They are among the few places in American public life still exalted enough to be referred to as "palaces."
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, OAKLAND
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 THEATHER
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 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 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.
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.
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.
When Jimmy Stewart and the other stars of Cheyenne Autumn (the last western John Ford ever made) showed up for the world premiere at the Lincoln in 1964, the city of Cheyenne built a bridge into the theater, presumably so Ricardo Montalban's feet and Carroll Baker's mink stole would never have to touch the ground. The town needn' t have bothered. Passing under the great neon prow of this sumptuous art deco theater's marquee—flanked by murals of Rhett and Scarlett on one side, Dorothy and the Scarecrow on the other—still leaves audiences several feet off the ground. 1615 Central Ave., Cheyenne, Wyo., (307) 637-7469.
THE PARAMOUNT THEATER, DENVER
Its vaulted sunburst ceiling and dramatic gold-leaf walls erupt in cut-glass chandeliers that shimmer like a Denver snowstorm. But the real thunderclap here comes from the mighty twin-console Wurlitzer, whose more than 1,600 pipes once created sound effects such as horses' hooves and pounding surf for silent films—a Jazz Age version of Dolby that was rivaled only by its sister organ at Radio City Music Hall. Designed in 1930 for the then-dominant Publix Theatres chain, the 1,950-seat showplace gathers together a gilt-edged tossed salad of design elements from around the world, including Egyptian lights, Italian marble, and Aztec figures. The theater's dramatic exterior is made of precast concrete set off by glazed terra-cotta moldings. Inside, silk murals of classic commedia dell' arte figures give the vast interior a grandeur almost as great as the movies shown there. 1621 Glenarm Pl., Denver, (303) 623-0106, www.paramountdenver.com .
In 1931, with the Great Depression's breadlines snaking through Anaconda, the opening of a glittering showplace felt uncomfortably like Versailles with a concession stand, so much so that the theater remained closed for five years. Hand-carved rams line the ceiling, under a painted dome illustrating civilization's (and the town's) dependence on copper. The mines are mostly quiet now, but there's a show every night at the Washoe. Some things are worth the wait. 305 Main St., Anaconda, Mont., (406) 563-6161.
He ran a Wild West show, operated theaters on the vaudeville circuit, and was old enough to be Edna Wilma's father. She was the younger of the singing Wilma Sisters and was shrewd enough when she met William Simons to know that he was the impresario for her. In 1921, Simons built a 1,400-seat theater in Missoula, Mont., filled it with crystal chandeliers, and named it for his young bride. In the basement, he installed a swimming pool called the Crystal Plunge. The pool closed long ago, but in one of the downstairs theaters, couples can still take the real crystal plunge into wedlock. 131 S. Higgins Ave., Missoula, Mont., (406) 728-2521.
Photography by Glenn Oakley
This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.