Those who are familiar with my blog know I’m an ardent fanatic of old 1920’s and 1930’s movie palaces. I am old enough to have seen movies in some of them and have visited quite a few of them over the years. I never fail to find something wonderful about an old theatre, be it KC’s own Midland or the iconic Chicago Theatre. Even ones in the worst shape, like the Loew’s Kings in 2003, were places of incredible elegance and beauty, leading to rhapsodic waxing and hosannah’s for places that are quintessentially American and a reminder of a fabled past when a night out at the picture palace was the only real kind of entertainment available to the population. Just looking at old photos of them gives me goosebumps and makes me pine for what had been.
I learned most of the history from books. For anyone interested in old theaters, I would highly recommend the following:
1. The Best Remaining Seats by Ben Hall: THE book on theatre history, written with gusto and obvious passion. This is where you should start as Hall was the first preservationist to write about theaters at the time that they were being demolished left-and-right and you can rightly credit him for fostering the idea that these picture palaces should be preserved. ESSENTIAL
2. American Picture Palaces by David Naylor: Although it goes over some of the ground covered by Hall, the photos in the volume are priceless–practically ‘picture palace porn.’
3. Great American Theaters by David Naylor: A guide to the best old theaters in the 50 states. I take it everywhere I travel.
4. The Fabulous Fox by Preston Kaufman: Kaufman’s self-published tribute to the glorious San Francisco Fox is an absolute gem. This huge (and very expensive) book takes us from the theatre’s opening in 1929 to its unfortunate demolition in 1963. It lists every picture and performer that ever played there and has photos galore. How could they have torn such an architectural treasure down? The loss of the Fox ranks right up there with the destruction of the Roxy in NY for “crying shames.”
5. Cinema Treasures by Ross Melnick and Andrea Fuchs. Another lovely book concentration on theaters that have been preserved from extinction. Well-written and illustrated with incredible photographs. Please also patronize their website, WWW. Cinematreasures.org for hundreds of other theaters and tens of thousands of photographs.
6. America Goes to the Movies by the National Association of Theatre Owners. An amazing book that bookends Hall’s volume in presenting the story of what happened with theaters during the boom years of the 20’s, contraction during the Depression, the revival during WWII, and the subsequent collapse in the 1950’s onward. Very educational and illuminating and authoritative.
7. Odeon Cinemas Vol. 1 by Allen Eyles: I recommend this one because of the sheer Art Deco beauty of Britain’s Odeon cinemas during the 1930’s. This book is full of history and photos and it is sad to find out that so many of these fantastic-looking theaters have been lost as well.
If you are interested in further information, I would recommend joining the Theatre Historical Society of America. I am a long-time member. They are dedicated to theatre history and preservation and their publications are always full of photos and interesting information.