudy, glittering, glorious, gorgeous and grand as the movie-vaudeville combination that created them in the first place.
It ought to be invented.
"Let's find the showmen!" Joseph R. Duci Bella told a recent Symposium on the American Movie Palace at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Duci Bella, an interior designer, is one of the founders of the Theatre Historical Society. America's foremost raiser of motion picture palace consciousness.
The Milwaukee symposium of historians, architects and lovers of movies, palaces and Wurlitzer organs agreed that a little Balaban and Katz showmanship could do more for our bombed-out downtowns than forests of office towers.
A. J. Balaban and Sam Katz combined pictures and "flesh" (live shows) in incredible dream cathedrals to take the minds of millions of Americans off the Great Depression. B. and K, as they were called, were the greatest impresarios ever.
Before we had affluence and loneliness in front of the tube, people went to the movies, not so much to see the picture or the live show, but for the total experience of going to the movies. They went as families and they went regularly. Shows changed every week.
"It did not matter what the picture was," a B and K promoter recalled recently. "People were buying the walls." The walls, the palace itself, was as Balaban put it, "dedicated to the people and their children's children." They offered "music and art; ladies' parlors where milady's every wish will be on call; men's lounging rooms; theater that will bring the various arts into one grand finale; blending of the opera to the fastest tempo of jazz; meeting place of the aristocrat and the humble worker . . ."
Ther were playrooms for children with sandboxes and seesaws, toys and attendants, where parents could park their children during the show.
One palace even had a dog kennel in the basement, complete with fire hydrants. Most had white-gloved ushers with swagger sticks, parading like the guards at Buckingham Palace. Some theaters served coffe and cake while you stood in line at the box office.
The management cared. The customer was king.
The architects of B and K's hundred-theater chain, as well as of the Paramounts, Paradises, Foxes, Loews, Warners and all the rest who followed their example, understood that in times of private privation people want public grandeur. And what grandeur! The world had never seen such exuberant flamboyance -- done in every conceivable style from Adam to Harem, from Paris Opera to Italian Garden complete with rising moon and moving clouds and breathtaking light effects.
Rapp and Rapp, Thomas Lamb, John Eberson and the other builders of fantasy, most of there palaces all over America, were not just lavish decorators. They will soon, I am sure, be recognized as great architects, not for their carved squinches, gold, statuary and marble, but because their theaters function superbly in terms of acoustics, traffic circulation, ventilation and other basics. What is more, they were built to last forever.
Bad times, it seems, produce magnificent architecture. The Renaissance emerged from the Black Plague, which, in the 14th century, killed as much as half of Europe's population. Alberti, Brunelleschi, Bramante and the rest must have remembered the misery, or heard tell of it, when they built their jubilant churches and palazzos.
There are other examples, Versailles and the Louvre were built in times of dire economic depression. It is only the rich who think less is more.
Most of America's great movie palaces are gone, going or mutilated -- gutted and cut up for some mean purpose or another. New York, where the first dream cathedrals were built, has virtually none left intact. Chicago still has a few, but bulldozers threaten.
Here in Washington, we have done away with the best -- the Loew's Palace and the Keith. Now only the Warner is left downtown, in fair condition and doing all right with stage shows and concerts, thank you. Eventually, I hope, the Warner will expand its stage and restore its beautiful auditorium.
Such "adaptive re-use" of large movie houses has been successful in several cities. Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis have become concert auditoriums. The Fox in Atlanta, the Orpheum in Omaha and the Ohio in Columbus have been restored for stage shows. The Paramount Theater in Aurora, Ill., has been recycled into a performing arts center.
The most interesting magig trick to date was performed in Madison, Wis., by architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates Malcolm Holzman fused the old Capitol Theater, a Moorish fantasy, with Montgomery Ward and Singer stores on either side, into a complex art complex. It has a restaurant, practice rooms, storage and exhibition and workshop spaces, in addition to a large and a small theater.
There is a question, however, how many more old movie houses can be absorbed in new performing arts centers.
San Antonio still has five marvelous wonder palaces -- Mayan, Aztec and Whatnot -- in close downtown proximity. An ambitious Arts Council is hoping to create a downtown arts district with them, turning "Star Wars" to symphonies and porn to chamber music.
It is easy to find the preservation lobbyists to lobby this, the planners to plan beautiful plans and the restorers to freshen the gold paint. But they don't fill five auditoriums for even a night. Nor do they write the big checks required.
It is even tougher in Cleveland, where the Playhouse Square Foundation and its savvy new director, Charles W. Raison, are struggling to integrate the grand theaters into a new hotel, shopping, restaurant and entertainment center -- a "city of light" -- brilliantly conceived by architect Peter van Dijk, who designed the famous Blossom Music Center.
But Cleveland is a "show me" town of skeptical engineers who live in the suburbs and think it would be easier and more desirable to bring back gaslight than bother about relighting downtown.
The latest movie palace cliffhanger played in Chicago, where a cataclysmic "revitalization" scheme within the Loop, reminiscent of the worst "urban renewal," was to demolish six or seven city blocks and wipe out 1,034 businesses, including the Chicago Theater, the resplendent grande dame of them all.
This fit of insanity proved only temporary, think heaven, and the Chicago a B and K flagship theater with a large stage and 3,880 seats, escaped oblivion. Miraculously, due to its prominent location on State Street, its gaudy sign is still blazing. Although the mighty Wurlitzer is silent and the orchestra pit and dressing rooms are dark, the Chicago is still showing movies as it has night after night for 57 years. It is still marginally profitable.
"Where else have movies helped save a movie palace?" asked Richard J. Sklenar, who presides over the Chicago Theater's organized fans. After careful study this group decided that their palace should be renovated and continue to operate as a movie theater until the market for a big downtown theater improves.
The best way to improve it is with a revival of showmanship, a new entertainment formula.
It seems to me that the time has come when people like to see and hear people again, not electronic beams on a small screen, not celebrities who act like their own impersonators, but people. Broadway musicals, Arthur Fiedler-type pop music and jugglers, magicians, tightrope walking sopranos and good clowns and mimes have never lost their popular appeal. The magic, I believe, only has to be repackaged.
We are enthralled to hear old stories sung to new tunes, like Webber and Rice's rock musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Or perhaps a new brand of cabaret or variety package would pack the old palaces again.
At any event, with some new form of good old entertainment to fill them, I am convinced that the restoration of our remaining old movie palaces could do for Downtown, U.S.A., what fresh tomatoes and bagels in the restored old Fanheuil Hall and Quincy Market have done for Boston.
Old Boston is thriving.