Movie theater marquees aren’t what they used to be, that’s for sure. In the last twenty years or so, they’ve become less distinctive and less dramatic. Multiplexes here in Manhattan do without traditional marquees entirely, though smaller theaters, such as Film Forum and the IFC Center, still have them. Most of the examples in this post are of theaters from the 1940s through the ’70s, with some before and some after. More than a few of them are of theaters in New York City. My interest here is in what these photos can add to our sense of film history and the excitement and anticipation that could be felt just by seeing these marquees.
I grew up in Iowa in the 1950s, where movie-going options were limited to usually one theater each in nearby small towns. My favorite by far was the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, which was about twelve miles north of our farm. My mother loved movies, and we saw a lot together, usually at the Vista. I was probably carried into my first movies, which I’m sure is still imprinted in my database. The photo of the Vista below dates back to 1938, but this is exactly how I remember the theater when I was going there. I love “News & Popeye” at the front of the marquee.
Sometime after I moved to New York in 1977 the Vista expanded, adding smaller theaters adjacent to the main one. Below is a shot of what the theater looks like today. The marquee has been removed entirely, but when I was back for a visit, I was very happy to find that the main auditorium had not been changed. It was exactly as I’d remembered it.
When I started college at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in the Fall of 1962, I was excited that there were four downtown theaters. The one with the best marquee was the Englert, which showed first-run films.
The Iowa Theater, just around the block from the Englert, showed foreign films as well as classics. It was the local art house. I saw Chaplin’s Modern Times there (on a first date!), and had my first exposure to movie nudity with a Swedish film whose title I’ve forgotten. The Iowa was also directly across the street from Donnelly’s, my all-time favorite bar. When I came back to college after getting out of the Air Force in 1970, I was a ticket-taker and usher at both the Iowa and the Astro Theater, across the street from the Englert. A friend of mine was a projectionist at the Englert, and I would often hang out with him in the booth. I also took tickets for a time at the University Film Society theater in the student union. Lots of movies. Show biz.
Before coming back to Iowa City, I was stationed for a year and a half at an air base outside of Marysville, California. The State Theater there had a memorable facade and marquee. That’s where I saw Bonnie and Clyde for the first time in 1967. The photo below dates from 1954.
Another Iowa theater I have to include is the Rialto. I was back from New York running down family tree info. I knew that the courthouse in Pocohantes, 40 miles from where I grew up, had some family records. I drove there to check that out. While in town I noticed the Rialto with its beautiful Art Deco design. Here it is.
There were even more movie theaters in Minneapolis, where I lived from September 1973 to early January ’77. The shot below was taken on my 30th birthday in 1974 across the street from the State Theater, which was typical of the older theaters in the city. I saw Chinatown in that theater three times the weekend it opened. Had to.
I moved to New York in January 1977 and have been here on the Upper West Side ever since in the same apartment at 92nd and West End Avenue. I really lucked out with the location, because the Thalia theater was just three blocks north on 95th. Their programming was a never-ending film festival of classic repertory, the great and the misbegotten. Everything from Plan 9 from Outer Space to Kiss Me Deadly, Ozu and Mizoguchi, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. It was great while it lasted. It was always a kick to turn the corner and see the marquee with the large “Thalia” letters atop the marquee jutting out on the block.
At the same time, a few blocks down Broadway was the New Yorker theater on 89th Street. Opened in 1914 as the Adelphi Theater, later called the Yorktown, it was taken over by Dan Talbot as the New Yorker in 1960. Talbot is in the shot below with Alfred Hitchcock.
A few blocks further up Broadway was the Metro Theater, between 99th and 100th Streets. It opened as the Midtown in 1933, showing first-run films until the 1950s. In the 50s and 60s it showed films by Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Bunuel, and Roman Polanski. Then in the 70s and 80s it turned a corner and became a porno theater. The photo below dates from 1933.
In 1982, Dan Talbot took over and ran it as a repertory theater. I remember when it reopened. The theater, with its Deco facade, had been refurbished. It looked great. The programming was excellent. Lots of series, such as film noir, Buster Keaton, samurai films, etc. It closed for good in 2005 and has sat empty since then. The interior has been completely gutted, but landmark status preserves the exterior.
Super-sized Department. Here is a selection of theaters where the advertising has gone beyond the marquees, in some cases with huge banners above the marquee, wrapping around the building itself. Kind of a “Go big or go home” approach.
Times Square theaters. The Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver years before Disneyfication. I know it was tattered and sleazy, but I kind of miss it. One theater after another, on and on, like a surreal dream.
The Paris Theater, on West 58th Street in Manhattan by the Plaza Hotel, opened on September 13, 1948. Marlene Dietrich cut the ribbon while the U.S. Ambassador to France stood by. With the closing of the Ziegfeld Theater in 2016, the Paris is now the last remaining single-screen theater in Manhattan. In August 2019, a closure notice was posted. The thought of the Paris being no more was not fun to contemplate. It reopened that November with Netflix taking over operation. That takes a little getting used to, but the Paris is still with us.
Below, the U.S. premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Beneath that, The Artist, which we saw there on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. The interior of the theater has been refurbished over the years, but basically has not changed since 1948 (to the best of my knowledge).
Other marquees of note.
I know this shot isn’t strictly speaking showing a marquee, but I think it fits the bill anyway.
That’s probably more than enough for now. Until next time, stay safe. – Ted Hicks