In 1940s America, you could walk down any main street in any city and before long you would run into a movie theater. Today, downtown tends to be the last place we think of going to the movies: multiplexes demand real estate on a suburban scale, and the convenience of Netflix all but takes the “going” out of moviegoing. Yet despite their long decline, the former staples of American cityscapes may be undergoing a renaissance. Downtown boosters have realized that the big screens are more than places to see movies. They can also serve as community gathering spaces that respond to a demand for more than the latest blockbusters, enriching both the streetscape and cultural life of the city.
In fact, movie theaters and the spaces they inhabit have long adapted to changing times. In 1900, film was still a young invention with an uncertain future, but Americans were clamoring for a taste of motion pictures. So the first movie theaters, called nickelodeons—so named for the cost of admission to these ad hoc spaces—were usually housed in the rear of retail stores and numbered about 8,000 by 1908.
As movies matured and an industry developed around them, theater architecture came into its own. Nickelodeons moved to their own designated buildings, usually vaudeville theaters converted into movie-screening spaces, and the folding chair and white curtain aesthetic of their early incarnations gave way to the permanent seating and screens we’re familiar with today. Theaters became more elaborate as architects crafted spaces that were as immersive as the movies they exhibited. Architect John Eberson designed close to 500 theaters, many of them in cities throughout the Midwest, in varying degrees of art deco style; Thomas Lamb’s theaters brought exotic locales to the inner city with themed designs based ancient cultures near and far.
But among the early pioneers of movie theater design, no other architect influenced the theater’s developing relation to the city more than S. Charles Lee. Though his designs were no less luxurious than those of Eberson and Lamb, Lee rooted his work in human psychology. Recognizing that movie theaters would thrive in urban environments on the promise of selling an experience more so than a product, Lee saved the flashiest features for the outside: marquees, canopies, and tiled sidewalks drew eyes and interest. Lee is said to have thought that “the show starts on the sidewalk,” an approach to design that proved to be a boon to smaller cities. Though humble in comparison to their big-city counterparts, the no less modest architecture of small-town theaters gave local audiences the thrill of a big-city experience.
By 1946, annual movie ticket sales in America peaked at 90 million. The numbers were driven by the swelling numbers of theaters in cities and towns nationwide, although civic engagement also played a substantial role. With the television not yet a household staple, movie theaters in the 1940s would show newsreels alongside their regularly scheduled films; thus the theater became a center of intellectual engagement as much as one of entertainment. And in the case of Lee’s theaters, going to the movies could easily be a family affair: many of his 300 or so theaters included restaurants and nurseries that made the cinema a downtown destination for everyone.
The tides of urban moviegoing reversed in the second half of the century. Due in part to a 1948 ruling against the monopolistic theater-building practices of movie studios, but exacerbated by the preponderance of television, movie theaters had seen their heyday. With the rise of suburbs and the advent of the summer blockbuster in the 1970s, theaters rapidly moved away from urban centers to make way for sprawling multiplexes whose cookie-cutter architecture paled in comparison to the grandeur of the early movie palaces. If Lee’s psychological theory of movie theater design posited that architecture must reinforce the excitement of moviegoing, the blandness of the modern multiplex demonstrates how moviegoing today has been reduced to a consumer transaction like any other.
The old movie palaces that were once a mainstay of most town centers have been in many cases demolished (or converted to drugstores, the architectural discrepancy between storefront and tenant continuing to beguile pedestrians). But in recent years urban renewal has been saving many of these historic theaters from the brink.
The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center of Montgomery County, Maryland was one of the first such beneficiaries of urban redevelopment. A single-screen, art deco movie house designed by Eberson in 1938, the Silver Theatre was a major draw in the area, then a relative backwater relative to nearby DC, through the ’50s and ’60s. With the rise of multiplexes and mega malls in the ’80s, the Silver Theatre and adjacent commercial properties shuttered. Yet because of an unusually strong community life, residential decay did not follow.
