In 2005, French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre flew to Detroit, Michigan, to document what they called “the ruins and the archetypal buildings of a modern American city.” When they came upon its vacant United Artist Theatre Building, an 18-story brick high-rise built in 1928 as a first-run movie theater and office buildings, they were overcome. “Just discovering this type of movie palace in such a state of ruin—with light pouring in through a hole in the roof and highlighting its Spanish-Gothic décor—was really moving to us," say the photographers in a phone interview. "It felt like being in a temple.”
With the help of CinemaTreasures.org, a website devoted to movie theaters worldwide, and the Theatre Historical Society of America (THSA), Marchand and Meffre discovered thousands of early 20th century theaters across the U.S. and Canada, their demise spurred by the 1950s arrival of television and all in various states of disrepair. They then spent the next 15 years photographing them. Their new book, Movie Theaters, features images of about 220 of these theaters, with both interior and exterior shots of many of them.
“We were very surprised at the sheer amount of theaters, and the detail and eclecticism put into many of them,” say Marchand and Meffre. “It was an architecture designed to seduce a new audience, and to make you feel really special when you were there.” But the duo was also quite shocked at how many of these theaters had been forgotten. Some had been turned into parking garages, others diamond wholesalers and building supply businesses. “We’d wander into what’s now a supermarket and ask for the manager, and if we were lucky they’d let us explore upstairs. There, we might discover this pristine theater that’s been sitting untouched for 50 or 60 years, just being used as storage space. It was quite an exciting process,” they add.
While some of these former theaters are still awaiting the plans and the money to rejuvenate them, others are living out encore careers as churches, fitness centers, and even a distillery.
Here are eight of our favorite picks from Movie Theaters that have taken on new life since their cinema days.
Smyrna Theatre; Smyrna, Delaware
“After the Great Depression there was really no money left to invest in grand movie palaces,” say Marchand and Meffre, “so the trend was in smaller, simpler theaters that were more Streamlined Moderne.”
This was the case with Delaware’s Smyrna Theatre, a first-run, single screen theater that opened its doors in 1948. With only 600 seats—including a small balcony reserved for the theater’s black patrons, which was common at the time—and a relatively plain brick exterior, the Smyrna helped bridge the gap between America’s grand movie palaces of the 1920s and ‘30s, and the multiplex theaters that became increasingly popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
After nearly a 30-year-run, the Smyrna ceased its day-to-day operations as a movie theater and new owners converted the space into a plumbing and heating supply shop. In the process, they cleared out some of the former theater’s most notable props and decor, including its projector and the murals that hung on either side of the proscenium, or the arch separating the screen from the auditorium.
Thankfully, when Mike Rasmuseen and Ron Gomes, Jr., took over the property in the mid-2010s for use as a small-batch distillery, “They were really conscious about the fact that it's a historic theater and that they should preserve what was left,” say Marchand and Meffre. This included the theater’s original stage, which is where Painted Stave Distilling now keeps its bottling line and quality control lab, as well its painted fresco ceiling—both of which you can see on public tours of the distillery. Tastings of Painted Stave’s gin, vodka and whiskey take place in the theater’s old lobby, while the upper floors—including the former projection room—serve as offices.
Alhambra Theatre; San Francisco, California
Anyone who has stepped inside San Francisco’s Castro Theatre will recognize the same extravagant display of worldly influences still evident on the walls of the city’s former Alhambra Theatre. Prominent local architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the mastermind behind both venues, designed this 1,625-seat single-screen movie palace, which opened in 1926, alongside business partner, James Rupert Miller. Together, the two aspired to draw audiences with an array of elaborate decor, including towering Moorish arches, starburst ceiling artwork and large Asian-style urns.
For years, the pair’s plan worked, and crowds poured in. However, with the overall demise of cinema, the Alhambra’s owners converted the space into twin theaters in 1976, hoping to turn a profit. It later reopened as a single-screen, before finally concluding its movie house run in 1997. Now it’s home to a Crunch Fitness. “Gyms and fitness centers are one of the most common kinds of theater reuse,” Marchand and Meffre say. “Maybe second only to churches.”
When you think about it, reuse as a gym isn’t a bad idea. In the former Alhambra, patrons can work out in front of a still-operating screen that occasionally plays films, and utilize cardio machines in a balcony overlooking the remnants of a still colorfully ornate auditorium. In fact, most of the theater’s original detailing remains.
