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Ticket to paradise: The movie palace era

Times Staff Writer

Cinema Treasures

A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters

Ross Melnick and Andreas Fuchs

Motorbooks International: 204 pp., $40

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Humble or grandiose, stand-alone or strung together, movie theaters are places where dreams are born. Once upon a time, they were treated with the respect they deserve.

In their heyday, historian Ross Melnick and exhibitor Andreas Fuchs write in “Cinema Treasures,” openings of new motion-picture pleasure palaces that would have dazzled Kubla Khan “received enormous attention in newspapers around the country. On top of the publicity they generated, their debuts were treated like the gala openings of new operas or exhibits, with critics weighing in on everything from the interior and exterior design to the orchestra.”

Cut to today, when Melnick and Fuchs’ fine new book is put out not by a major trade house but by Motorbooks International, a publisher that focuses on what it calls “enthusiast subjects, including tractors, heavy equipment, trains, Americana.”

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Still, it would be unwise to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. Handsomely produced and extensively illustrated, “Cinema Treasures” is detailed without being dull and thoroughly at home with this often neglected subject matter. Its title would have you believe it is a celebration of the golden age of movie theaters. But this book is something completely different: an examination of the history of movie exhibition, which the authors accurately call “a vastly under-researched topic.”

“Cinema Treasures” goes back to 1903, to the opening of the Cascade Theatre in Newcastle, Pa., the first venture opened by the Warner brothers (yes, those Warner brothers) and their sisters and as far forward as the replacement planned for the AMC Century City 14. It also gives profiles of 30 theaters from around the country that the authors feel have come back to life in especially interesting ways. The Los Angeles establishments featured are the Silent Movie Theatre for its unusual programming and the Arclight Cinemas for its inventive incorporation of the old Cinerama Dome.

The earliest movie theaters, often adjuncts to penny arcades, caught on quickly. As refuges for the poor, they also were places where upper-class types went slumming to rub shoulders with immigrants. The audience expanded with the advent of the sumptuous movie palaces about 1915, the period of the book’s hero, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, a visionary showman and likely the finest theater manager the movies have ever known, an entrepreneur whose eternal watchwords were: “Don’t give the people what they want -- give them something better.”

Called “the Prometheus of Exhibition,” Roxy insisted on grandeur, elegance and professionalism, whether putting an orchestra onstage to accompany a silent film or drilling uniformed ushers as if they were soldiers on parade. His 5,920-seat Roxy Theater in Manhattan was the ultimate expression of his desire to “make the truck driver and his wife feel like a king and queen.”

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This kind of splendor was not suited to the Depression, but theater owners coped as best they could. Some innovations, like handing out crockery on “dish night,” were short-lived; others, like the double feature, lasted longer. Another change was turning the concession stand into a profit center, a move the authors say placed exhibitors “in direct competition with local retailers” for the first time.

By World War II, audiences returned in droves. The lack of competition for America’s entertainment dollar meant nothing but good for theaters. “In 1942, 25.7 percent of recreation expenditures were spent on motion pictures,” Melnick and Fuchs report. That percentage “plummeted to 4.1 percent by 1963, an 84 percent decline in just 20 years.” A landmark consent decree prohibiting studios from owning theater chains caused further disruptions.

Ever resilient, theater operators fought back. Canny exhibitors thought up the duplex, the multiplex and the stadium-style seat megaplex. Melnick and Fuchs are especially good at providing the details, showing us exactly who came up with what. Of course, all that building was followed by massive bankruptcies of theater chains. Undaunted, some exhibitors constructed showcases like the Arclight, the Bridge and the Grove theaters in Los Angeles that are in effect modern versions of Roxy’s old treat-'em-like-royalty dream. It would seem that some exhibitors have begun to believe once more in the words of theater pioneer Marcus Loew: “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.”

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Kenneth Turan is a Los Angeles Times film critic.


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