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The Downtown Movie Theater

The wonderfully restored Coleman Theater in my hometown of Miami, OklahomaIt seems that every single town in the US with a population of at least, say, 2,500 had a single-screen theater located in its downtown area circa 1960.

In the Northwest Arkansas area where I make my home, that was the case with every community. Unfortunately, it is also the case that every one of them has closed.

Single-screen cinemas had their heyday during the Depression era. First of all, the price of the entertainment was frequently within the grasp of struggling households who were desperate for an escape from the day-to-day routine. Second, most of the 1920's-1930's theaters had a stage, so that vaudeville performances could be enjoyed in addition to films, frequently for the same price. And thirdly, the cinemas were pioneers in the use of the wonderful newfangled technology known as air conditioning. At presstime, the heat index is going to hit about 106 degrees today. Imagine if there was only one building in town with cool air. Wouldn't you be there?

Interior of a typical single-screen cinemaIndeed, the single-screen cinema was such a part of Depression culture that their construction slowed down considerably after the 1930's ended. After WWII, construction of drive-in theaters far outpaced that of indoor facilities.

The result was that the theater that you remember visiting in your hometown as a kid was probably a very old-fashioned place. Most of them had quaint metal-covered ceilings, Art Deco furnishings (from the genuine Art Deco era!), boldly patterned heavy-weave carpeted aisles, and, too often, had seen better days as far as condition was concerned.

I remember looking up at the ceiling at Bentonville's theater waiting for Star Wars to begin (one of the last films I saw there) and seeing creeping stains from water leaks and lots of dark areas from burnt-out light bulbs. The carpet was in pretty rough shape, too.

But despite the fact that the downtown theaters were thirty and more years old in the 60's, they still did a brisk business. However, the business they did generally didn't justify the cost of remodeling, or the building of new facilities where existing ones stood.

As the 60's drew to a close, the movie industry itself was suffering from slowing sales. In 1970, half as many films were produced as in 1958. TV was free, and we all had air conditioning of some sort by then. Downtown theaters began closing. The drop in business meant that one theater could handle the crowds that once required two or three. Small town moviegoers found themselves having to drive to a larger community to see a film.

1930's era theater in the 70'sThe salvation of the movie industry was the multiplex. During the 70's, theaters were built with more than one screen. Simply having two screen meant that you had a choice of what movie to see. And some multiplexes had ten or more! The sound systems were much better than the 1930's era speakers that the old cinema had. And the seats were often much more comfortable too.

That was the final death knell for the 1930's era theaters. As a multiplex would open in a shopping mall, it was frequently followed by the closing of every single-screen cinema within thirty miles. And even though drive-ins developed a passionate following that has managed to keep many of them open, and even make for new ones, there wasn't a whole lot of love lost for the old downtown establishments. Thus, much classic architecture has sadly been destroyed.

However, there are happy exceptions. The Coleman Theater that I visited as a kid in the 60's has been gloriously renovated. Its unique Louis XV style was lavish in 1929, and still is today. You can't imagine what it means to this old goat to know that the theater that he loved so much as a kid is in better shape today than back then! The balcony was closed during the 60's, but is now open for seating again! And first-run films are shown there, in addition to other activities.

Sadly, the sweet memories that most of us have of our old downtown theaters are just that: memories. The Bentonville theater advertised My Name Is Nobody as currently playing for a couple of years until someone finally took the yellowed poster out of its outdoor frame. The building still stands, home to the occasional downtown merchant who opens up shop there. But it, like the vast majority of single-screen cinemas, has shown its last movie.

Check out this site for a group that is trying to save the very few single-screen cinemas that are left.

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