Nostalgia 101: Big Theaters and Movie Palaces

June 13, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

This is the second in an open-ended series looking back at film-related subjects from 20-30 years ago.

It was the evening of Friday, May 23, 1980. The Memorial Day weekend was officially underway, and I was on my way to see The Empire Strikes Back at the Eric Moorestown theater. (The film had opened two days earlier but, alas, that was a school night.) The line in the mall for the 7:30 showing was impressive. It stretched down the hall, around the corner, down another hall, around another corner, down a third hall, out the door, down a sidewalk, and around an outside corner. How many feet? I don't know, but I have never stood in a longer line. Yet I was never worried about getting into the movie. In 1980, the Eric Moorestown could hold 2200 warm bodies. It was what premium movie theaters of the day were: huge. Each row (broken into three sections: left, center, right)could seat about 50 patrons. There were 40 rows in the main section of the theater, and another four in the balcony. The screen was gargantuan. It was an amazing place to see a movie.

The experience was repreated two years later for Star Trek II. Those were the only times I can recall that theater being filled to capacity. When I saw Conan the Barbarian there, the balcony was closed and the rest of the theater was at about 30% capacity. By today's standards, 600 people is a sell-out, but in the old Eric Moorestown, it meant a lot of empty seats. As far as exhibitors were concerned, that was the problem with these big theaters. With the exception of event movies on opening weekends, the houses were anywhere from half empty to 90% empty.

It became difficult competing against the new breed of theaters, which were called "multiplexes." With anywhere from five to eight screens, these theaters featured smaller auditoriums (typically topping out with around 400 seats in the largest) and more variety. On a good Friday night, the Eric Moorestown might see 1000 customers between 6 pm and 11 pm. A nearbye 8-plex could see three times that many. Economically, big was no longer feasible. So the Eric Moorestown did what many other big theaters around the country did: it subdivided. By the time I saw Star Trek III in that place in 1984, it was the Eric Twin Moorestown, with two tunnel-like auditoriums, each seating 900 people. Other than removing the balcony, all that had been done was to cut the movie theater in half lengthwise, creating an odd environment in which to see a movie. (Ironically, Star Trek III was playing in both of the 900-seat theaters.)

Eventually, fire would damage the Eric Twin, United Artists would buy out Eric, and the complex would be gutted and expanded (using the footprint of the old Eric Twin as well as that of an adjacent Woolworth's store). It's now the United Artists Moorestown, and has seven auditoriums. But if you sit in the biggest, leftmost one, you can still notice vestiges of the old, grand Eric theater.

This is a personal experience, but it was replicated in countless locations around the country in the 1980s. Big movie theaters subdivided then closed. Many stand disused now, the province of rats and rot. Others have been torn down. Several of the old Eric theaters in Philadlephia are still there, boarded up for two decades. I shudder to think what they look like inside.

The more impressive cousin to the big theater is the movie palace. Simply put, a movie palace is a place with 2000+ seats and a lot of ornate decorations. Some of these places were gorgeous, and many of them are no longer around. Falling victim to economics and disrepair, they became easy victims for the wrecking ball, especially during the multiplex crazy '80s. Some surivived, often in major cities. New York has preserved a few. Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival helped revive Champaign/Urbana's Virginia Theater. But even the Toronto Film Festival couldn't save the Uptown.

Until 2002, the Uptown, located on Yonge St. in downtown Toronto, was one of those glorious, glamorous movie palaces: multiple levels, gilded walls, artistically rendere ceiling, curtained screen... I don't know how many it seated, although I heard from someone it was around 3000. I rarely saw it full, although several festival screenings packed a lot of people in. However, as good as the Uptown was in September, it was bad the other 11 months. Imagine a 3000-seat movie palace filled with 100 patrons watching a mediocre Hollywood movie. That was the Uptown in March. So it was torn down (a worker was killed during the demolition). When I attended the festival in 2003, the Uptown was a vacant lot. In 2004, the skeleton of a high rise building was being erected. In 2005, upscale condos were being advertised.

Big theaters and movie palaces have not vanished entirely. If you look long and hard enough, you can find one. For the most part, however, these vanishing pieces of Americana exist only in the memories of those who visited them before progress transformed them into something else.