Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two more old theaters (and one new one)

It's two hours past midnight and I can't stop thinking about theaters. there something wrong with me? Probably. Anyway, I know I just posted about theaters, but I don't think I can sleep until I unload a little bit.

We took a small-highway exploration drive back from Fort Smith last weekend, both to avoid the monotony of the interstate, and to scour some small towns for ghost signs. But I also found things like this!

The Savage theater (what an awesome name) in Booneville is one of the more recent of the theaters we've talked about, having opened in 1947 with a movie called Suddenly in Spring. The facade could use a paint job, and the plastic letters in the marquee look like they haven't been changed since 1947, but the Savage otherwise is a pretty nice piece. It evidently still shows movies on weekends, too.

The Strand lies in the faraway world of Rockland, Maine. You can always tell the older small theaters by their entirely-brick structure, sometimes with retail spaces sandwiching the main entrance. The Strand was built in 1923. Here's a postcard from the official site from its good ol' days:

Not much has changed! The theater remained in full operation right up until 2000, even having its balcony renovated to make way for a second screen. Then, some nearby multiplex bought it. Did they use their power to restore the building, bringing about a new genesis for the 87-year-old venue? No. They just closed it. Did I say something about being positive about the 21st century? I'm taking it back now.

But fortunately this story has a happy ending. The theater was bought in 2004 by a local admirer, who managed to get it restored and reopened by 2005. The reopening was celebrated by a block party and a showing of Buster Keaton's The General. Admission was priced at 25 cents, harking back to a more awesome time. Maine: the way life should be. It's true.

Next, here's a New Theatre for you.

You don't see it? Take a closer look.

Whoa! That is a ghost of a ghost sign. So yes; I lied. The New Theatre, located in downtown Fort Smith, Arkansas, is actually the oldest theater in this post, having opened in 1911 as a Vaudeville stage. The first inkling I got of this lost treasure was from this remarkable facade:

The (marble, I believe) title above the awning reads "Sparks, 1922." On the right and left of the awning are two retail spaces, now used for a small cafe and a used book store, respectively. Under the awning is this art deco door:

The lady in the bookstore kindly informed me that this door was once an entrance to the New Theatre, which she referred to as the "Old Malco Theater." The New was bought by the Malco company in the 40s and was then switched to an entirely movie-centric venue. Around the corner is what I believe to be the original entrance.

The 1911 date coincides with the same year the New was built, and shares an architect with the bookstore's facade ("Sparks," who I know nothing about). Some of the concrete blocks making up the sides of the facade are chipped and missing like teeth. Whatever decorative entrance used to be under the grand arch is now covered with plywood and modern steel doors, and Christmas lights adorn the covering. Two great rusted chains, which might have once supported a marquee, now dangle pointlessly. And take a look at the gargoyle-esque head in the middle of the arch:

Click to enlarge; somewhere down the line he seems to have partially swallowed a wasp nest.

When we peered through the windows at street level, we could see tremendous, vaulted ceilings and decaying areas which obviously once held chandeliers. Mold and rot had built up everywhere. On my new favorite site I was able to find a picture of the interior of the New Theatre:

It's a small image, but still. Good Lord. I am informed that a then-relatively-unknown Al Jolson performed here once upon a time.

As the pictures might tell you, the tale of the New Theatre does not have a happy ending like that of the Strand. It's a gigantic and painstakingly beautiful product of a time when our entertainment spaces were just as amazing as the entertainment itself. And it's been left here, deserted, to decompose since 1980. Is it funny, that we travel to places like Paris and London for their meticulously preserved streets and buildings, when we used to have the same things? We've just let asphalt and Alzheimer's pave them over. But I guess it's time to lay the New Theatre, disdain for progress, and myself to rest. Perhaps someday I'll come to forgive my culture for being too eager for its own good. But that day is not today.


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