When going to the movies was an ornate, special occasion

The Palace in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo credit: Theatre Historical Society.

Watching a movie nowadays often involves Netflix, your couch, and snacks. But in the early part of the 20th century, people dressed up, got on a streetcar, and headed downtown to a movie palace.

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin describes the experience: “You were giving people a complete escape from their ordinary lives, from the moment you walk into the lobby. Plush carpeting, gilded relief work on the walls and on the ceilings, magnificent chandeliers, decor from different periods of art and architecture around the globe. This at a time when most Americans didn’t have the opportunity to travel.”

Maltin is part of the new documentary “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace.” It’s currently screening at Laemmle theaters across Los Angeles.

Radio City Music Hall. Photo credit: Theatre Historical Society. 

The Southtown in Chicago, Illinois. Photo credit: Theatre Historical Society. 

April Wright, director of “Going Attractions,” tells KCRW that going to a movie palace creates a memory -- not only of the movie you saw, but who you were with and where you were. “It's just a whole different experience. And I think people are thinking about that now; if we're losing some of that communal experience and some of that relationship that we have with movies.”

The palaces were for the rich and poor, and they were built in the 1910-1930s, as cinema was evolving. Interestingly, it was just ahead of the Great Depression (1929-1930s).

“Too Hot to Handle” plays at the Roosevelt Theater in Chicago, Illinois.  Photo credit: Theatre Historical Society. 

Humble beginnings 

These palaces eventually became ornate, but they started small. Wright explains that when cinema began, people were watching in penny arcades and nickelodeons (storefronts that were converted into mini theaters). 

“Movies were not appealing to the middle and upper classes. They were considered more low brow entertainment and... that's part of what created the desire to make beautiful buildings that could be on par with opera houses and that type of experience, so they would attract that type of crowd,” Wright says. “It was just this fantasy style.”

These theaters had an international look and feel too -- celebrating places most Americans wouldn’t be traveling to at the time. Some theaters had a Moroccan, Egyptian, or Chinese theme, Wright describes, or were modeled after European cathedrals.

Hollywood Theatre in New York City. Photo credit: “Going Attractions.” 

Struggle and success

Wright says many of these palaces were built in downtowns nationwide, and when those areas declined, so did the theaters. “They lost their audiences as a result of some of the suburban growth... And a lot of them struggled, and a lot of them got torn down. But some of them have been saved and restored. And some of them are trying to find a way to to be saved and restored.”

A screening of Mickey’s Service Station, a film by United Artists. Photo credit: “Going Attractions.”

One theater that was saved: United Artists Theater at 929 S. Broadway in downtown LA. The Ace Hotel restored it. The rebranded Theatre at Ace Hotel opened in February 2014. You can enjoy movie screenings, concerts, performances, readings, and other public events there. 

“The Theater at Ace is a wonderful success story,” Wright says. “What is making a lot of these places successful is having a variety of big events that are going to draw people in.”

Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin at the Theater at Ace Hotel. Photo credit: “Going Attractions.”