Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about old movie theaters in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s because I’m taking a film review class that has had me going to the movies each week. Maybe it’s because I just finished re-reading Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up, which, in a way, is an ode to old Hollywood glamour. Maybe the rain is just making me sentimental. Whatever it is, as I watched celebrities walk the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, I kept thinking about the history and legacy of film in Los Angeles.
Sometimes, it’s all too easy to see the presence of Hollywood in Los Angeles. Who hasn’t seen paparazzi (the word coined by the Italian masterpiece La Dolce Vita) flashing their bulbs to get a shot of a celebrity walking out of their car? If you’re looking for a taste of Hollywood glamour, take a stroll on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, peek inside the TCL Chinese Theatre, or just get a milkshake at Mel’s Drive-In. You might even see Marilyn Monroe’s ghost (don’t worry, just a bit of tinseltown magic).
But I’ve never really looked deeper than the bottom of a discount movie poster barrel to find some authentic Hollywood history. I’d never been to the Egyptian Theatre, for example, which hosted the first red carpet event in 1922. Movie stars such as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin would frequent the site to see their movies and their friends’ movies. It’s a big part of cinema history, but one that is often overlooked. So I thought, why not look into it?
“It is kind of amazing that we still have [these theaters],” Margot Gerber, the historian for the American Cinematheque, told me over the phone. “Los Angeles has always been very quick to tear things down and put up new things. We’ve lost some great movie palaces that were unceremoniously torn down.”
But it is no easy feat to preserve these buildings. The cost is prohibitive and there is no strong financial support coming from any of the movie studios to pay for maintenance and repairs. Many of these old theaters today have found second lives as churches, which at least allows the integrity of the building’s architecture to remain. Others have been torn down, partially or completely. During the early part of the 20th century, however, these single-screen theaters served as one of the primary sources of entertainment for Angelenos.
“In Los Angeles, going to the theater was really big,” Gerber said. “In the ’20s, ’30s, there was not a lot of competition. It was a cheap form of entertainment. Everyone went.”
As television began to catch on, in addition to the home viewing experiences — first through VHS tapes and then through DVDs and streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu — it has become harder to get people back to the theater. Especially for the historic theaters that screen classic, foreign and indie films, which are economically at a disadvantage to the newer chain theaters that have six different screens and predominantly show blockbuster films. Still, Gerber said that these historic theater palaces have recently been experiencing a surge in popularity.
“I’m not sure why exactly, but this past year or two has really been great for revival cinema, specialty cinema,” Gerber said. “There’s a lot of screening programs going on, in a lot of screening venues. There’s interest in going in-person to the movie theater, seeing great cinema classics.”
In Downtown Los Angeles, for example, many of the theaters that sat neglected for ages due to the area’s dilapidated real estate are now beginning to be brought back to life. Through programs such as the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “The Last Remaining Seats,” these historic sites are slowly starting to establish themselves. The Million Dollar Theatre even hosted its own Oscars viewing party Sunday night.
“It used to be there was an interest for this in Hollywood or the Westside or LACMA in mid-Wilshire, but now it’s extending to Downtown,” Gerber said. “With the new housing opening up, people want these services in their neighborhood.”
Gerber speculates that the recent popularity of these theaters is a pushback among audiences, many of whom grew up watching DVDs and now streaming services at home, but want a more personal experience when they watch their movies.
“People want to see movies the way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen, not cut up. The viewing experience is different,” Gerber said. “There is a generation of people who grew up with ability to pop in a DVD, but have never seen these films as they were originally presented.”
There is something to be said for that. Netflix is great for binge-watching House of Cards, but I could never use it to see my favorite film, Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1989. At least not in the way it was meant to be seen.
Another Italian director took home the Oscar this Sunday for Best Foreign Film. The movie, The Great Beauty, has already been compared to Cinema Paradiso. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet, but I know when I do, it’s the kind of film made to be seen properly, in one of these theaters, continuing a tradition that Los Angeles has built its reputation on. Because it’s these theaters that hold the real tinseltown magic.
Jackie Mansky is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “City of Angels,” runs on Tuesdays.