Leafing through the pages of Movie Theaters, a large format book published by Prestel that holds gritty photography by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the array of artful decay is stunning. We know the term itself is somewhat oxymoronic, but the state of many of these once grand spaces that now range from shabby to complete dilapidation has not taken from them an alluring expressiveness. How did such a book come about, we wondered. Fortunately, its authors weren’t shy about telling the story of their adventures in ramshackle architecture.
In their foreword, they write, “It was one morning in October 2005, after our friend Guillaume lent us his solid shoulders to access the emergency staircase… We were both in complete darkness for close to an hour already, waiting for the light of dawn to dimly illuminate the neo‐Gothic interior whitened by three decades of abandonment in the United Artists Theatre in Detroit. We were concerned about the success of our long exposures with our respective 35mm devices fitted onto frail tripods. This was our first foray into a movie theater, and our fascination with these venues was born there.”
Returning to Paris, and galvanized by their visit, they began to search in earnest for what they had come to call “cathedrals of cinema” in other towns in the United States. Then, in October 2006, they traveled back to the US to scout other movie theaters around New York, returning to Detroit equipped with a view camera. “Upon arrival,” they note, “we were helped by the inexhaustible Orlando Lopes, former projectionist, local director of the Theatre Historical Society of America, and a true living history of these forgotten venues.”
By hook or by crook, they managed to wrangle their way into specimens they were determined to photograph: one, the abandoned Proctor’s Theatre in Newark, which they were allowed to enter through the back door. “Climbing the steps of the vertiginous balcony, we were captivated and overwhelmed by the scale of the site,” they explain, “and the discovery of the delicate handling of the 4×5 view camera and its uncertainties.” It was by way of a gleaming furniture store in a Jewish section of south Brooklyn that they were able to gain access to the Loew’s 46th Street Theatre, as the company’s storage was located in its decaying auditorium.
“For us, used to visiting totally empty buildings, there was something incongruous in this state of in‐between — the dust of abandonment and the atmospheric‐style interiors with an air of Mediterranean garden — alongside life as it pursued its course,” they write. “The effect was even more striking the next day, when visiting the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn with its glossy basketball court in a monumental neo‐Baroque and outrageous setting.” The authors take a look back to the heyday of the film industry when large-scale interiors were meant to “charm the millions of spectators and ‘create the psychological conditions of dream and travel.’” This resulted in theaters with seductive, eclectic décors inspired by the great European opera houses and theaters—such a departure from the black caverns we are now accustomed to visiting. They quote Marcus Loew, the founder of Loew’s Theatres and of MGM, as declaring, “I don’t sell tickets to movies, I sell tickets to theaters.”
Their journey is so commandingly illustrated by the photography they produced, nearly 300 pages of it, that we highly recommend this book as a gem to display, coffee table or no. Ross Melnick’s introduction is a great read. It opens with this look back to a tremendous film: “Toward the end of Cinema Paradiso (1988), director Giuseppe Tornatore’s love letter to moviegoing and movie theaters, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita returns to his (fictional) hometown of Giancaldo, Italy, for the funeral of Alfredo, the former projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso. Alfredo’s death coincides with the imminent demolition of the movie house after years of audience and civic neglect. Toto is granted one last chance to walk inside the cinema’s cobwebbed ruins and, accompanied by Enrico Morricone’s haunting score, Toto briefly recalls the sounds of the audiences that once crammed into the Paradiso. The wolf whistles, the cheers, the electricity of the crowd, they all rise in a crescendo, and then, like the many theaters captured by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s beautiful photography, the Paradiso is silenced…” Just as so many are left abandoned and mute here in America.