Best Vintage Movie Theaters
In the 1920s—back when people dressed up to see the latest Hollywood feature—movie palaces resembled cathedrals. They lured moviegoers with polished-marble foyers, ceilings glowing with tiny starlike lights, hand-painted murals, costumed ushers, and—the pièce de résistance—dramas unfolding on the screen like a cast spell.
Unfortunately, many of the world’s grandest movie palaces have gone the way of silent films—nobody’s making them anymore, and very few have survived in the era of TiVo and Netflix. Luckily, though, there are still a few operating vintage movie houses scattered around the globe—some in some very unlikely places.
Many still-in-business movie palaces have stayed competitive by keeping their vintage eye-candy interiors but adopting today’s must-have technology (including digital surround-sound speakers, gynormous screens, and blizzard-cold air-conditioning). Others have expanded their repertoires to include more than just movies: for example, at Le Grand Rex, a glamorous Mediterranean-themed theater in Paris, film screenings alternate with a calendar of concerts by famed performers (Bob Dylan and Björk among them).
What’s wonderful about old theaters, says Mike McMenamin, co-owner of a handful of palace theaters in the American northwest, is that, as well as giving moviegoers a taste of old-school grandeur, each venue has a unique history. “Often the stories of the theater can eclipse the stories on screen,” he says. At his Bagdad Theater & Pub, in Portland, Oregon, those stories include a lavish 1927 grand opening, where Carl Lamail, then president of Universal Studios, brought a live camel to accompany him on the red carpet.
A battered economy may leave many palace theaters struggling, but it’s worth noting that even in the poorest days of the Great Depression, 60 to 80 million Americans continued going to movies regularly. “At that moment in American cultural history,” says Ross Melnick, cofounder of theater-tracking organization Cinema Treasures, “we viewed entertainment and the news together every week—not five times a year (the current average movie attendance today).”
Founded in 1999, Cinema Treasures has a Web site that lists 23,000 vintage theaters (hundreds demolished, but many still aglow) in more than 175 countries. Melnick’s organization and others like it are fighting to keep palace theaters up and running, but regular ticket buyers are equally—if not more—important. True, a film may look the same at the chain theater down the street, but there’s something about settling into a velveteen seat, in the same place where a generation first laughed at Chaplin’s madcap antics or shed a tear during Casablanca, that gives palace theaters a starring role.
Tuschinski Theater Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Original Debut: Abraham Tuschinski had led a life worthy of its own feature film by the time he opened his theater in 1921. After emigrating from Poland en route to America, the impoverished Jewish tailor was swept up in Amsterdam’s cinema scene and eventually managed to open the grandest theater the city had ever seen (with lavish Art Deco interiors, Moorish side suites, and even a cabaret). Although Tuschinski was subsequently killed during the Nazi regime, his namesake vision lives on.
Now Showing: With 933 seats and 24 private boxes (or “loveseats”), the Tuschinski is the largest cinema in the Netherlands. It has undergone star-worthy renovations in the last few decades—a new carpet was flown in from Morocco to the tune of $100,000; original murals have been restored to glory. Now owned by mega–movie distributor Pathé, it shows the latest films and hosts red-carpet premieres. Lovebirds (or even likebirds) who book a private box are supplied with a bottle of champagne.
The Astor Theater St. Kilda, Australia
Original Debut: Though local residents complained to the press that the new movie theater would be built “too close to churches” and that “such a noisy, showy place of entertainment would detract from the dignity and charm” of the area, the Astor Theater first lifted its curtain to a packed house on April 3, 1936. Its Art Deco interior, with a stepped ceiling and steel chevron-patterned friezes, survives as homage to a glamorous bygone era.
Now Showing: Double features, both new and old, regularly take the stage here—you might catch both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and a sanguine Grace Kelly in Rear Window for less than a ticket to the multiplex. Patrons with a sweet tooth swear by the Astor Choc Ice, a coconut and pecan–topped dark chocolate ice cream made on the premises since 1983.
Grand Cinema Shanghai, China
Original Debut: Unveiled in 1932 by Hungarian architect L. E. Hudec (responsible for more than 60 Shanghai landmarks), Grand Cinema had Art Deco flourishes, a glistening three-tiered roof shaped like a water lily, and—unfortunately for the warm-blooded—no inner cooling system. Despite its showing of first-rate American films, audiences couldn’t bear the heat until 1941, when central air-conditioning was installed.
Now Showing: Grand Cinema reopened just after 2009’s Chinese New Year with a smattering of renovations—most notably a new garden-topped roof, where patrons can pull up a chair at the terrace café with a bird’s-eye view of the People’s Square (a green-swathed space that’s a welcome break from the charcoal-gray city skyline). Not a bad place to discuss the latest blockbuster.
Le Grand Rex Paris, France
Original Debut: When the king of theaters broke ground in 1931, with a whopping 3,300 seats and a John Eberson–designed interior, patrons were dazzled by its potted palm trees, faux Venetian monuments, and a ceiling that shimmered with tiny starlike lights. On its opening night, it seemed everyone in Paris was seated inside—even on-duty nurses and policemen.