“There were many theaters throughout the general U.S. that had this kind of beauty,” say Meffre and Marchand. “But in many cases, their most defining features were removed in the 1950s and ‘60s because they weren’t considered modern enough for the time. The singularity of those buildings have now basically been erased from the American landscape. This is one that has clearly survived, and it’s beautiful.”
Plains Theatre; Roswell, New Mexico
The 1,030-seat, single-screen Plains Theatre opened in Roswell in 1946, just a year before the most infamous incident in local history. It’s one of the reasons that Marchand and Meffre drove over 300 miles from Texas to photograph this particular space.
In 1947, what many believe to be a “flying saucer” crash landed on a ranch just outside Roswell. While the U.S. government claimed it was a high-altitude Army Air Force balloon, conspiracy theorists maintain that their statement was a cover-up, and that the military actually recovered extraterrestrial life-forms from the crash site. Whatever the case, details of the “Roswell UFO Incident” are now on full-display at the International UFO Museum and Research Center currently occupying the former Plains Theatre.
Designed by prominent Southwest movie theater and drive-in architect Jack Corgan, the Plains served as Roswell’s main movie house for decades. With its Streamline Moderne marquee and spacious auditorium, the theater attracted patrons in droves. But when general interest switched from movie theaters to television, the Plains turned to Spanish-language films to make ends meet. Then, in 1991, self-proclaimed Roswell Incident witness Glenn Dennis took over the building, converting it into the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Like the theater before it, this nonprofit museum has since become one of the city’s top attractions.
“Just looking at the facade,” say Marchand and Meffre, “you can see the whole story of this place. This particular reuse [as a UFO museum] belongs to the same world of mythology and imagination as movies, and for what the building was originally intended. We liked that all of this is summarized within one theater.”
Webb Theatre; Gastonia, North Carolina
Gastonia architect Hugh Edward White designed the 826-seat, single-screen Webb Theatre in 1927, and this Moderne-style movie house showcased films until 1951, when the city purchased it for use as retail and storage. Thankfully, Gastonia kept the bulk of the space’s interior features—including both its embossed plasterwork and balcony—intact.
Still, it wasn’t until 2015 that restaurateur Jim Morasso took over the spot, transforming it into Webb Custom Kitchen, a high-end restaurant where plates of aged cowboy ribeyes and pan-seared Chilean sea bass go hand-in-hand with movie magic. Morasso painstakingly restored some of the theater’s original details, such as the proscenium and a small, moldedSphinx head that overlooks it, both of which had been painted over, himself, and had the overall decor repainted in shades of gold and silver, reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The kitchen now sits in what was the theater’s orchestra pit, and black-and-white films play on the theater’s actual screen.
“This is probably one of the best [movie theater] reuses we've seen,” say Meffre and Marchand. “The readaptation is very well-done, and it gives you a bit of optimism, because the bulk of the theaters that we visited are decayed. It's really hard to bring a theater back to life, then to be able to maintain it and to keep it open with a whole new use,” they say, as the restaurant has done. The photographers even sat down to enjoy the full dinner-and-a-show experience.
Runnymede Theatre; Toronto, Ontario
What began as a venue for vaudeville stage shows and silent films now attracts shoppers in search of Lancôme skin care and bottles of Chanel N°5 eau de parfum.
Architect Alfred Chapman designed the 1,550-seat theater as an “atmospheric theater,” say Marchand and Meffre. “It’s a style of theater that’s meant to feel open-air. The ceiling is painted to look like a sky, as though you’re outdoors.”
Opened in 1927, the “Runny” has undergone several reuses since its heyday, including a run as a bingo hall in the 1970s, a multiplex movie theater in the ‘80s, and a bookstore in the early 2000s. Since 2015, the space has been home to a Shoppers Drug Mart, a well-known Canadian pharmacy chain. It still features many of its original elements, including a glass-front ticket booth, an ornamental front panel on the building’s exterior, and even a “Runnymede” sign over the stage, where the store displays some of its beauty products.
“It was interesting to see this sort of ‘blingness’ within this place of movie history,” say Marchand and Meffre. “While it’s nice to see people using the space, you can feel a sense of distance between its life as a theater and this world of consumerism.”
