Preserving Theatres

Last weekend BC and I went to see “The King’s Speech” at the Prospect Pavilion theatre, down the street from our apartment. This was a bit nerve racking because it’s been rumored to have bed bugs and generally at least 20% of the seats are falling apart in some way, shape or form.

When I first moved to this neighborhood, the Pavilion still had the second floor lounge area which included a coffee bar (I love it when hot drinks are available at movies – instant ski chalet feel), but it’s been a steady decline over the years. The theatre first opened in the 1920’s and it’s a shame it hasn’t been brought back to life – there’s definitely potential.

As it turns out, America’s original stage and movie theatres are a dying breed. Just check out the number of closed/demolished properties on this list on Cinema Treasures, a website devoted to movie theatre preservation and awareness.

Images of
The Victory Theatre in Holyoke, MA via The Kingston Lounge

Recently, The Kingston Lounge (a blog which provides a feast of amazing abandoned old buildings) featured the gorgeous Victory Theatre in Holyoke, MA. It’s almost painful to look at these pictures, there’s so much original beauty that was just left for ruin. Fortunately, it was purchased by the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, and is scheduled to be restored and reopened in 2012.

It’s nice to hear of these types of preservation success stories. Take for instance, The Colonial Theatre located in Pittsfield, MA. The theatre opened in 1903 and welcomed many stars of the vaudeville era, including the Barrymores and the Ziegfield Follies.

Images of the Colonial Theatre via The Colonial

It closed in 1934 due to the Depression, but opened again in 1937 this time as a movie house. In the 1950’s it was sold to a couple who used it as a retail store front. A drop ceiling was added to conceal, which subsequently preserved, the architectural details of the balcony.

In the late 90’s a local community group helped to bring attention to the theatre and it became recognized as a National Historic Treasure. After many years of fundraising the restoration process began in 2003 and the theatre reopened to the public in 2006.

What a journey The Colonial Theatre has had! It’s current thriving existence is certainly due to a very persistent community.

There’s a battle in LA over the fate of the The Fairfax Theater. The developer who owns it wants to turn it into condos and claims there’s no historical value left to the building. However, preservationists argue that art deco elements still exist and that it would be demolition through neglect.

I think that, just like with anything else, when a building loses it’s original purpose, it should be preserved by being repurposed. It may be idealistic to think that every old movie house can remain a movie house. But developers must be savvy and creative enough to think of alternate uses that don’t compromise the historic integrity of the property.

The Bethesda Theatre in Maryland, a 1930’s building which was restored and reopened in 2007 (apartments built above) but closed again in 2010 due to the owners mortgage default.

So who’s working on behalf of the theatres? It seems like the biggest impact is made through the efforts of local organizations like Friend of the Boyd, working to save the Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia. And national organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US or The Theatres Trust in the UK.

One of my fondest childhood memories was going to Sunday matinees with my mother. We usually sat in the balcony which provided plenty of opportunity for people-watching and relishing in the the splendor of the Belk Theatre, which had recently undergone a renovation in the early 90’s. I don’t know where i’ll be living by the time I have children, but I do know that I’ll instill in my children the importance of arts and the value of America’s historic theatres.


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