Old Theaters and New Ideas

On a cold and rainy afternoon in October, my friend and I decided to visit the Uptown movie theater in Cleveland Park. The Uptown was opened by Warner Bros. on October 29, 1936. The one-screen theater was designed by John Zink, considered to be among the top designers of Art Deco and Art Moderne style movie houses at the time. The theater has undergone many renovations so it is difficult to examine Zink’s original vision, but it is fun to imagine the initial decor and its evolution over the years

The first architectural feature that I noted was the small front box office sitting below a sign with lettering that had been changed by hand. The single box office attendant struggled to shorten the line of people who ran the length of the block. The main entryway of the theater has marble floors, mirrored walls, and a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling. (The chandelier once hung in Loew’s Capital Theater in Manhattan, NY and Loew’s Cheri Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. It was moved to the Uptown to celebrate the 100thanniversary of Loew’s Cineplex.) The “old school” feel of the concession stand is ironic since it holds a large variety of modern candies and snacks. Red-carpeted stairs lead to the “Women’s Lounge” on the second floor. The restroom is far too small to accommodate the size of the crowd and the beautiful vanity area outside is probably rarely used. A second concession sits quietly beside the lounge, probably closed until the night-time rush. As I entered the balcony, I was amazed by the grandeur of the enormous screen and the large amount of additional seating held in the balcony. I choose a plush velvet seat towards the back.

While waiting for the movie to begin, I surveyed the crowd. It seemed that older customers are partial to the theater, but there was definitely a mix of young and old attendees whispering softly and munching on popcorn and nonpareils.  I tried to envision the audience in the 1930s. Would it look similar? What if I were at the Uptown during one of the famous movie premieres? The Uptown seems to be very in-tune with its community and I would imagine that the audience has reflected the surrounding community’s culture over time.

I find movie-going to be fascinating because you can go alone, but you are experiencing something with all of the strangers that sit next to you. At the end of the movie, you have shared gasps of suspense, laughs of joy, or cries of emotion.  A group of strangers leaves the theater with a bond that previously did not exist. The Uptown is special because it has been fostering those bonds for years. The theater decor reminds us of old Hollywood magic and the generations of people who have sat in those plush velvet seats.

When I came across photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffree of abandoned theaters, I immediately thought of the Uptown. Each photograph of a broken down,obsolete, theater, actually portrays a new opportunity. The vintage architecture, intricate molding, and large balconies are just waiting to be restored and appreciated. Take a look at these photos. What would you do with those spaces? Recreate the old theater to foster movie magic like the Uptown? Or maybe build a new set of artist lofts? (One of the photos shows an old theater turned into a basketball court. Who would have thought?!)




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