Thursday, June 11, 2009

History and the Movies: There Are Places I Remember

File this history post under useless nostalgia. Since I obsessively search archives of revered institutions, foundations and universities on an hourly basis for anything and everything it is to be expected that I will come across photos of movie theatres from time to time. Even though I was born in the sixties and therefore wasn't around when the cinema below was showing Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharoahs in 1955 it still looks familiar. That's because the architectural look of cinemas in the fifties carried through well into the seventies and the seventies is when I started going to the movies on a regular basis.

Below is another photo of a cinema in Albany, CA in 1971. The cars have changed but the architecture has a similar feel. It's not that they're the same architecturally, because clearly they're not. It's that they have a business-like look about them, a functionality mixed with a bit of mid-century modernism. I can't pretend that these theatres look better than the palaces of the twenties and thirties, because they don't. But they're the theatres I love and the ones that bring back moviegoing memories like no other. And they just don't exist anymore.

And it's not just that they don't exist anymore. There aren't even theatres that replaced them in the same location. They got replaced and relocated. Look at the Albany cinema. Click on the photo to enlarge it. Down the street there is a silhouette of a stripper indicating that this cinema coexisted with the hardened denizens of the city, the real city, not those bullshit fantasy cities everyone has now where the downtown area is filled with chains and franchises and Ben and Jerry's and piped in music. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for my kids that Silver Spring has such a gentle, clean downtown area where they can hang out and feel safe but Lord, it's soulless.

It's nothing like the locale of the Ultravision. That's the theatre I used to go to in the seventies in the West Ashley section of Charleston, SC. I saw The Poseidon Adventure, Juggernaut and Jaws in their initial runs there and wish there were theatres like it to see movies in now. It was next to car lots and pawnshops and liquor stores. I couldn't find a picture of it online but ABC, the company that operated it, had a twin Ultravision in Deerfield, FL and that I could find a picture of, here, so you can at least see the design I'm talking about.

Later, after moving to Washington, DC in the eighties, I saw many movies at the Outer Circle on Wisconsin Avenue and was sad to see it demolished in 2007. It lasted for so long I thought for sure it would remain but alas, it couldn't survive the onslaught of the multiplexes even if I did think it was immune for a short while there. The picture below is courtesy of Rockcreek's Flickr account where I was happy to find several pics of this once great suburban cinema.

The Outer Circle was in the nowhere zone between DC and Chevy Chase, MD where you're not quite sure what city or state you're in. There were diners, banks and gas stations nearby. That doesn't mean much now I suppose but NOT being in a multiplex by a mall or a Disney-fied Downtown gave it a very different feeling that is hard to describe now. There was a feeling you could be walking down the street and suddenly happen upon a cinema next to the Phillips 66 and say to yourself or your walking companion, "Hey, want to see a movie?"

I miss the sleek lines and non-busy look of the mid-century to mid-sixties cinemas that filled my youth. They weren't as formal as the original movie palaces, not as corporate as the multiplexes that followed. They were slightly trashy and often times out of the way. They were next to fast food joints, bars and truckstops in the places that zoning forgot. I'd like someone to revive them but it's a bit like trying to make a campy film. If your intention is camp then it's not camp. For these cinemas to succeed they need a specific time, place and feel that's gone and will remain gone. But never let it be forgotten.