They used to call them "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams," and maybe it wasn't always an acre, but they were right about the dream part.
"American Picture Palaces," a 10-minute film tribute to the movie-house fantasies of the '20s and '30s, had its world premiere Friday night at the Circle Avalon, where it is running with "White Nights." Produced after much agony by the Smithsonian with help from the National Endowment for the Arts, the picture eventually will be seen on public TV in a 28-minute version.
What with the rare live footage of long-vanished theaters and the interviews with such characters as old-time organist Gaylord Carter, there's enough material here for an opera. At that, many of these palaces were modeled on the Paris Opera. Or the Imperial Palace at Peking (except twice as big, of course). Or the Egyptian temple at Karnak. Or beyond style itself to the likes of Grauman's Chinese Theatre with its stone lions whose eyes lit up at night, the Atlanta Fox Theater that, as narrator Gene Kelly says, "out-Baghdads Baghdad," and all those other exuberant and slightly mad mixtures of Mayan, Gothic, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Art Moderne, Empire, Chippendale and American Indian.
Some of them had ceilings that were night skies, with sunsets and sunrises and twinkling stars. They weren't just in the big cities either. There was one in Jaffrey, N.H. It had moving clouds and everything.
When you went to a real outdoor movie theater, like, say, on the island of Korcula in Yugoslavia, it wasn't half as nice. The moon was so bright you couldn't read the subtitles and you needed to read them because the characters were talking Serbo-Croatian.
Most of us came a little late to see the movie palace in its prime. Radio City Music Hall still has the 6,000 seats and the phantasmagoric decor, but you can't get in for 35 cents anymore. For us, the old Roxy or Tivoli or Mazda or Keith's was a rather sleazy place in darkest downtown where you went to rock concerts or uplifting lectures. Or it was just a parking garage with crazy walls.
It was TV that killed the picture palace, they say. TV and the flight to the suburbs. But a few are coming back, along with the downtowns, as performing arts centers, sports arenas and even churches.
Anything that supports a dream.
Maybe that's why the architects harped so on night and darkness and sleep. The Stanley Theater in Utica, N.Y., had great golden carved figures swirling above the side boxes, and when you stared at them they could draw you right out of your normal daily self and waft you off to a place you didn't quite believe in but were willing to try.
If you were 7 years old and seeing your first movie, which happened to be "Treasure Island" with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery, and it scared the pants off you, you could look at the walls instead.
Or if you were sitting in the first-row balcony at your first concert (it was Fritz Kreisler and I was 5 and taking the violin, and besides our nurse Mary with the spit curl who taught us fan-tan had a boyfriend named Ted who drove a taxi, and Kreisler had ridden in Ted's cab, so I really had to go to the concert even if it meant I would have to take a nap beforehand), you could listen to the music and stare at the flowing gilt curlicues and it was like watching flames in the fireplace. It was like being someone else, and not having to wonder who.