Beauty and decadence: inside abandoned movie theaters in the United States
In new photo book, photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre capture a bygone era of entertainment through decaying American cinemas
There is something divine in rot. Traces of what once was; eras of very different social concerns, tastes and aspirations.
Films can open a window to the past for us, and as French photographer duo Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre prove, cinemas can too, especially those partly eaten away by time.
Fox Theater, Inglewood, California. Image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
They are still found in many American cities; majestic shrines to film, built in the golden age of entertainment. But these cinemas are now in various states of neglect for decades, empty, abandoned, or reborn like something else. Movie theater, published by Prestel, is an ode to these iconic American structures, or what remains of them.
This book is not the first taste of the duo’s shreds. They began their collaboration in 2002 by exploring remains of Paris and have published books including The ruins of Detroit and Gunkanjima.
Mountain peak: Proctor’s Theater, Newark, NJ. Above: Paramount Theater, Newark, NJ. Images © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
The turn of the 20th century brought with it an entertainment boom. Hundreds of theaters have sprung up across the United States, with many major movie studios commissioning architects to build extravagant and lavish auditoriums to satisfy the growing appetites of spectators.
Since 2005, the photographic duo Marchand and Meffre have traveled America to visit these theatrical remains. In hundreds of lushly colored images, they captured the rich architectural diversity of theaters’ exteriors and interiors, from Neo-Renaissance to Neo-Gothic, from Art Nouveau to Bauhaus, from Neo-Byzantine to Jugendstil.
Columbia Theater, Paducac, Kentucky, 2011. Opened in 1927 and designed (1,200 seats) by Louisville architect W Earl Gore for Kentucky theater operators Leo F Keiler and Rodney C Davis of Columbia Amusement and Realty Company. In the 1950s it was modernized and partially renovated in the Skouras style. In 1967 it was divided and a second screen was added to the balcony. It closed in 1987 and the asbestos fire curtain was renovated in 2013. It is currently awaiting renovation.
Robins Theaters, Warren, OH. Image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
Armed with a large format camera, they composed images ranging from landscape exteriors to intimate close-ups. There is beauty in the peeling paint, opulence in the rows of tattered, crushed velvet seats, stories preserved in defunct equipment, and abandoned concession stands. Laughter, tears, cries and gasps are perpetuated in the collapsing ledges.
Some sites have not been entirely left for dead. But as the 1960s matured, so did home TVs and multiplexes. In the following decades, the heyday of cinema was tarnished by modernization. These majestic buildings, in turn, began to take on less majestic roles: bingo halls, basketball courts, bus depots, warehouses, fitness centers, flea markets, parking lots and retail stores.
In the contemporary era, where streaming services reign and convenience surpasses occasion, Marchand and Meffre’s book is not just a mouth-watering visual recording of the majestic palace of cinema, it is timely eulogy for years to come. golden entertainment. Decay, in its divinity, is proof that things have changed, for better or for worse. §