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Pilgrimage to American “Cathedrals” of Cinema

The French photographer duo, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, spent fifteen years crisscrossing the United States tracking down abandoned movie theaters.
Fox Theater, Inglewood, CA © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Loew’s Palace Theater, Bridgeport, CT © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

October 2005. While waiting for dawn to photograph Detroit’s United Artists Theatre as part of their series documenting the city’s decay, the French photographer duo Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre became fascinated with American movie theaters thanks to this neo-gothic interior. “Galvanized by our visit, we sought, upon our return to Paris, to learn more about these ‘cathedrals of cinema’ in the United States.” Little information was available about these places at that time except on one website, a database of movie theaters called Cinema Treasures.

A year later, Marchand and Meffre came back to the United States to do some scouting. They went to New York City and surrounding areas, as well as returned to Detroit, hunting for these forgotten places. Guided by Orlando Lopes, a former projectionist and a walking encyclopedia of abandoned theaters, they discovered such astonishing places as this dazzling furniture store in a Jewish neighborhood in southern Brooklyn, which was using the decaying auditorium of Loew’s 46th Street Theatre as its warehouse. “To us, accustomed to visiting completely empty buildings, there was something incongruous about this in-between state — the dust of dereliction and the atmospheric interiors reminiscent of Mediterranean gardens — even as daily life pursued its course.”

Meserole Theater, Brooklyn, NY © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Paramount Theater, Brooklyn, NY © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
State Theater, West Orange, NJ © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

With the boom of the film industry in the early 20th century, America’s major studios were doing everything they could to lure viewers into the dark rooms. Photographers note that, “Marcus Loew, founder of Loew’s Theatres and MGM, once said, ‘I don’t sell tickets to movies, I sell tickets to movie theaters.’ The leitmotif was ‘creating the psychological conditions of dream and travel’ for the movie goer. Theatre décors were seductive, inspired by the great European opera houses and theaters.”

The two photographers took what might be considered a fifteen-year-long American road trip, tracking down these former dream places, with their rich, diverse architectures ranging from neo-renaissance to neo-gothic, to art nouveau and Bauhaus. Equipped with a large format camera, they captured the interiors and exteriors, the peeling walls, the torn velvet armchairs, the crumbling facades, the abandoned auditoria populated perhaps only by ghosts. When the cinemas had not been destroyed or abandoned, they were transformed into supermarkets, churches, basketball courts, gun stores… sometimes creating curious sites of bizarre juxtapositions, as in the photograph of a parking lot with a Mediterranean blue ceiling, which makes one wonder: “These converted movie theaters were strange ruins, a form of subconscious memory, a chimera made of our past hopes and our present condition.”

RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, Queens, NY © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Paramount Theater, Newark, NJ © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

The book Movie Theaters, published by Prestel, comprises over 280 images from the series. Introduced by university professor Ross Melnick, specialist in media and film, Movie Theaters is a reflection on the current state of the world and, above all, a tribute to, and a celebration of, this art that is still the stuff of dreams. Martin Scorcese could have well furnished the epigraph to the book: “Celebrating the existence of cinema isn’t just important and necessary; it cannot be emphasized enough that this remarkable art form has always been, and will always be, much more than mere diversion. Cinema, at its best, is a source of wonder and inspiration.”

By Sabyl Ghoussoub

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Movie Theaters. Prestel Publishing, 350 pp., $80.00.

Spooner Theater, Bronx, NY © Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

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