March 14, 2017

After The Final Curtain: Inside America's Historic Movie Theaters

Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York

photo by: Matt Lambros

Brooklyn's Kings Theatre opened in 1929. After decades of neglect, it was restored and reopened in 2015 as a performing arts space.

For Matt Lambros, an abandoned movie theater—broken seats, decaying plasterwork, and all—is a happy place. So it’s no wonder he’s been seeking them out to photograph for almost a decade.

Before his long-running moviehouse project culminated in two books, After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater and Kings Theatre: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Wonder Theatre, he had been touring the Northeast shooting old mental health facilities, intrigued by the self-sufficient campuses and especially with the theaters each one had.

“I was very interested in the history of the American mental health system,” Lambros says. “But I wanted to make a change. I wanted something kind of happy. And I was at a movie … I was looking around at the architecture and I started thinking, ‘I wonder if there are any abandoned theaters?’”

Since then, he’s photographed over 100, featuring 24 in After the Final Curtain, which was released in late 2016.

The Brooklyn-based photographer traces his interest in abandoned buildings back to his childhood, when his grandmother would take him and his brother hiking in the woods, often in search of run-down barns to explore.

“I was about 10 or 11, so that stuck with me and I started really enjoying movies with dystopian futures, or learning about the lost city of Pompeii,” Lambros says. “And I think, other than being an archaeologist and going out and discovering lost cities, this is the closest that I can get to that through my chosen profession, which is photography.”

He knew little about the history of American cinema and movie theaters before, but he’s an expert by now. When he shoots an abandoned theater, it’s just one part of an intensive research process. He finds out when it first opened, what it first showed, how many it seated, and what’s become of it since.

Like Fox Theatre in Inglewood, California, which opened in 1949 with Mr. Belvedere Goes to College. Shirley Temple, the film’s star, was even in attendance. It was the last theater built by 20th Century Fox before the Supreme Court ruled that studios could no longer own theaters and completely control the rights to the films played. Ultimately, it closed in 1988 and a preservation group has formed around it, with the building currently up for sale.

Lambros can even identify the work of some “palace theater” architects, like the prolific Thomas W. Lamb, by sight. He can tell you if certain moldings were from catalogues or custom-made.

But preservation has also become a passion of the photographer’s. The Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, the first he shot as part of the project, is one of its shining success stories. It opened in 1929 in the Flatbush neighborhood. But falling sales eventually led to its closing in 1977. The City of New York partnered with ACE Theatrical Group of Houston to restore the movie palace in 2010, and by 2015 it was open again as a performing arts center, and the neighborhood around it has since seen new investment.

“Personally I think that they’re beautiful,” Lambros says. “That’s not a value that necessarily merits them being preserved, but I think that a good anchor theater in a downtown really revitalizes the neighborhood, and there’s a lot of proof of that."

For many of these abandoned buildings, though, the battle to save them is all uphill. Just getting inside safely enough to shoot can be a challenge. (Lambros admits that when he started the project he did a fair amount of trespassing.) And the size and scope of the damage often requires a great deal of funding, which can make it impractical for a small town in the absence of outside help.

If his photographs can help drive interest in the buildings, he’s happy to help. But he says he recognizes that in many instances they'll simply be some of the last surviving images.

“It’s really more often than not that if something changes in a theater that I photograph, it’s because it was demolished,” Lambros says. “When I can help out by giving pictures to preservation groups to promote the theater, I do that. As a photographer, that’s a role. But the other option is to preserve the theaters through photographs. You’d be surprised at how many theaters there’s really no photography of.”

Historic Theaters

Jared Foretek is an editorial intern at the National Trust. He enjoys historic train stations, old bars, and interesting public spaces.

jforetek@savingplaces.org

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