In any given year more classic American movie theaters close than reopen. Recently we wrote about Patrick Crowley and Ross Melnick, founders of Cinema Treasures, and passionate crusaders who are working to turn this trend around. Today we ask Patrick and Ross what Bijou Blog readers can do to participate in the saving of America’s movie palaces and local theaters.
What can one do if there's an "at risk" theatre they care about?
Learn all you can about the theater in question. Has it been or can it be landmarked? Check with local and state jurisdictions to determine the status (Be careful, it may be only the façade that is protected). Who owns the building and who owns the land? Often there are separate owners and circumstances. Are owners open to a grassroots effort to save the theater?
Armed with this knowledge, motivate key community members to action. Create a website for your theater as a community rallying point. If not affordable, the Cinema Treasures website is a free, user-generated site with separate pages for over 19,000 theaters. There you can post news and information about your preservation efforts and find additional volunteers and resources. You should also contact the League of Historic American Theatres who are experts in this area. Also, try to partner with local preservation organizations which can provide free legal and logistical assistance and may even be able to connect you with donors and other supporters.
What's the greatest stumbling block faced by those trying to save a local theater?
Underestimating or not fully understanding the challenges. Land is often the lynch pin. The MacArthur Theater in Washington DC opened as a single screen theater in 1945 and was triplexed before closing in 1997. Drugstore chain CVS took over the lease of the building that same year and the once proud interior of the MacArthur became a place to buy discount band-aids. Sadly, a number of DC's classic movie theaters have also been acquired by drugstore chains (a troubling nationwide trend). Almost all of the grand movie theaters (Rialto, Loew’s State, Paramount, Criterion) in Times Square are gone now because of high land values. On the flip side, for many years, property in downtown L.A. was severely distressed, making money unavailable for redevelopment. This helped keep many of these theaters from being torn down. We’re keeping our fingers crossed during the current building boom in downtown L.A.
What's the big message you’d like to communicate on saving theaters?
Think carefully about the venue and context of exhibition. The challenge to theater survival is to create compelling experiences that engage the community in as many ways as possible. Theaters often lag in changing environments and movies alone may not always sustain their survival. Concerts, live theater, closed-circuit HD presentations and other crowd-pleasing experiences may be the key to longevity.
Are other organizations helping in the effort?
The situation differs state by state. In California, the L.A. Conservancy is very proactive in the preservation of historic buildings. The League of Historic American Theatres is an international, not-for-profit membership association that promotes the rescue, rehabilitation and sustainable operation of historic theatres throughout North America. The League defines a "historic theatre" as a place of public assembly that is at least 50 years old or has cultural, historical, social or architectural significance. The Theatre Historical Society of America highlights these venues through tours, publications and other activities. Their annual conclave demonstrates the national and international interest in these buildings.
What's been your biggest frustration; the one that got away?
Since the site launched in December 2000, among many others, the Indian Hills Theater in Omaha, Nebraska comes to mind. It was designed especially for Cinerama and opened in 1962 featuring a 105 ft screen (the largest in the US). The theater had achieved local landmark status but was lost to the wrecking ball days after the designation was conferred. This despite numerous protests from all over the world and from such luminaries as Leonard Maltin, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Ray Bradbury and many more. Like that old cliché, it was literally replaced by a parking lot.
What has given you the greatest satisfaction?
There have been lots of small success stories that add up and make a difference. Over the years, we’ve met a number of people who have reopened theaters they found on Cinema Treasures, found jobs through the website, and donated money and/or time to theaters based on information they found on our site. We’re also delighted by the wide age range of Cinema Treasures users. Although theater preservation is traditionally associated with those over 40, our users range from 14 to 80 and everywhere in between. That bodes well for the future.
We salute Patrick and Ross for their continuing struggle to make a difference. Cinema Treasures and Matinee At The Bijou are indeed kindred spirits in a shared passion to preserve and perpetuate America’s cinematic heritage in all its glorious manifestations.