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From reels to ruins: See inside America’s crumbling movie theaters

A new photography book documents once-opulent movie theaters across America that have been abandoned or repurposed into something new.

From reels to ruins: See inside America’s crumbling movie theaters
Meserole Theater, Brooklyn, New York [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]

When 2020 lockdowns shuttered movie theaters around the country, many feared they wouldn’t survive the economic fallout of the pandemic. But movie theaters have been struggling for almost a century.

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[Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have been documenting the demise of American movie theaters since 2005. Together, the French photographers have visited more than 200 theaters in the U.S. and compiled them into a richly illustrated collection of 20th-century relics. Out today, Movie Theaters paints the portrait of a dying culture teetering on the edge of survival.

Once grandiose palaces with domed ceilings and ornate plasterwork, hundreds of movie theaters—from New York to Detroit to Hollywood—now stand in ruins. Many others have been converted into nightclubs and bingo halls, churches and bookstores. By focusing the lens on what is left, the book pays homage to these movie palaces, and adds a sense of urgency to save them before they fully succumb to the ravages of time, the COVID-19 era, and the age of streaming.

RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, Queens, New York [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
Marchand and Meffre have long been fascinated with all forms of ruins. “There is something disturbing, both scary and fascinating,” Meffre says. “It reminds you of the immediate possibility of death.” Sure enough, ruins are poetic, but they also imply fragility, confronting the viewer with the consequences of the passage of time.

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Robins Theatre, Warren, Ohio [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
The duo’s previous book, The Ruins of Detroit, documented the decaying public buildings of a city that was once at the heart of the U.S. automobile industry. It was, in fact, in Detroit that the duo visited their first cinematic ruin. A Spanish Gothic gem, the United Artists Theater was in “spectacular” decay, Meffre says. (The fate of that theater remains unclear, though it will likely be demolished as part of a plan to turn the adjacent building into housing.)

Since that first time in Detroit, they’ve visited hundreds of movie theaters in myriad architectural styles, from neo-Gothic to art nouveau to Byzantine Revival. In Europe, these styles are most often reserved for castles and cathedrals, Meffre says, noting that in the U.S., “the movie theater was the cathedral of the beginning of the 20th century.”

Loew’s Palace Theatre, Bridgeport, Connecticut [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
The first movie theater in the U.S. opened in 1905, in Pittsburgh. By the end of the 1920s, the country boasted a whopping 20,500 movie theaters. (As of 2020, the total number of movie theaters had shrunk to less than 5,500.) But after the stock market crashed in 1929, the Depression devastated the movie industry. Postwar migrations to the suburbs made going to the movies more difficult. Eventually, rising commercial real estate prices, coupled with the adoption of the television set in the 1950s, led to the slow demise of the movie palace era. “When TV came, it was the beginning of the end,” Meffre says.

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Fox Theatre, Inglewood, California [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
All the theaters portrayed in this book were decaying well before the pandemic dealt another blow to the movie industry, but for many others, COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin. In October 2020, AMC, the world’s largest cinema chain, staved off bankruptcy by restructuring some of its debt. In April of last year, L.A.’s Pacific Theatres shut down all 11 of its locations (though AMC has since acquired four of them, which it plans to reopen this spring). Countless others, like Brooklyn’s beloved Court Street Theater, which closed just last week, have left voids in neighborhoods.

Movie Theaters is a timely reminder of what might happen to the theaters that never reopen. The book is filled with derelict structures where crumbling plaster and torn-up velvet seats make up the remains of tattered auditoriums. Arguably, though, while the buildings are still standing, is it really the end?

Paramount Theater, Brooklyn, New York [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
Over the past few decades, once-abandoned movie theaters have been transformed for countless other uses—some more successfully than others. In Brooklyn, the Paramount Theater’s ornate auditorium—which appears on the back cover of the book—was metamorphosed into a basketball court, its yellow flooring echoing the ceiling’s golden tones. (Plans to revive the space as a 3,000-seat cultural venue have been stagnant for six years.) In East Los Angeles, the Golden Gate Theater sat vacant for more than 20 years until it was turned into a drugstore in 2012. “You have a sacred place that is violated and that made it strange to look at,” Meffre says.

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Spooner Theatre, Bronx, New York [Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre/courtesy Prestel]
Some of these transformations seem incongruous, but the repurposed interiors portrayed in the book are living proof that buildings can be reinvented to fit more modern uses. Many theaters haven’t been so lucky. Meffre says that since the book project began in 2005, at least 20 of the theaters he and Marchand captured have been gutted (like Loew’s Spooner Theatre in the Bronx) or downright demolished (like the Girard Theater in Philadelphia). This sad pattern even influenced which movie theaters made it into the book.

Ultimately, Movie Theaters is the duo’s attempt to save these relics from sinking further into oblivion. “The only thing that’s left is a picture,” Meffre says. “We hope that by showing many remarkable buildings in a state of decay, people will notice.”

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