By Elias Savada.
April Wright likes to get the word out about grand things. As with Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie (available on Amazon Prime and iTunes), her thoughtful 2013 ode to the outdoor moviegoing experience, she has offered up another loving, exhaustive tribute to the large architectural wonders of indoor entertainment. All hail the Movie Palace.
Wright, the writer, producer, director, and editor (with her co-producer, post-production supervisor, and utility outfielder Rachael Ponn) behind Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, follows the same format as her first documentary feature: a mix of talking heads, plenty of photos, and some archival video. It’s not flashy, but it does provide a fascinating historical perspective of how grand movie theaters, once as common as today’s cable channels and streaming services, have become nearly extinct. Changes in the real estate market and general economic and societal trends have made developers sour on 6,000-seat palaces. Other factors helped bury single auditoriums – the advent of television, the rise of the multiplex, higher concept (and pricing) on deluxe seating and concession offerings. Today’s crowds can all too often catch a classic film on Turner Classic Movies, Netflix, or YouTube instead of trekking downtown to the few remaining film cathedrals.
The folks you’ll meet in this film probably won’t be familiar faces, except for film historian Leonard Maltin, but all of them have interesting stories to tell about how their lives have been affected by these beautiful temples…and the magic within them. Each is interviewed from within one of the magnificent buildings around the country: Jerry Mickelson (Chicago’s Uptown Theatre), Jerald Gary (Chicago’s Avalon New Regal Theatre), Escott O. Norton (Executive Director, L.A. Historic Theatre Foundation), Barbara Twist (Former Managing Director, Art House Convergence), Richard Fosbrink (Former Executive Director, Theatre Historical Society), Craig Morrison (Former President, Theatre Historical Society), David Strohmaier (Director, Cinerama Adventure), Rosemary Novellino-Mearns (Author, Saving Radio City Music Hall), and others
Cinema’s early days, when films were originally viewable only in penny arcades through bulky, hand-cranking viewing machines, ultimately made way for projectors and theaters (originally just patrons on folding chairs), but it still took a quarter of a century before grand theaters became commonplace. The Nickelodeon phenomenon began in 1905; within a few years, films were being shown in most small towns throughout the U.S. There’s also adequate coverage of the production end of show business and how the studios were once allowed to own their own theaters, an arrangement struck down in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court “Paramount Case” in 1948.
Yes, sadly, as media historian Ross Melnick tells the viewer, “the movies are a very important cultural legacy, but we don’t actually preserve the movie theaters.” These landmarks become prey to economic development, much the same way drive-ins were portrayed in Wright’s earlier film. There are some heart-rending moments with some of these palaces being torn to pieces by demolition crews. So much for being a vibrant center of city life.
Novellino-Mearns offers great tidbits about the grandest theatrical shrine of them all, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. This spectacular venue opened as the “Showplace of the Nation” in 1932 with the Rockettes, a ballet company, a full symphony orchestra, a costume shop, and more. When its stage show bombed on opening night, it quickly switched to films. It stopped showing movies on a regular basis in the late 1970s, after management tried to tear this unique entertainment cathedral down. Novellino-Mearns spearheaded the movement to save the building as a city and national landmark. Her efforts and those of fellow preservationists saved it from the wrecking ball. It still flourishes as a Big Apple tourist attraction. Thank you, Rosemary!
Not said in the film, but perhaps a reason why times have changed, is long time TCM host Robert Osborne’s comment: “When a movie opened – if you lived in New York, you would see it at Radio City Music Hall where it would play a couple of weeks, and then you moved on to the next movie. Now you can see it the rest of your life – it’s going to be on Netflix and DVD.”
Technically Going Attractions is a well-edited history with a clean veneer and well photographed subjects. One detraction is the overuse of a video dust filter that adds unnecessary artifacts and flutter to still images that are being panned and zoomed with the Ken Burns effect.
While not funereal, the film does suggest vigilance to salvage the remnants of what’s left of these glorious relics of cinema’s past. If you feel so moved, please contact the Theatre Historical Society of America, which celebrates, documents, and promotes the architectural, cultural, and social relevance of America’s historic theatres.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).