Now Showing: Le Grand Rex still shows the latest flicks and film premieres, and some fairly big concerts have been staged here (‘80s icons Morrissey and Grace Jones are both scheduled to perform this coming fall), but you can also catch festivals throughout the year. Every April, the Jules Verne Festival for adventure films makes a stopover here; and in late December there’s the Féerie des Eaux, or “water show,” during which 1,200 jets of water are shot from onstage fountains to celebrate the latest family-friendly film premiere (in 2008, it was Madagascar 2).
Bagdad Theater Portland, Oregon
Original Debut: In 1927, Universal Studios spent $100,000 (big bucks in those days) bankrolling the Bagdad Theater in Portland’s Hawthorne District. It was a lavish ode to the former Ottoman Empire—with intricate Middle Eastern architectural flourishes, a bubbling central fountain, and usherettes in Arabian-style outfits.
Now Showing: Mike and Brian McMenamin, two Oregon-bred brothers with a yen for turning historical buildings into hip hotels and pubs, bought the Bagdad in 1991 and redid it in their own artful way. Though they retained the Alhambra-style Middle Eastern architecture, they upped the ante by adding murals of mythical creatures, gleaming ceilings, mosaics, and seat-front tables where patrons can enjoy a menu of pub fare (the spicy mac ‘n’ cheese is a favorite) along with pints of Bagdad Ale, a lager on tap in the on-site bar.
Centre Cinéma Impérial Montreal, Quebec
Original Debut: Home to a fading vaudeville scene when it opened in 1913, the Imperial became a movie house in 1934 when it was leased to Léo-Ernest Ouimet (owner of the Ouimetoscope, the first movie theater in Canada). The interior was known for its “Greek tragedy” theme, with white marble columns and frescoes of canoodling nymphs and satyrs.
Now Showing: For the past 19 years, the Centre Cinéma Impérial has hosted the annual Montreal World Film Festival, where movies from more than 70 countries are shown every summer (Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs both premiered here; more recently, so did the 2009 Oscar-winning foreign film Departures). The building’s original bones are still intact, but the interiors have been restructured: now the theater has 819 plush red armchairs imported from Europe and top-notch technical equipment including a 12,800-watt, 7-channel sound system (with 60 speakers) and LED sound pickups.
Metro BIG Cinema Mumbai, India
Original Debut: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—the studio behind The Wizard of Oz, Ben-Hur, and the lion that roars before every feature—built the Metro Cinema in 1938. Thomas Lamb designed the building, which had all the accoutrements of stateside versions: a marble Art Deco foyer; murals done by local art students; and pink-and-red-hued floors, walls, and ceilings.
Now Showing: The theater is currently owned by BIG Cinemas, the largest movie theater chain in India (20 million people are expected to watch a film there this year). Known for its Bollywood bent, the building has been updated and remodeled, mostly keeping its 1930s inspiration (though not in the restrooms, where LCD screens flash the latest trailers and film trivia).
Coliseum Theater Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Original Debut: Built in 1921 by Chua Cheng Bok, a Chinese immigrant who’d worked himself to riches in the Malaysian tin mines, the Art Deco–style theater had an interior meant to mimic the design of a Roman coliseum, with 828 seats and an overhanging balcony known as the “first class” section.
Now Showing: Bollywood films are rife here and so well attended that in 2006, when the Malaysian government announced plans to turn the Coliseum Theater into a cultural center, outcry from the public nipped the idea solidly in the bud. According to Sofie Abu, manager of the theater, despite the proliferation of nearby Cineplexes playing Western movies, the Coliseum (which has a lemon-candy stall and a florist shop in its lobby) is still the number one theater in Malaysia.
The Phoenix Cinema London, U.K.
Original Debut: The Art Deco–style, 255-seat Phoenix originally opened as the East Finchley Picturedrome, with the tagline, “the world’s finest picture plays.” It has shown films nonstop ever since, even during WWII, when it was used as a makeshift home for evacuees from coastal towns (among them were 80 schoolchildren, whom county inspectors were aghast to find filling the front rows for a screening of a horror movie).
Now Showing: Owned by a North London charitable trust, the Phoenix shows independent films and the occasional classic (1963’s Le Mépris, featuring Brigitte Bardot, is forthcoming). The concession still serves locally baked lemon-poppyseed cakes; and in-house projectionist Peter Bayley, who’s worked in the theater since 1960, recently received an MBE (Members of the Order of the British Empire) for his service to the film industry.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre Los Angeles, California
Original Debut: In 1927, theater developer Sid Grauman set out to do no less than create the most opulent movie palace the world had ever known. America’s fascination with the Orient led him to adopt a Chinese theme, with authentic temple bells and pagodas imported from the country itself and a 90-foot-high entryway guarded by a giant hand-carved dragon.
Now Showing: Some four million annual visitors still come to pay their respects to the theater’s glitzy Chinese statuary, copper-topped turrets, and infamous Walk of Fame (where Marilyn Monroe’s delicate pump-prints, Brad Pitt’s handprints, and scores of others are preserved in the cement outside). Its iconic status makes it a shoo-in for film premieres (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Wrestler, and Che all had their first showings there).