Monday, November 23, 2009

When Movies Were Magic

Once upon a time in the halcyon days of yore (or even mine), the major Hollywood Studios owned and built chains of movie theaters. These were not the multiples cinemas today in which a theater might seat a few hundred people in what amounts to an over sized home theater. These theaters, called “Movie Palaces” were huge affairs that typically seated a few THOUSAND patrons. Patterned after Europe’s magnificent Opera Houses, the Movie Palace was a theater in every sense of the word. They were outfitted with orchestra pits, fully functional stages, huge pipe organs and state of the art equipment. Beyond the merely technical, luxury was the watchword. Ornate wall and ceiling art, massive chandeliers, plus seats, and restrooms that even had fireplaces(!) were common fare. Movie Palaces were as much about the experience of GOING to the theater as they were about the films. It was in venues like this that the names Chaplin and Chaney, Laurel and hardy, Bogart and Bacall became legendary. They were theaters as big as the starts that graced them.

In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s two events occurred that would spell the end of the Movie Palace. First was an anti-trust judgment that found that the major studios had created a monopoly by both creating films and owning the venues in which they were shown. The studios had to divest themselves of their Movie Palaces which were sold to other companies or to private owners.

The second event was the advent of television. In the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s a family might be expected to attend a movie twice or three times a week. Now they were staying home in droves to watch the likes of Howdy Doody, the Adventures Of Superman, and I Love Lucy. The movie industry went into a slump as it tried desperately to form plans that would allow it to survive.
And survive it did. There are some experiences that a movie, in a theater can provide, that television simply cannot. Not the least of which is the communal experience of seeing a film with an audience around you. However the movie industry DID change. In the 50’s (lasting to this day) a large segment of movies were targeted to younger audiences as “date” films. The rise of the Drive in Theater was a direct of the “date’ movie”. The advent of the “multiplex” allowed film to turn a profit for theater owners by letting them show many films at the same time. The movie industry is very healthy.

However, the Movie Palace largely went the way of the dinosaur. Expensive to maintain and limited in venue, they simply could not turn a profit. As the 60’s gave way to the 70’s more and more of the old palaces were sold, condemned or turned into multiplex theaters. However, over the years, dozens of old Movie Palaces have been restored to their former glory through the efforts of non-profit groups and 21st Century audiences can once again enjoy movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed.

I had the pleasure of attending one such theater, The Landmark Lowes in Jersey City, this past Saturday for a screening of Forbidden Planet presented on a 50’ wide screen using the original Perspecta Soundtrack (an early form of stereo requiring specialized vintage equipment). It was an amazing experience.

The Loew’s was also one of the best equipped theatres of its day. It was fitted with an arbor and metal cable counter-weight rigging system in its 80 foot high rigging loft, the same kind of system still in use in Broadway’s older houses. The stage lighting equipment was state of the art for 1929, having ten pre-sets. The Theatre’s stage was large for its day, measuring an average 35 feet deep by 82 feet wide, with a proscenium opening of an amazingly wide 50 feet. The orchestra pit included a main elevator plus a second one dedicated exclusively to the piano; overall, it was large enough for 40 musicians. The Loew’s backstage area included ten dressing rooms and a large rehearsal space. And of course, there was the projection booth, originally equipped with VitaPhone sound-on-disk projectors -- the first commercially successful “talking picture” equipment.

Prior to the film the audience was treated to a half hour of soaring music on the Wonder Morton Organ. This is a huge pipe organ meant to fill a huge theater like the Lowes, which sat as many as 3,100 patrons. The sound is not something that can be described. It has to be experienced.
There were about a thousand people in the audience for the screening of the Sci-Fi classic, but they were not just genre fans. They were MOVIE fans, and well versed in the history of the cinema judging by the snippets of conversation that I overheard. For a film geek like me, this was heaven.

As for the film, let me just say that I have seen Forbidden Planet no less than 75 times in my life. I know every frame of this film backwards and forwards. I can recite almost every line of dialogue and have read every single article I could lay my hands on since I first saw this movie 5 times in a single week when it aired on The Million Dollar Movie (WOR Ch 9) in 1966. With all that said, experiencing Forbidden Planet in this theater with a LIVE audience was like seeing the movie for the first time. This is how movies are meant to be seen, on big screens, with a thousand or more people sitting together in the dark.

My joy was enhanced by the fact that MOST of these people seemed never to have seen the film before. They laughed in all the right places. They were on the edge of their seats in all the right places. There was an audible reaction when the beautiful Anne Francis makes her first appearance. And the audience went wild when Robby the Robot was introduced. The 98 minute film seemed to go by in about 98 seconds! And when it was over there was a rousing ovation, not just for the film, but for the theater.

The Landmark Lowes is at 54 Journal Square in Jersey City.

Most films are in the $6 range, with Pop-Corn for a BUCK! Some upcoming films are

Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire on December 4th

Modern Times- Written, Directed, produced and Starring the immortal Charles Chaplin on December 5th

If you are a film lover, you owe it to yourself to visit this gem of a Movie Palace. There might even be a few fliers at CBJ if you are interested in learning more!

That’s 30

No comments: