Picture Palaces

They are among the few places in American public life still exalted enough to be referred to as "palaces."

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Most of the great movie theaters were built in the 1920s, and their enormous screens and cathedral-like sanctuaries allowed the movies to breathe. Us, too. The multiplex is a kind of choral response to our insatiable appetite for having every need met right now, but plexing is vexing. In a big theater (or "theatre" as most of them spell it, clinging quaintly to their antiquity, as if it were a virtue), the mind can expand and the eye can finally see. We found a range of old movie palaces where it's sometimes difficult to focus on the pictures because the real flights of fantasy are all around you.

   The Paramount Theater

It was one of the last glittering monuments to the fun and excess of the Roaring Twenties. Conceived prior to the 1929 stock market crash and opened as the Great Depression was making opulence feel out of place, the Paramount ranked among the pinnacles of the art deco design movement. Six months after the theater made its debut in 1931, it closed its doors for a year. Today, its Grand Lobby remains one of the most breathtaking eruptions of art deco in the world. The yellow Fountain of Light above the entry way resembles a great waterfall, and San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, who had already built the Castro across the Bay, even made the lounges into minor miracles, placing a treble clef over a mirror in the ladies' room that bears the fanciful musical notes F, A, C, E. There is none more gorgeous than the Paramount. 2025 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 465-6400.

   The Castro Theater

There may be no neighborhood theater in America more striking—or more vibrant a part of the community that it serves—than the Castro. With its bright white exterior dominated by a large mullioned window, it resembles a Mexican cathedral more than a movie house, and to some people its role in the community extends beyond entertainment. "There aren't many places in this city where we gather together," says programming director Anita Monga, "so the Castro is like a secular church in that way." The congregation turns out in costumed flocks (and flocked costumes!) for such events as the Sing-Along Sound of Music and Home for the Holidays with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Renovations this past December gave film buffs even more reason to attend: 800 new, wider seats—with cup holders. Castro St. at Market St., San Francisco, (415) 621-6120.

   The Crest Theater

The grand old dowager of Sacramento has had almost as many names as there are incumbents at the California statehouse nearby. It opened as a vaudeville house called the Empress in 1913, and reopened five years later as the Hippodrome—a name it dropped, literally, when the theater's marquee fell down and killed a pedestrian—before finally settling in as the Crest Theatre in 1949. It suffered through a period of decline in the early '80s before a face-lift in 1995 lavishly restored the post-art deco main auditorium and the fabulous lobby. In the old smoking lounge, a display case holds vintage candy wrappers, a popcorn box carbon-dated back to the Casablanca era, and other now-historic litter. A new marquee in the Crest chain's distinctive leaf-and-swirl pattern has been firmly attached, and, like the theater itself, isn't going anywhere. 1013 K St., Sacramento, (916) 442-7378.

   The Bagdad Theater

The usherettes don't wear tasseled, Arabian-style uniforms at Portland's Bagdad Theater anymore, mostly because, well, there are no usherettes at this "Oasis of Entertainment" anymore. But when you pass beneath the marquee's neon minarets (even before America's difficulties with Iraq, the theater always dropped the "h" in Baghdad), you keep expecting someone to say, "Welcome to the Casbah." The original 1927 stencils on the beamed ceilings and the Spanish-style murals in the lobby were restored in the 1970s. Portland's preservation-oriented McMenamins Company added more polish when the old Bag was converted to a "theater pub" in 1991. A bar serves up McMenamins' signature microbrews, and a waiter will deliver a pizza to your table while the movie is playing. 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, (503) 225-5555 ext. 8830.

   The Egyptians

The search for King Tut's tomb inspired such a fascination with Egyptology in this country that, in 1922, Hollywood showman Sid Grauman chose a pharaoh's tomb as the model for the first great temple to the movies. The Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard had an open courtyard lined with hieroglyphics, a tiled fountain, and a colonnade of palm trees that today still draws visitors toward four massive Egyptian columns. (Grauman rolled out a red carpet and used the forecourt to assemble photographers and the stars of new pictures, thus inventing the modern movie premiere.) Tutmania also swept through such surprising redoubts as Ogden, Utah, where Peery's Egyptian remains a venerable movie house; Boise, Idaho, where an Egyptian has been in business since 1927; and Coos Bay, Ore., where locals have a love of movies that's quite uncommon, or, rather, Tutankhamen.

The Egyptian, 700 W. Main St., Boise, Idaho, (208) 345-0454.Peery's Egyptian, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden, Utah, (801) 395-3227.
The Egyptian, 229 S. Broadway, Coos Bay, Ore., (541) 267-3456.
The Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, Calif., (323) 466-3456.

   Grauman's Chinese Theater

The Chinese philosopher sits in imperial repose above the big screen, as he has for 75 years. Perched on the proscenium, this imposing figure watches over the 1,162 seats that flow blood red beneath a seething ring of dragons. In the lobby, painted panels depict life in China as it was imagined in 1927 by Sid Grauman, founder of a theater dynasty more Bing than Ming. Entering one of his theaters means "leaving the world of reality behind and entering the world of make-believe," wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1933. Outside, dragons writhe across its pagoda-style entrance, and the forecourt is a ready reminder that giants once walked here. 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-8111.

   Seattle Cinerama

She was big. "It's the pictures that got small," Norma Desmond declaimed in the 1950 drama Sunset Boulevard. Two years later, Hollywood struck back, introducing the Cinerama movie screen, which made the pictures so big they nearly swallowed audiences whole. Hundreds were built, but when the format died, so did the theaters—except one. The Seattle Cinerama has lurid red mohair seats and hundreds of twinkling fiber-optic lights. But what makes it matter are the 96-foot-wide screen and three original Cinerama projectors salvaged from Lima, Peru. Wide-screen spectaculars like How the West Was Won make your peripheral vision ache with pleasure. 2100 Fourth Ave., Seattle, (206) 441-3080.

The way we watched, by Peter Crooks

As a wide-eyed 4-year-old in the early 1970s, I sat in the back of the family station wagon at a drive-in theater, trying to comprehend the epic tragedy of Bambi. Today my recollection of the film's pyro-spectacular finale is foggy at best, but the thrill of sitting on a vinyl bench seat and watching a movie is vivid.

I owe the memory to Richard Hollingshead, an automobile parts salesman who patented his idea of projecting films outdoors and using a large bullhorn to amplify the sound track. He opened the first drive-in theater in June 1933 in Camden, N.J. Within 10 years, there were about a hundred drive-ins across the United States, a number that increased to over 800 by 1948, as soldiers came home from World War II and RCA introduced in-car speakers for an enhanced sonic experience.

The baby boom kicked the drive-in culture into high gear—there were more than 4,000 such theaters by 1958. Outdoor cinemas (or "passion pits" as the kids called them) joined carhops and Route 66 as hallmarks of the autocentric era. Screens in the 1950s glowed with atomic-age monsters, blobs, and body snatchers. The '60s offered swingin' beach parties, motorcycle movies, and gloriously graphic freak fests like Night of the Living Dead.

All the while the parking lots were crammed full of station wagons with sleepy children (and sometimes the family dog), and car windows were steamed from the breathless gropings of teenage sweethearts. Most often, the film-as-art experience finished a distant second to the fun, fun, fun factor. Which needn't diminish the drive-in's importance to the evolution of American cinema. Acclaimed directors Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13) and Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) launched their stellar careers with on-the-cheap features for B movie producer Roger Corman. And no one can be more thankful for the medium than Ron Howard, who shed his child-star skin by directing Grand Theft Auto, a successful low-budget car chase flick produced specifically for drive-in distribution. An opus from Opie.

Alas, the 1970s and '80s, which brought special effects blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, and their sequels, were not kind to the drive-ins. The theater where I was bedazzled by Bambi is now a strip mall offering office supplies, DVD rentals, and a mighty multiplex with state-of-the-art sound, stadium-style seating, and 16 screens. Late nights munching popcorn in the comfort of a backseat have given way to commercial real estate pressures and cozy home entertainment systems. In all, there remain only about 400 active drive-ins in the United States, with 27 in California, five in Utah, and two in Nevada.

Sadly, my family drove away after just a few minutes of Bambi's second feature, Superdad, a lamebrained comedy starring Bob Crane (of Hogan's Heroes fame), due to my own father's distaste for the screwball genre. In hindsight, I didn't miss a cinematic classic, just two more hours in the wondrous vastness of a parking lot, staring at an outdoor screen that seemed to touch the stars.

Web sites like www.drive-ins.com and www.driveintheater.comkeep an electronic vigil for remaining drive-ins, including the Skyview in Santa Cruz, Calif., where Boardwalk crowds flock for summer blockbusters, and the Best Western Movie Manor in Monte Vista, Colo., a drive-in theater-motel that pipes the movie's sound track into 54 rooms.

Photography by Glenn Oakley

This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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