Last Monday, I attended “The Fall of the American Movie Palace,” a talk by architectural photographer Matt Lambros, hosted by the Obscura Society at the Observatory reading room in Gowanus. The audience, a group of diehard aficionados of vintage, American theaters, seemed already to possess comprehensive knowledge of these majestic, 3,500-seat movie “palaces” built in the early part of the 20th century. I was out of my depth, but lacking prior familiarity with the topic did not detract from my appreciation for the staggering beauty of the buildings Lambros has captured over almost ten years of photographing across the country. “After The Final Curtain” is the resulting series of documentary photographs, focusing on those theaters in need of renovation among the hundreds still standing in American cities today, from Yonkers to St. Louis to northern Manhattan, in varying stages of rehabilitation, re-use, or regal rot.
These movie palaces were constructed between 1910 and 1940, keeping pace with the burgeoning of the country’s motion picture industry. Initially, many hosted live vaudeville acts, but the growth of the movie-going public led to the building of dedicated, single-screen cinemas. The ornately decorated theaters, with evocative names like “The Regal” or “The Majestic,” were designed specifically to foster a sense of wealth, privilege, and high culture among those who paid for the experience. Lambros quotes Marcus Loew, the self-made American movie mogul — founder of Loew’s Theatres and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — who purportedly said: “people buy tickets to theatres, not movies.”
By the mid-1970s, that mentality had changed. Moviegoers began flocking to multiplexes, which are about as architecturally distinctive as the big box shopping centers that house them. Single-screen movie palaces all over the country were redeveloped for live performances or closed.
Matt Lambros has been fascinated by abandoned architecture since his early childhood in Duchess County, New York. He has channeled his curiosity into advocacy for greater public awareness and care for these largely neglected structures. And the photographs do feel like official documents; Lambros generally forgoes nostalgic flourishes of light and shadow in order to portray the “facts” of the space. His photography is sensitive to the distinguishing features of each building: the stage and seating layouts, ceiling decoration, plasterwork, and entryways. Lambros’s talk might not have taught me a great deal about the histories of American cinemas, their evolving uses, or the complex reasons for their abandonment, but I did come away with a very good understanding of what their interiors look like. This, in itself, is no small task, since navigating the red tape impeding access to and visual documentation of these buildings is challenging on its own. Current owners of the theaters – city governments and private developers alike – often want to sell and redevelop, so they have a vested interest in keeping them out of public view and controversy. The public face of these buildings, however, presents a different story. According to Lambros, the movie palaces’ marquees are often landmarked and restored while their interiors decay from neglect. The disparity is particularly striking since Lambros’s photos reveal that the ornate facades offer only a hint of the grandeur that lies behind them.
I was initially drawn to Lambros’s work because of his photographs of the Loew’s Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The design and history of “the Kings,” as it is affectionately known, is in many ways an archetypal example of the American movie palace. The French Baroque-style theater was modeled after the Paris Opera House and the Palace of Versailles by the foremost architects of American theaters of the time, Rapp & Rapp. The Kings opened in Flatbush on September 7, 1929, showing a mix of vaudeville acts and movies, and serving as an iconic feature of a middle-class shopping district for many years. However, unable to survive the rise of the multiplex and a downturn in the economy of its surrounding neighborhood, the Kings was closed in 1977 and acquired by the City of New York two years later. Since then, the building has succumbed to neglect, water damage, and vandalism.
A longstanding effort to restore the theater got new legs in 2006 when the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz issued a Request for Expressions of Interest in its rehabilitation. An RFP was issued in 2008, and last February, ACE Theatrical Group was selected to restore and operate the space as a performing arts venue, which will host about 250 events per year beginning in 2014. A major part of the project will be a 20,000-square-foot expansion in the rear of the theater, which will be built to accommodate the backstage requirements of music and dance performances.
Walking down Flatbush Avenue around Beverley Road today, I had difficulty reconciling the image of the $70 million project with the contemporary reality of 99-cent stores and clothing discounters. If the plan is to make the area a cultural destination for New Yorkers and an economic benefit to residents of Flatbush, it will probably require more than simply opening the Kings’ doors. But doing so seems like a natural place to start: a few people I talked to this past weekend seemed unaware but enthusiastic about the prospect of the theater’s revival as a performance space, not least because of the business it would presumably bring to its stretch of Flatbush Avenue. And the revived theater would also prove an asset beyond any economic impact on local businesses. When it was operational in the middle part of the 20th century, local high schools held their graduations there; it was a community gathering point and anchor. ACE Theatrical’s planned programming includes “concerts, theatrical productions, dance and performing arts presentations and musical and comedy shows, as well as community events.” Community events won’t bring out as many pre- and post-show shoppers as a three-week run of Cirque du Soleil, but may very well be just as valuable to local residents.
Right now, Matt Lambros’s photographs of palace theaters all over the country are often the public’s only way inside. That’s about to change for the Kings. Here’s hoping many others will follow suit.
Gabriel Silberblatt is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus, living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Follow him @GPS_NYC.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.