The Best Ree-maining Seats

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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon had nothing on our balcony …” This flourish from the opening fanfare of a Midwest movie palace sometime around 1928 posed interesting questions. Was it Twenty Degrees Cooler inside the Hanging Gardens? Were they tended by platoons of dragoons armed with flashlights and smelling salts? Was there a Mighty Wurlitzer to soothe the savage breast? Did stars twinkle reassuringly, and clouds drift lazily overhead no matter what the weather did outside?

The Hanging Gardens hang no more … and, alas, the movie palaces are just hanging on. Parking lots, supermarkets, garages, and bowling alleys now mark the sites of the once-proud Grands, Strands, Rivolis, Tivolis, and Rialtos. The dwindling number that still open their doors are finding the going tough, and only in the largest cities do they operate on anything like a palatial scale.

Nearly all the movie palaces were built within the span of a single decade. Like many another fondly recalled institution of the period—mah-jongg, rumble seats, home brew, and doo-wack-a-doo—the deluxe motion-picture theater brought an element of sorely needed make-believe into the disturbing era that began with Prohibition and ended with the Depression.

It could only have happened then.

The twenties were a time of great extremes—extremes in wealth and poverty, culture and vulgarity, ambition and what-the-hell. The massive leveling processes of the thirties had not yet begun to bulldoze away the social and economic differences that set people apart. The bastions of Society were still unsealed by the masses: a name like Vanderbilt meant a Fifth Avenue mansion, not an etiquette book.

The urge to see how the other hall lived was somehow much stronger on the part of hoi polloi (Jacob Riis notwithstanding) than of the haut monde. Everywhere there was a thirsty curiosity about the lives of the rich and the surroundings those lives were lived in. Hollywood knew this, and rags-to-riches was filmdom’s bread and butter.

In the decades before the twenties, the movies began to create their own glamorous climate, and smart exhibitors sought to capitalize on it. Audiences grew bigger as movies became more pretentious. And theaters, with their peep-show days scarcely ten years behind them, were growing in sophistication with their audiences. Films were Art, and the theaters strove to keep pace with each new celluloid extravagance. Already, in the cities, the finest legitimate houses were being equipped with hastily built projection booths atop their precipitous galleries; in towns and villages, opera houses and grange halls were hanging picture sheets behind their roll-up curtains. The movies were big business, and the business was getting bigger every day.

The time was ripe, then, for the Golden Age of the Movie Palace. Showmen, inspired by booming attendance, soon started to build theaters designed specially for films—spacious cloud castles with wide, sweeping balconies and comfortable seats. And ventilation. Here anyone with a little loose change might dwell in marble halls for a couple of magic hours. And the keener the competition, the more marble the halls became; exhibitors vied for audiences with the energy and enthusiasm of peacocks in a mating dance. Façades were emblazoned with electric signs six stories high, with colored lights racing around their ornate borders; in summer entire theater fronts were frosted over like the ice compartments of neglected Frigidaires, to tout the arctic chill within. If the Majestic hired a giant in a gendarme’s uniform to guard the box office, the Imperial promptly dressed a midget as a Keystone Kop to patrol the foyer, and the doorman at the Palace joined the Foreign Legion.

Movie-goers loved it. After all, it was for them that this gaudy, outrageous, and lovely world existed, and they thoroughly enjoyed being spoiled by indulgent entrepreneurs. Ladies from cold-water flats could drop in at the movie palace after a tough day in the bargain basements and become queens to command. Budgets and bunions were forgotten as noses were powdered in boîtes de poudre worthy of Madame Pompadour. From a telephone booth disguised as a sedan chair, Mama could call home to say she’d be a little late and don’t let the stew boil over.

For Mama, another world lay beyond the solid bronze box office where the marcelled blonde sat (beside the rose in the bud vase) and zipped out tickets, made change, read Photoplay, and buffed her nails —without interrupting her telephone conversation. Heaven only knew what exotic promise waited behind the velvet ropes in the lobby, what ecstasy was to be tasted in the perfumed half-darkness of the loges.