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They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore - Part 1

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By Gordon Meyer
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Call me a film geek.  It’s a label I proudly wear.  I’m a huge fan of classic Hollywood and anything that honors our history.  Sadly, too much of our legacy has become disposable or simply abandoned over the years, including large capacity, single screen movie palaces and shooting epics on 65mm film.  Now, I’m far from being a Luddite.  I recognize both the creative and economic values of digital technology.  But film inherently has a different look and feel to digital.  And there should be a place for both formats.

I want to tip my hat to some people and organizations that have made a commitment to honoring our legacy through preservation.  And I want to also point out that there have been real world financial benefits to those efforts as more and more people discover the joys of classic Hollywood.

Back in the 1970s, the Fabulous Fox Theatre was being threatened with demolition to make way for a Southern Bell office building.  This 1920s vintage movie palace was and is irreplaceable with its 4,600 seat auditorium (reportedly second in size only to Radio City Music Hall), near perfect acoustics, and astoundingly ornate interior.  The auditorium itself was designed to look like the courtyard of an Arabian castle at night, complete with twinkling stars and floating clouds in the ceiling.

When word got out about the pending demolition of the Fox, the citizens of Atlanta rallied and quickly formed a non-profit organization to acquire the building from Southern Bell and restore it to its former glory.  Now, almost 40 years later, the Fox continues to be a treasured jewel for the citizens of Atlanta and is host to a mix of concerts, theatrical events and movies.

A similar situation took place in Seattle in the late 1990s, when the Martin Cinerama Theatre was slated to be converted into a rock climbing club.  A grassroots effort was launched to save the theatre and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen responded by purchasing the theatre and funding a multimillion dollar restoration, including the refurbishment of the original Cinerama screen and projection equipment.  Today, the Seattle Cinerama is not only one of the most popular movie going venues in Seattle, it’s also one of only three venues in the world still capable of running three projector Cinerama – the other two being our own Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, filmmaker Michael Moore is passionate about movies, film history and community.  Part of his commitment to community in his present home of Traverse City, Michigan included spearheading a movement to buy and restore a vintage movie palace that had been idle for over 20 years, the State Theatre.  Moore and his army of volunteers re-opened the State in 2007. 

Here’s how Moore describes his efforts in a recent email: “I decided to devote my time (and resources) to help the area I now call home by getting its long-closed downtown movie palace restored and reopened. The local Rotary foundation owned the large, ornate empty theater, which had not shown movies in 20 or so years (a theater has stood on this site for nearly a hundred years).

I set up a community-based non-profit organization that would own the theater. Four others and I donated all the money needed to bring the theater back to life. Hundreds of people pitched in to hammer nails and make curtains – and the new "Historic State Theatre of Traverse City" was opened in 2007 with its 584 brand new made-in-Michigan seats, the biggest screen within 150 miles, a state-of-the-art sound system, a big new balcony built from scratch, a complete restoration of the 1940s art-deco décor, and a concession stand where you could get drinks and popcorn for just $2.00.

Since our grand reopening, the State Theatre has been one of the largest-grossing independent art houses in North America. We have landed in the top ten highest-grossing theaters for a total now of 138 weeks. And, get this – for 62 of those weeks, we were the #1 theater in the country for the film we were showing during each of those weeks. This success has happened while movie attendance nationwide has dropped in the last decade – and with us, it has happened in a depressed state and in a rural, somewhat politically conservative area where the nearest four-year college is 100 miles away.”

More recently here in Los Angeles we’re seeing the renaissance of more and more of the surviving movie palaces, like the Orpheum and Palace theatres in Downtown LA’s once glittering theatre district. The 101 year old Palace recently completed a million dollar restoration thanks to new owner Ezat Delijani, whose family also owns the Los Angeles, State and Tower theatres downtown. You can read all about this restoration in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two of my favorite restored movie palaces, the 85 year old Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the El Capitan, directly across the street from each other on Hollywood Blvd.  I have a couple of sentimental attachments to the Chinese.  My first job out of college was as an assistant manager there.  Talk about feeling the history of the place!  Many years later, the Chinese served as the host venue for my long running “Hollywood’s Master Storytellers” series.  It is still, arguably, the most famous movie theatre in the world.

As for the El Capitan, that’s one of my favorite places to see a movie.  In addition to drinking in the ornate décor that was beautifully restored when Disney took over the theatre over 20 years ago, they virtually wrote the book on presentation showmanship, a practice that sadly very few venues practice. Beginning with a live pre-film concert on their Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, the magic continues with the way they make a show just out of opening the three sets of curtains in front of the screen.

These are irreplaceable treasures that are important not only because of their architectural beauty, but also because they are a part of our history.  Plus, there’s frankly a very big difference in the experience of seeing a movie in a 200 seat multiplex with sound leaking in from the adjacent auditorium and watching that same movie in a plush, temple to cinema surrounded by 1,000+ other movie lovers.  The vibe is palpable.

So kudos to people like Michael Moore, Paul Allen and Ezat Delijani and organizations like The Walt Disney Company and Atlanta Landmarks for recognizing and honoring the value of these grand venues as still viable, profitable venues.  May these restoration efforts pay off huge dividends for decades to come.

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Guest Thursday, 02 July 2015