Those movie palaces: `an acre of seats in a garden of dreams'

The Movie Palaces PBS, tonight, 10:30-11, check local listings. Writer/director: Lee R. Bobker. Producer: Karen Loveland. Presented by South Carolina Educational TV Network. Fifty years ago, audiences had their own unique versions of Fantasy Island. For millions of American moviegoers in the 1920s and '30s, the exotic, extravagant picture palaces were ``an acre of seats in a garden of dreams.'' They were islands of fantasy. People could escape from a humdrum daily existence into worlds of imagination, both on screen and in the enveloping environment, under cover of darkness. Often there were artificial stars twinkling in a ceiling firmament and opulent French baroque furniture or ornate Egyptian sphinxes in the lobby, all guarded by garishly costumed ushers.

According to Gene Kelly, the host of this architectural tour of the gaudiest of these cathedral-like structures, they have been called ``America's shrines to democracy.''

This documentary is a restrained ascent into glorious entertainment kitsch, with visits to such pleasure palaces as the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Paramount, the Fox theatres in Atlanta and St. Louis, the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, the Chicago Theater, Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and Radio City Music Hall in New York. In all of these, besides the feature film, there might also have been offered cartoons, newsreels, vaudeville acts, an orchestra, and, of course, a Wurlitzer organ. The admission price? As low as 25 cents. In a few cases as high as 65 cents.

There is vintage footage of many of the pleasure palaces in their heyday, some contemporary footage of the few remaining ones, and evocative stills and clips of some of the classic movies exhibited. There is even a segment in which an old-time organist explains his role in the overall show and demonstrates his art.

The film sadly records the decline of the movie palaces during and after the Great Depression, their temporary revival during World War II, then their later unthinking destruction in many areas, where economics and real estate prices made it more profitable to substitute a shopping mall or a launderette. The film fails, however, to investigate the current countertrend, the phenomenon of the multitheater complexes with their unimaginative, boxlike interiors.

But it does chronicle the ongoing renaissance of the movie palaces and their role in revitalizing the downtown areas of some debilitated cities. In many cities they are being converted into performing-arts centers, as in Columbus. And there is New York's glorious Radio City Music Hall, a landmark architectural masterpiece that still stands as a historical entertainment guidepost. As old films fade, according to Mr. Kelly, more and more picture palaces are being reborn. They are architectural realities that have outlived the world of fantasy in which they were created.

``The Movie Palaces'' is a nostalgic tribute to old-fashioned glitz and glitter. And it is also a salute to the valid place these buildings hold in our society.

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