Saturday, February 28, 2009

Return to the Movie Palace

El Paso, Texas - Imagine entering a large auditorium, the lights are low. You sink down into one of the thousands of plush red velvet seats and have a clear view of the large heavily draped stage. As you look to the ceiling you notice clouds drifting across the deep blue ceiling, white billowy clouds. Just then your attention is taken by the sound of organ pipes. You look to the stage and see a huge multi-keyed organ rising slowly with the music. The lights go dark, except for a spotlight on the organ and player. The music stops abruptly. The spotlight goes out; the room goes black, except for hundreds, or maybe thousands of tiny star lights twinkling from the previously blue, clouded sky above. Suddenly the entire front of the theatre bursts into light as the feature presentation begins.

As I toured the Historic Plaza Theatre in El Paso, Texas recently I was struck by the ornate architecture, the use of innovative "atmospherics", like the clouds drifting across the ceiling, the number of trees and bushes placed on balconies around the theatre, and the sheer size of the auditorium. I was no longer in Kansas and this wasn't one of the small look alike McMovie theaters jammed 24 onto a mall parking lot. No, this is the way it used to be, for our parents and grandparents, every time they went to the movies.

The Plaza is one of hundreds of revival type theaters across the country that have been renovated over the years and returned to their former glory, if not box office sales. The styles are from the 1920's, 30's and 40's and there is no comparing these palaces, that make every night seem like Oscar night on the red carpet, to what we have settled for in today's movie attendance. The theaters of this period where designed in Art Deco, Italian Renaissance, Spanish Revival and other artistic styles to create a fantasy environment to attract moviegoers. Today they are often used for plays, concerts and the occasional special release films.

Many of these luxury theaters were built during our country's worst economic time, the Great Depression. The Plaza opened in 1930 and was known as the "showplace of the Southwest." It was the largest theater of its kind between Dallas and Los Angeles. Even after nearly 80 years just touring the theatre is a memorable experience. Imagine fifty years from now how long a tour would last of one our current movie theaters.

The restoration of the single screen theaters seems to follow a pattern of community involvement over several years. For the Plaza it was in 1986 that plans were made to demolish the building. The community came together and within six weeks, with the help of actress Rita Moreno, raised one million dollars to save the building from the wrecking ball. Thirty-eight million dollars and seventeen years later the Hisoric Plaza Theatre reopened to a sold out crowd for the stage performance Riverdance. The theater has tours every Tuesday throughout the year and is open for limited engagement plays and special performances.

One of the many successful fund raising techniques used in the Plaza restoration, and other historical building renovations, is to name a part of the theater after a key sponsor. The performance hall of the Historic Plaza Theatre is named in memory of Kendle Elizabeth Kidd by her parents, Sharon and Dr. Joe Kidd. A beautiful portrait of Kendle is displayed over the staircase leading up to the balconies. One of the more unusually shaped lobbies is named after Glyn and Karl O. Wyler, Sr. , donors to the El Paso Community Foundation. Their wish was to see the Plaza Theatre re-opened to the public. Throughout the theatre are portraits and names of other prominent donors who were instrumental in raising the needed funds to keep this historic theater open.

Radio City Music Hall in New York, opened in 1932, is the largest and most famous of the movie palaces built in the United States. It held more than twice as many people as the Plaza with 5,960 seats. The backers of Radio City saw the theater as a symbol of the motion picture industry's resiliency during a time of economic depression. Like the Plaza, Radio City Music Hall's popularity as a movie venue waned and plans were made in the 70's to redesign the area into offices. Preservationists, community and commercial interests led to a major renovation that had the building re-opened in 1980. Nineteen years later a major interior renovation project led to a $70 million dollar restoration. Today the Music Hall hosts concerts, stage plays, the annual Christmas Spectacular and other venues to great success.

Perhaps it is time for us to return to some of the simple pleasures of being treated like royalty when we go on a date or take the family out for an evening. Look for one of these historical movie palaces next time your planning an outing and give them the support needed to keep them open.

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