Loma Theatre; San Diego, California
“This theater is interesting in that it was done by one of the most prominent theater architects on the West Coast,” say Meffre and Marchand. They’re talking about S. Charles Lee, who designed everything from LA’s terra-cotta Tower Theatre (now home to an Apple store) to Hollywood’s historic Max Factor Building, which currently houses the Hollywood Museum.
Opened in 1945, the Loma was a Streamline Moderne single-screen (“Like the Smyrna Theatre in Delaware,” say Marchand and Meffre, “but much fancier”) that operated as a movie house until 1987. The building was later on the verge of demolition when then-Barnes & Noble subsidiary Bookstar stepped in to save it, transforming it into a bookstore in 1989.
Although the theater’s 1,188 seats are long gone, its former screen is said to be intact, and the one-time snack bar is now the store’s checkout counter. Even the theater’s stunning exterior signage—including the marquee and a neon blade sign that spells out “LOMA”—remains.
“[When the Loma was built] it was obvious that cars would be taking over the landscape,” say Marchand and Meffre, “so this theater was the configuration of the future mall, basically, with a grand marquee that you can see from quite a distance and all these parking spaces all around it, like its own small complex. It’s also a really great place to shop, because you can see that the building has a whole other history from the one you’re experiencing.”
Rivoli Theatre; Berkeley, California
With its ornately painted ceiling and molded wall pillars reminiscent of some far-off exotic locale, it’s evident that Berkeley’s 1,402-seat Rivoli Theatre was a movie palace built to impress. The single-screen theater opened in 1926 as part of the Golden State Theatre and Realty Corporation, which owned dozens of San Francisco Bay Area theaters over the years. But while it closed as a theater in the 1950s, the Rivoli’s aforementioned features remain on display—thanks to the building’s current use as a 99¢ Only Store.
“This one is both impressive and a little bit depressing,” say Marchand and Meffre, “because here was a place that people would go to fantasize and imagine another life, and now you’ve got the banality of groceries displayed there. We got this same mixed feeling from all the theaters-turned-supermarkets we visited.”
To be fair, say the photographers, the current owners did remove a suspended ceiling that others had constructed after the theater closed, and which was blocking the original intricately painted masterpiece from view. “A clever move on their part,” they say, “to now have this spectacular ceiling on full display above a supermarket.”
Marchand and Meffre also point out a small image in the back of their own: a reprint of photographer Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent, which brought in a record-breaking auction price of $3.3 million in 2007. “It's like a very small Easter-egg,” they say, “an ode to consumerism that's a symbol within a symbol.”
Loew's Valencia Theatre; Queens, New York
“Most of the former theaters that have been lucky enough to be reused are reused as churches,” say Marchand and Meffre, “and the Loew's Valencia is probably one of the most beautiful.” Architect John Eberson, who is best known for designing close to 100 atmospheric-style theaters across the U.S. (many of which have sadly been destroyed), created this massive 3,554-seat stunner. Opened in 1929, it was the first of the “Loew’s Wonder Theatres,” five elaborate movie palaces that served as the flagship venues for the Loew’s theater chain and were spread throughout the New York Metropolitan Area, including Brooklyn, Manhattan and Jersey City. They are all still standing today.
The Loew’s Valencia is known for its brick-and-terra-cotta facade, and an extravagantly colorful interior that mixes Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian styles with lions heads (an ode to Loew’s founder, Marcus Loew, who was also the founder of MGM—a movie studio known for its “roaring lion” logo), angelic statues, and—in its auditorium—a painted sky ceiling, unadorned except for tiny star-like lights.
“What we like about this building,” say Meffre and Marchand, “is that it mixes up many design styles to create a new architecture. America is a lot like this. It kind of symbolizes the way the country created a cultural identity by mixing all of these European [and other] influences together, fantasizing a little bit about them, and then constructing a style of their own.”
After the theater closed to movies in 1977, New York’s Tabernacle of Prayer for All People acquired the property and restored its interior, using it as a church ever since.
“Many churches would [and still do] hold their Sunday services in operating theaters, so this kind of reuse makes sense,” Meffre and Marchand say. “Some of those churches [like the Tabernacle of Prayer] were even successful enough to raise money and take over these huge theaters. At some point they were the only community enterprise able to fill these theaters and maintain them.”