I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota with a love of watching movies. It was a complete experience for me, because there was an entertaining film with an even more entertaining atmosphere. To me the theater was the make or break for the movie as I factored in a number of intangibles; how far did I travel, was it a full to semi-full house, how did the audience react, was the experience in the theater pleasant? These were all rushing through my head as I thought about the movie, and as I got older the experience got more complex because of the history I had with particular theaters.
It was very hard for me to leave all of these experiences behind when I moved to the East Village in New York City with my wife in the summer of 2008 because I would have to start this process all over again. But with a new location come new experiences, and with a historic city like New York I was hoping to discover some hidden gems and learn about the duds to avoid. It took some time and a lot of exploring, but in just over three years I was happy to say that I frequented twelve theaters on a regular basis. This is much more than I could say about Minneapolis, and the theaters here had a much greater experience as the mentality of New Yorkers carries into the theaters and many times during the movies themselves.
I was very pleased when the opportunity was presented in the Urban Media Archeology class to create an interactive map of New York, because I knew there was one subject that I had to explore more. I proposed to research the existence of movie theaters in the Union Square area to discover the pieces of history that time may have forgotten.
There once was time when movie theaters ruled the entertainment business. Lines formed around street corners for a chance to be inside these palaces with enormous marquees and art deco designs looking to see starts of the silver screen. But as the glamour of the movie business began to shift to other forms of entertainment and televisions began to garner audiences similar to those for movies the business slowly began to decline. Home video was the next wave of entertainment to remove a level of grace to the movie theaters, and with the computer and the option of streaming films the movie theater has become nearly obsolete.
With this recent decline in film exhibition I started wondering about the simpler times when going to see a movie was a once a weekly affair for the country. I attend the cinema on a bi-monthly basis, but the theaters I go to have multiple screens and the exterior ornamentation is minimal. It got me wondering about how the multiplex replaced the palace, and what was once a single screen sculpture became an interior conscious multifaceted labyrinth. The majority of these palaces were demolished as the industry declined, but some are still are standing while operating under a new guise, and a few have retained their roots as a movie theater.
To start I wanted to organize the map around the theaters I frequented the most, which is why the AMC Kips Bay and Film Forum are included yet seem to be way off the region I was trying to work with. What got started as a simple search process turned into an extensive scavenger hunt for information. Initially my efforts were thwarted through books until I found out about the famous theater architect Thomas Lamb. I intentionally included his designs in this project to a greater extent as without him I would have probably abandoned this project within the first month. But with time and effort I managed to unearth a number of theaters within the proposed area. There were actually too many to document within the given timeframe of the class, and I was forced to limit the area of my search. The end result is not a complete movie theater listing for Union Square, nor a complete listing for the East Village, but a listing at the very least.
I should also take time to point out how I came to define a movie theater during this process, because what is considered a movie theater today is not the same as what it may have been in the early 1900’s. At some point the theater showed films seven days a week, the space was designed or adapted to be a theater rather than a projector put into a room surrounded by chairs, and charging for admission. Simple but straightforward, and it helped me to eliminate a handful of listings I came across through various sources. Primarily
, without which I would have been completely lost.
Stars represent existing theaters
Circles represent abandoned theaters
Crosses represent demolished theaters