As towns across the US struggle to keep their local movie theaters in business, Boston-based photographer Stefanie Klavens' atmospheric portraits of cinemas from the golden age of movie-going remind us of what we're losing.
With their neon-lit marquees and opulent interiors, the great movie palaces of the 1920s, 30s and 40s were show pieces for their architects and social hubs for their towns. Klavens grew up in Baltimore, Md, where she often went to shows at the 900-seat Art Deco-style Senator Theatre, the subject of the first photograph in the exhibition The Art of the Movie Theater, on show through May 31 at the National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Mass.
Determined to document the fast-vanishing traces of a key part of 20th-century American popular culture, Klavens traveled the country for over 10 years from 1996, recording the interior and exterior decoration of ornate city palaces and intimate small-town cinemas.
The twenty photographs on show here reveal a patient eye willing to wait for the precise moment to capture a mood or atmosphere. Many exterior shots are taken at twilight, with garish neon highlighted against deep azure skies. The streetscapes are usually empty, with perhaps a lone patron buying a ticket at the box office. Some, like the photograph of the Roxy Theater in Northampton, Pa., - showing, appropriately, The Lost World - have a Hopper-like quality of desolation.
Interior design in the heyday of cinema architecture was wildly eclectic. Klavens captures some gems including the 1930 Mayan Theatre in Denver, Co., a rare example of Mayan Revival-meets-Art-Deco style; the Tampa Theatre's Mediterranean courtyard under illusionistic twilight sky, and the French chateau-style elaborately carved wooden decoration of the Tower Theatre in Los Angeles, the first venue in the LA theater district wired for talking pictures.
Many of the cinemas photographed by Klavens started as vaudeville houses, and have enjoyed second and third acts as community arts centers, movie locations and in one case, a church. Lexington is fortunate to have kept its own movie house, formerly The Flick, and now The Venue, at 1794 Massachusetts Avenue, five minutes' drive from the National Heritage Museum. So enjoy the nostalgia of Klavens' haunting images, but help keep at least one historic cinema open by taking in a show at The Venue.