art deco movie theater world Kearney Nebraska

The Golden Age of Art Deco Movie Theaters

by Michael on January 7, 2013

American Art Deco movie theaters were once the hot item throughout the country. A small town knew it was moving up in the world when a movie theater opened as it quickly became the hub of social life. Their Art Deco design evokes a time when people actually watched movies in theaters, and not on a big screen TV at home or on their cell phone.

Gradually multi-screened megaplexes opened on the outskirts of town where land was cheap and plentiful. The old movie houses with their specialized architecture and construction became white elephants. Many were converted to other uses or demolished.

Illinois Theater Macomb

Illinois Theater,Macomb, IL

However, these things go in cycles and over the last three decades historic movie theaters have become more appreciated. Many have been bought by not-for-profit groups who have renovated them and converted them back into movie houses; some showing independent films while others are able to compete with modern theaters showing the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

A thriving renovated theater is a sure sign that a town will also have many other amenities to offer: from used bookstores to coffee shops to funky retail stores. A town with the vision to renovate, rather than demolish, its historic structures is at the leading edge of creating a better quality of life for its citizens.
Iowa Theater Winterset art deco movie theater sign

Iowa Theater, Winterset, Iowa

It would be a real shame if the town of Winterset could not support its own Iowa Theatre. After all it is the county seat for Madison County of Bridges of Madison County fame; plus the birthplace of John Wayne is just a few blocks away. Although the theater usually presents only one film a week, it does host continuous showings of The Duke’s films during the annual John Wayne Birthday Celebration which takes place in May.

Babcock Theater Billings

Babcock Theater, Billings, Montana

The 750-seat Babcock Theater was built in 1907 and is currently undergoing a renovation by its new owners. Unfortunately I was there a few weeks too early for the Yellowstone Valley Bellydance Festival. But I heard it was a hoot.

detroit theater lakewood ohio

Detroit Theater, Lakewood, Ohio

Oddly enough the Detroit Theatre is not in Detroit but Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. The theater had been thrilling moviegoers since 1923 when it closed a few months after I took this picture. Owner Norman Barr said the two-screen movie house could no longer compete with the amenities of modern theaters.

Orpheum Theater
Orpheum Theatre, Madison, Wisconsin

This former vaudeville theater in Madison has hosted live events as well as first-run movies throughout its 85 year life. Live shows have ranged from Frank Sinatra to Buddy Holly to newer performers such as The New Pornographers as seen in the above marquee. The large vertical sign attached to the facade is an Art Deco touch that is visible throughout the Wisconsin state capital.

State Theater South Bend Indiana

State Theater, South Bend, Indiana

The State Theater in South Bend has witnessed many ups and downs in its ninety year history. In 1934, John Dillinger robbed his last bank just up the street before he was killed a month later while walking out of a theater in Chicago. In 2005 it was purchased by a Christian group but they were unable to turn it into a successful venture. When I visited the marquee said “Casablanca Today Only” on one side and “Jesus Loves You” on the other. The last I heard the theater is closed and being put up for auction once again.

Washoe Theater Anaconda

Washoe Theater, Anaconda, Montana

 

Opened in 1936, the Washoe Theater, along with Radio City Music Hall in New York, were the last American theaters to be built in an Art Deco spinoff known as Nuevo Deco.  Since Anaconda was the company town for the hugely successful mining company of the same name, money was no object when the theater was built.The interior of the Washoe is stunning. So much so that the Smithsonian Institution selected it as the 5th most beautiful theater in America.

Ellen Theater Bozeman Montana art deco

Ellen Theater, Bozeman, Montana

The Ellen opened in 1919 and was the place to see the latest silent films. It was restored in 2008 and now focuses on presenting live theater.

Lincoln Theater Cheyenne

Lincoln Theater, Cheyenne, Wyoming

The Lincoln Theater is a well-known landmark for motorists traveling America’s first coast-to-coast road, the old Lincoln Highway.  The 1950′s Art Deco style cinema still charges only $3 for a ticket.

World Theater Kearney

World Theater, Kearney, Nebraska

At one time Kearney, Nebraska must have been all that. It had not one but two theaters in town. Unfortunately only one is currently showing films. The World Theatre opened in 1930 but closed in 2008. A not-for-profit group has reopened it for weekend screenings of select films.  I like the clever theme for their fundraising campaign, “Save The World.” For more information go to their web site at World Theater.

Fort Theater Kearney
Fort Theatre, Kearney, Nebraska

A few blocks from the World, the Fort Theatre occupies a prominent place on Central Avenue. It was originally built in 1914 in a Classical Revival style with decorative brickwork laid out in a Greek temple motif. After a fire gutted the building in 1940 it was gussied up with its current Art Moderne marquee.

But the only film you’ll see there today is an X-Ray of your overbite since it is now the offices of Fort Theatre Dentistry. In lieu of an upcoming film the marquee states “New Patients Welcome.” The original lobby has been retained and converted into a waiting room complete with popcorn popper and red velvet ropes. As adaptive reuses go it’s pretty clever; better than tearing the old theater down as has happened in so many small towns across America.

Rivoli Theater Monmouth Illinois art deco

Rivoli Theater, Monmouth, IL

Ambler Theater

Ambler Theater, Ambler, PA

The sad-looking Rivoli hasn’t shown movies in years but does host the occasional concert or blues festival. I hope the World Theater people are successful in their efforts. In my former hometown of Ambler, Pennsylvania I witnessed firsthand what a successful theater restoration can achieve. The 1920’s-era Ambler Theater was a gorgeous Egyptian Revival monument to the Golden Age of film. However it had become dilapidated and was only open once a month to show rarely viewed Christian films. A not-for-profit group purchased the theater with public and private funds and restored it.

