When Movies Were Theater — William Paul

When Movies Were Theater, William Paul

“If we can now divorce movies from any specific architectural space, we still need to see the extent to which architecture in the past not only shaped our individual experience of movies, but helped shape the movies themselves.”—William Paul

The following post is by William Paul, author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film:

I open When Movies Were Theater by describing my own experience of movies: “What does it mean to say, ‘I saw a movie last night’? When I first began teaching film studies about four decades ago, students and I shared a common understanding of this phrase. Nowadays, I’m uncertain. Where my imagination still determinedly conjures up visions of a theater at night, lights, lobbies, crowds, the student was more likely domestic, snugly ensconced in a dorm room with, in the not too distant past, a VCR, a DVD player, or, most recently, a laptop, tablet, or even a phone.

Previously, the actual experience of seeing a movie always meant something more than just seeing the film itself. In first-run theaters in the United States, it meant a luxurious waste of space, ornamentation and opulence in excess; it meant a full proscenium stage and curtains; and it meant balconies, loges, sometimes second balconies, and a sea of seats. In short, viewing a movie in the past was also an experience of architecture, an experience of both the film image and the grand theatrical space that contained it.

This primal experience of movies in a specific architectural context inevitably conditioned how I thought about them subsequently. This is most evident in a personal quirk: while I can easily forget the plot of a movie, I never forget where I saw it. More recently, the moving image seems to have liberated itself from a specific architectural space to float freely through every conceivable space. This change has made me ponder how context might determine text, the central concern my book.

When I was a child, downtown New Haven had four picture palaces. Dating back to the 1920s or earlier, all were fairly large-scale for a small city and designed for stage-show presentations as well as movies. These cavernous spaces held a special fascination for a small child, somewhere between formidable and embracing. The very size of the theaters made movies seem all the more magical, originating as an intense stream of cold white fire from some distant blinking star that could never be approached. The space of each theater created its own drama as every interior possessed its own character: the Italianate style and eerie purple lighting of the two Loew’s theaters, the burnished white and gold deco surfaces of the local Paramount, the looming dark brown Gothic of Warner’s Sherman (named after Roger), a complement to the Yale buildings only a few blocks away.

Like most people of my generation, my brightest moviegoing memories are inescapably attached to these large, luxurious spaces, making it easy to be¬come nostalgic over what today’s audiences are missing. The sheer scale of the architecture made these theaters quite simply more theatrical than our current movie venues. And it was scale that ignited a movie experience that remains brilliant in memory: when Bill Haley began to sing “Rock Around the Clock” under the opening title of Blackboard Jungle (1953), the first time rock music was heard in a Hollywood movie, the entire Loew’s Poli set to rocking, more than three thousand teenagers cheering, clapping, bouncing in their seats, and dancing in the aisles. Something of this sort might happen now at a rock concerts and sporting events, but here it was preamble to a dramatic narrative and shaped our experience of the narrative, creating a primal theater, theater as communal ritual.

While nostalgia inflects our view of old theaters, the research for my book uncovered a number of surprises. Beginning in the early thirties film industry professional recognized serious problems that came with exhibiting movies in these palaces. Because all these theaters were designed as much for live performance as for film exhibition, compromises necessary for these different functions could compromise how the film image appeared. As my research deepened, it became increasingly apparent to me that the evolution of American film style was in part a response to the limitations imposed by the architectural context.

The palaces were the primary location for first run exhibition, but they were never the only place to see movies. In fact, I often preferred a smallish neighborhood theater in the suburbs, the Whitney (named after Eli), to the downtown behemoths. Multiplexing and the giddy real estate values that altered American exhibition would ultimately metamorphose this theater into condos, but initially its suburban location ensured that it would outlast the palaces when changing demographics and exhibition practices in the 1960s began to make large theaters impractical. By now, its 500 or so seats would make it seem a large theater, but at the time it was a model for what a small suburban theater might be. And movies did look better there since they seemed to flood the space of the theater while the screens in the downtown palaces were more remote, doubly enframed by great expanses of black masking and elaborate proscenium arches.

One of the other unexpected consequences of writing the book is that it led me to try to recall my experience of the Whitney, to recapture in my mind’s eye its warm bronze tones, the elegant lines of its auditorium, a simple wave-like undulation of wall with no decoration, and the striking way it established the screen as the dominant element of its architecture. The reason for these reminiscences is the unexpected convergence across several decades of my adult scholarly sensibility with my childhood experience. Reading through trade and technological film journals of the 1930s-40s, I came across the extensive writings of a film architect, Ben Schlanger. Schlanger was a visionary, an architect writing film theory in architecture, technical and trade journals, articulating well before André Bazin an aesthetic that established the screen as a window on the world rather than a framed picture. He called for a cinema architecture that was built from the screen out to give the moving image a sense of presence it could never achieve in the large palaces. Working together with an engineer, he even patented a new kind of screen in 1938 that anticipated the wide-screen revolution of the 1950s by eliminating black masking and creating the illusion that the screen filled the space of the theater.

The best of the other theater architects loved theatricality, but Schlanger loved movies, which is why he sought to make the image itself the most dramatic element in cinema architecture. Schlanger was extraordinarily influential as a theater architect, with many of his design recommendations now routine in movie theater construction. As with other modernist architecture, the acceptance of Schlanger’s principles was partly a matter of taste, partly a matter of economy since pared down decoration could satisfy both interests. This could ultimately lead to the utterly nondescript theater architecture of the last decade where the screen is, finally, the only interesting object.

Still, in spite of his repeated demands for the “neutral treatment” of the auditorium, Schlanger’s own designs were hardly cold and uninviting places. The interior of the Whitney remains as luminous to me as the interior of the big palaces. And because Schlanger loved to write about movies and theaters, reading his articles facilitated looking at his beautifully simple theater in memory as an adult, understanding the reasons for his design and simultaneously seeing in it what I saw as a child. If we can now divorce movies from any specific architectural space, we still need to see the extent to which architecture in the past not only shaped our individual experience of movies, but helped shape the movies themselves.

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