In the late ’90s, the county approached the American Film Institute, then housed at the Kennedy Center, with the prospect of reopening the Silver Theatre as part of a downtown revival to serve the neighborhood’s persistently vibrant and well-connected populace. The county had hired a team of consultants and determined that iconic buildings, such as the Silver, were important factors in urban renewal. AFI handled the suggestion astutely: as theater director Ray Barry explains, AFI was “not interested in building a thing just to look at it; it actually has to be built to function.”
AFI went to great pains in restoring the original theater, tracking down the same carpeting and curtain fabrics used in the thirties design to make the restoration authentic and complete. Rather than modify the existing architecture to meet the needs of a 21st century audience, AFI opted to preserve the Silver’s historic character in its entirety by building 32,000 square feet of adjacent new construction to house additional screens, office space, and concessions. Five years after development and construction began, the theater reopened as the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in 2003. Audiences responded passionately, and Barry recalls seeing patrons cry at the sight of the beloved 1938 edifice looking as good as new. “The American movie theater was a central institution,” he remarks; for locals with childhood memories of the Silver, “it was a big, big deal.”
Today the AFI Silver screens everything from contemporary independent films to American classics to international film festivals. According to Barry, the theater’s unique programming owes less to an arrogant sense of curatorial expertise than to “an engagement with the community,” and a desire to represent and respond to the interests of the neighborhood.
This kind of community engagement seems to be the key to survival for many historic theaters across the nation. Cinemas like the Avalon Theatre in Washington, DC and the Coolidge Corner Theatre of Brookline, Massachusetts both occupy vintage buildings and thrive as nonprofit film centers thanks to the involvement of neighborhood fundraising. Both theaters tailor their programming to the interests of the neighborhood: the Avalon regularly partners with the nearby French Embassy and local film scholars to program unique screenings for the area, while the Coolidge screens cult and Hollywood classics catering to movie lovers young and old in Boston and beyond.
Today even for-profit independents have more resources than ever before at their disposal to grow and thrive. Art House Convergence, an annual conference started by the Sundance Institute in 2006, brings together art house cinema owners from around the country to share stories and advice about confronting the challenges of running an independent theater in the 21st century. Last year’s presenters represented theaters old and new, from Portland, Oregon’s Hollywood Theatre, a 1926 former Vaudeville house in Spanish colonial revival style, to Winston-Salem’s a/perture cinema, a fledgling fixture of the city’s burgeoning downtown arts scene since 2010.
All of these new theater owners stress the importance of community building and civic engagement to their growth and survival. “We have to find our audience where they want to be found,” said Lawren Desai of a/perture, voicing a sentiment that complements her theater’s mission statement of “bring[ing] back the intimate movie-going experience while showcasing films that enrich, educate and challenge us all.”
Though a/perture occupies a 1920s storefront, the building had not historically functioned as a cinema. What a/perture lacks in glamorous architecture, the owners have made up for in a community-based approach to design. The theater eschews a traditional street-front box office in favor of a spacious lobby showcasing movie posters by local artists. A crowdfunded expansion in 2012 added a third screening room and a glass atrium that gives the lobby more room to function as a community gathering space. And in a throwback to Lee’s “show starts on the sidewalk” mantra, a/perture has remixed the old storefront of its building with a modern yet elegant facade to attract pedestrians along the Winston-Salem thoroughfare.
a/perture isn’t the only instance of small theaters moving into the big city. The booming development of downtown Washington, DC is a case in point. Though many of the city’s theaters closed in the late 2000s, three new theaters—two operated by the Landmark chain, a favorite of art house and foreign film lovers, one by New York’s famous Angelika Film Center—have opened in the District in the last decade.
This new generation of urban theaters is moving away from the grandeur of the past while sticking to a tradition of community-influenced design. From the hobnob nickelodeons of the early twentieth century to the palatial theaters of the 1930s and 40s, to the cookie-cutter multiplexes of the 1970s and onward, movie theaters in America have evolved to match the expectations audiences brought to the movies. The rebirth of the urban indie theater as a cultural hotspot inspires hope that, even after the rise of the suburban multiplex, there’s still a place for cinema in the city after all.
Tim Markatos is editorial fellow at The American Conservative.