The dazzling beauty of abandoned cinemas

Old and unrestored cinemas are all around us and yet so unnoticed. A new photobook unveils their often overlooked beauty

Loew's Palace Theatre, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Originally opened as the Poli’s Palace Theatre in 1922 by architect Thomas W. Lamb as one of a double theatre complex along with the adjacent Poli’s Majestic Theatre. In 1934, both theatres were taken over by Loew’s and operated as film theatres. 

During the 1970s it screened adult films before closing in 1975. In the late 1970s, an attempt to turn the building into a Christian Revival Centre never came to fruition. The theatre is presently vacant and awaiting restoration.

Metropolitan Opera House, Philadelphia 

Originally inaugurated as the Philadelphia Opera House in 1908, it was designed by local architect William H. McElfatrick, who presided over the design of 40 theatres in his career. The Philadelphia Opera House was designed for opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein as his ninth opera house. In 1910, it was sold to the Metropolitan Opera of New York City and was renamed the Met. Through the 1920s, it showed silent films in addition to hosting various opera companies. In the late 1930s it became a ballroom, and in the 1940s a sports arena for basketball, wrestling, and boxing events.

It finally closed in 1954 and was turned into a church but continued to host the Philadelphia Orchestra for recordings before being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. In the late 1990s, church membership decreased and the building was vacated. The building was threatened by demolition when it was purchased by Rev. Mark Hatcher in 1996 who used the ground floor for the Holy Ghost Headquarters Revival Center. The church and the developer came to an agreement on a $45-million renovation for a live music venue that was inaugurated in 2018.

Robin's Theatre, Warren, Ohio 

Opened in 1923, it had 1,500 seats, and was designed by architects I. J. Goldston and Detroit-based C. Howard Crane. It was operated by The Robins Theatre Enterprises Co., a local company founded by Daniel Robins, who was an early partner of Albert Warner of Warner Bros. It closed in 1974 and was vacant until 2018, when it was renovated and reopened as a multipurpose venue in 2020.

Proctor's Theatre, Newark, New Jersey

Although available outdoors from street vendors, food was banned in theaters as it was deemed unhygienic by establishments that wanted to display respectability. In the late 1920s, however, theatre operators began to set up concession stands to stabilise an economic situation that had become precarious during the Great Depression. Popcorn would accompany the development of what was called "talking cinema" and become a significant part of a theatre’s income. During World War II, sugar rationing ensured its dominance as the most accessible and by far the most profitable treat.

Paramount Theatre, Newark, New Jersey 

Thomas White Lamb (1871–1942) was a Scottish-born American architect who was particularly associated with Loew’s Theatres, Fox Theatres, and the Keith-Albee chains of vaudeville and film theatres.

During the 1910s and 1920s, he became one of the leading architects of the fast-growing movie theatre industry and especially those that were large and opulently decorated, which were known in America as 'movie palaces'. He planned or redesigned more than 170 theaters throughout his career, in the United States, Canada, but also India.

Spooner Threatre, Bronx, New York

Originally opened as the Spooner Theatre in 1910 for actress and feminist Cecil Spooner, who led the Spooner Stock Company. She was notably arrested once for staging what was characterised as a “vice” play. In 1913, it was taken over by Loew’s Theatre Company and renamed Loew’s Spooner Theatre, and had its capacity expanded to a total of 1,807 seats. It operated as a second-run cinema until it closed in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It has been subsequently reused as a furniture shop and various retail stores. The auditorium was gutted in the mid-2010s.

Proctor's Theatre, Troy, New York 

Originally opened as Proctor’s Fourth Street Theatre in 1914, it was designed by architect Arland W. Johnson for vaudeville impresario F. F. Proctor. It hosted performers such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, and Fred and Adele Astaire. From 1929, it was successively taken over by the Radio-Keith-Orpheum and Fabian Theatres chains, renamed Proctor’s Troy Theatre, and progressively switched to screening films.

In the 1960s, it began playing second-run films and double features before closing in 1977. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. In the mid-2010s, the office space of the building was renovated. The theatre is currently vacant.

RKO Keith's Flushing Theatre, Queens, New York 

Originally opened as the Keith-Albee Theatre in 1928, and was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb  for Keith-Albee-Orpheum Corporation, which became Radio-Keith-Orpheum, in 1929 and renamed the theatre after it. It hosted artists such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Mae West, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Jerry Lewis.

In 1976, it was divided into three screens. In 1982, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1984 the ticket lobby and grand foyer were designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 1986, the theatre was bought and closed by its new owner who planned to build office space and a shopping centre on the site, intentionally damaging the auditorium despite the preservation efforts led by the Committee to Save the RKO Keith’s Theatre of Flushing.

From 2004, the theatre changed ownership many times until it was sold in 2016 to a Chinese developer. In 2019, the auditorium was demolished to make way for a residential tower block. The plasterwork of the lobby had been previously cut and stored in a warehouse and is supposed to be reinstalled in the new building.

Photo credit: © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre from Movie Theaters (Prestel, 2021).

Movie Theaters by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, will be published later this year and is published by Prestel

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