Not Your Mall Metroplex
December 10, 2010 5:10 PM   Subscribe

“And you can't help thinking, Jesus! The ghosts that walk here at night. Because movies are filled with the stuff of everyone's dreams, and you know what a studio is? A dream factory.”* There is something grand about old movie palaces: their slow decline, the rococo detail, their interpretation all over the world and their inevitable decay and fall. Above them all, in my nostalgic memory, is the atmospheric majesty of The Mighty Civic, still in use, and the Wintergarden underneath. [QTVR]

*From an amazing interview of Kirk Douglas with Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. Julia Solis, photographer of abandoned theaters, previously.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (7 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

We've got one that's actually haunted.
posted by Artw at 5:21 PM on December 10, 2010

I'm getting a Coldheart Canyon sort of feeling here. Nice post.
posted by Raunchy 60s Humour at 5:53 PM on December 10, 2010

An old movie theater nearby has a second life as a live stage that features all kinds of acts. It has been lovingly restored to its former grandeur. My friends and I used to go to the movies there as teenagers, and the restoration has left much of the Art Deco look intact. It is the Community Theater in Morristown NJ, and has just about any kind of music you can imagine among the acts featured.
posted by mermayd at 7:09 PM on December 10, 2010

In Newport, RI, there is one of these last, old movie houses, the Jane Pickens. The building was built in 1834 as a church, and became a theater and movie-house in 1919. It's been showing movies every night since then.

It was known as The Strand until the '70s, when Joe Jarvis took over, and named it after a very wealthy patron, a popular singer from the '40s who once ran against Ed Koch to represent the Sil Stocking District in NYC, before retiring to Newport.

Mr. Jarvis (never, ever Joe, tho he told us to call him that) hired me as a projectionist in the '90s, as the one he had hated movies, and especially hated the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which he was required to run every saturday night. I was a member of the cast, and bigger than the regular projectionist, and Joe (never, ever Mr. Peckham... even tho the street I lived on was named after his family) knew my dad, and he was the real projectionist, working on Tuesdays and weekend Matinees.

Rumor: there is a workroom, just off the projection booth, papered with the covers to Life, Cosmo and Vanity Faire that had a pretty woman on them going back to the 20's.

True! It also had disassembled Century projectors going back that far... we were never, ever short on spares.

Rumor: We had a supply of whale oil originating from just after WWI, and that's what kept our '60s era machines running smooth as silk?

False. As far as any of you will ever know.

Rumor: The projection booth was a steel box, with spring-loaded doors and window shutters kept open with gunpowder impregnated cord, so if there was a fire, the theater would be safe.

True! I was trained on how to splice, thread, and run acetate film, which is flammable to the point of being explosive, and in the '90s, acetate had largely decayed to the point where it was a bomb that showed you Charlie Chaplin. The Jane Pickens was one of a very small number of venues qualified to run it safely... if you count a dead projectionist as safe.

Rumor: The lamps were sourced from a prison, where they were used as part of the searchlights mounted in the observation towers.

True! Well, old Joe said it was true, and it was an awesome story. These were carbon-arc lamps, where you had a pencil-thick pieces of carbon wrapped in super-thin copper wire, and a massive spark was sent between them, resulting in a pure, white light. These burned down at a regular rate, requiring you to swap them between reels.

In a reel-to-reel system, you had two projectors, hooked up to their own lamp. Each reel was good for around 10 mins or so of movie. At the end of one movie, you'd look for the projectionist's mark, also known at the "cigarette burn" - when you saw one, you lit the lamp and started the other projector. When you saw the second, you stomped on a changeover pedal, shuttering the first projector, opening the shutter on the second, and swapping inputs to the sound system. The pedal automatically shut down the other lamp and projector.

You'd then rewind the reel, and check the rods. If they were burnt down low, you'd swap them out... aluminum pliers were supplied for the job (why, I dunno. They were weirdly lighter than steel pliers, and had to be more expensive.) After a while, you built up "heat callouses" on your fingers, and could simply swap them bare-handed. You could also do things to freak out your friends and family, like removing cookie sheets from the oven without a mit.

Rumor: The theater is haunted.

False: The well-polished young man, with an aquiline nose and a thick East Bay accent, sporting a smart uniform and a warm smile, is just another employee who will show you to your seat. Tho the other employees don't seem to be wearing uniforms, and are kind of upset you're up in the balcony, and who let you up here, anyway? Wasn't the door locked?
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:15 PM on December 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

Slap*Happy: … aluminum pliers were supplied for the job (why, I dunno. They were weirdly lighter than steel pliers, and had to be more expensive.)

Even earlier carbon-arc lamps used a bare carbon rod that slid into a sprung copper contact sleeve. Typical hard (i.e. high carbon) steel pliers will stick to & damage hot carbon rod, so alumin(i)um or leather-lined soft jaw pliers were used to change them.

I've never seen arc lamp rods wound with copper wire, but I've seen later ones sleeved with copper (like 'gouging rods' used with an arc welder). The old-style tools possibly stuck around through typical 'craft inertia', although it also makes sense that hard-jawed tools might damage the copper wire or sleeve and lead to hotspots / early failure.
posted by Pinback at 10:42 PM on December 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went to the university responsible for the demolition of the Granada. If I had known it at the time, I'm pretty sure I would have chosen to spend my tuition elsewhere.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:49 PM on December 11, 2010

These were definitely wound with super-fine copper wire a few layers deep... you could run a fingernail along it and feel the windings. We apparently got a crate of them surplus from someplace in Eastern Europe, and were in no danger of running out before the turn of the next century. (They have since upgraded to xenon and platters... but the old Centuries are still there.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:11 PM on December 12, 2010

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