Despite being in the heart of the Philadelphia suburbs, Ambler had no restaurants before the theater was renovated. Within a few years of its restoration it was joined by nine restaurants along with shops and a live performance theater. What had been a deteriorating downtown became a thriving hub for nightlife and dining.

As I drove across America I passed through many towns that were centered around an abandoned theater. Some of these theaters still operated, some had been converted to other uses and some were outright abandoned. With the right type of local pride and energy these theaters could serve as the springboard for a Main Street revival in each of these towns. It will take a great deal of vision and hard work on the part of the civic leaders but the end result, saving their town, will be worth it.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

George August 13, 2011 at 10:23 am

What gorgeous theaters and what a shame to lose them.

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Michael January 8, 2013 at 7:26 pm

It seems like more are being saved these days than torn down.

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John August 17, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Awesome post! I love art deco architecture. I’ve been searching for images of art deco storefronts to use as inspiration for a project I’m currently working on. This post was just what I needed!

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Michael August 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Glad to be of some assistance. Next month we’ll be in Shanghai which has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world. Stay tuned for more pics.

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shelia cosbiey May 19, 2012 at 1:31 am

i love these theaters. everyone should visit the Ellen theater in Bozeman Montana, but most importantly visit the theaters in Billings Montana, they are very clean and well prepared for their guests!

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Michael May 19, 2012 at 6:03 am

Thanks for the tip. I also recommend seeing a minor league baseball game in Billings. The setting is spectacular and it’s the only stadium I’ve been to where they have a vendor with a machine making mini-donuts. They were delicious.

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Karen Guerra January 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Michael may not know this and Larissa may have forgotten, but I lived in Bozeman, MT from 1964-1970. I first saw “Gone With the Wind” at the Ellen Theatre and enjoyed many Saturday matinees there. We walked the mile or so to the theatre, my sister and I with 60 cents each in our pockets. It was 50 cents admission and 10 cents for a box of candy. The taste of “red hots” always takes me back.

BTW, don’t forget what’s in your own (former) backyard–the Ambler Theatre was nicely rennovated and sub-divided for three screens–just saw “Siliver Linings Playbook” there!

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Michael January 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm

50 cents for a movie ticket! Those were the days. We went to see Argo last week and it was $9.50 for a matinee.

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Lillie - @WorldLillie January 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I’ve always loved this style! Here are photos of my favorite art deco theater in Boston: http://www.aroundtheworldl.com/2011/01/29/the-sexiest-sign-in-boston-of-our-citys-revitalization/

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Michael January 8, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Hi Lillie,

Thanks for sharing the story and photo about the revitalized Paramount Theater in Boston. It’s a real treat.

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Barbara January 7, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Hi Michael & Larissa,
Happy New Year! Wishing you the realization of more of your travel projects.
I love these old theaters! How wonderful that many have been saved and renovation. They are too beautiful to destroy.
Cheers!

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Michael January 8, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Thanks Barbara. Happy New Year to you too.

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wandering educators January 8, 2013 at 2:40 pm

so beautiful! there’s one in my hometown of allegan, MI, that still shows movies.

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Michael January 8, 2013 at 7:30 pm

I wasn’t aware of the theater in Allegan. Sounds like another road trip.

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Steve January 9, 2013 at 12:13 am

Interesting article – we’re currently driving down the West Coast so I must remember to keep an eye out for some of these as they all look very photogenic

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Michael January 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Hi Steve,

Please send us any interesting photos.

Thanks,

Michael

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D.J. - The World of Deej January 9, 2013 at 7:40 pm

We have a historic movie theater in my town that reopened a few years ago. It is so much better than the megaplex across town, but unfortunately the city is not supporting it and it has closed down several times, only to reopen a month or so later. Hopefully it sticks around, would be a shame to lose one of these gems.

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Michael January 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Hi Deej,

Where is that? I’d love to see it.

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Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com January 10, 2013 at 8:53 am

Here in the Philippines, most (if not all) old and independent movie theaters have already been torn town to make way for shopping malls and swanky subdivisions. Some groups have (and continue to do so) lobbied for the preservation of these national treasures, to no avail :(

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Michael January 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Hi Aleah,

That’s really too bad since they irreplaceable.

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Cat of Sunshine and Siestas January 11, 2013 at 2:58 am

My hometown of Wheaton, Illinois used to have a gorgeous old theatre like this where I watched punk bands in high school and where I went on my first date. Shame it can’t find a buyer and is now home to squatters! As a Midwesterner, we’ve had theatres like this since the early years of the 20s, and they’re become iconic in small towns across the area. Lovely photos!

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Otter March 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Great viewing the art deco theatres. As a child in Hamilton, Canada, we used to go to Saturday matinees at the State Theatre, now a furniture store.
Admission was 25 cents, including 10 cents for popcorn! The films were old B/W westerns, and included colour Looney Tunes cartoons. Those were the days!!

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Rebecca April 21, 2014 at 9:48 am

Wonderful photographs! Have you visited any theaters in Georgia?

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Michael April 21, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Hi Rebecca,

I need to update this post with a Part 2 to include the SCAD theater in Savannah and a few others.

Thanks for your note which reminds me of that.

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Chuck September 14, 2014 at 4:57 am

It seems the conversion to digital is taking its toll on the small town theatres. These small towns can’t afford the conversion.

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