Fascinating photos of abandoned movie palaces reveal the decline of movie-going in America

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreBrooklyn’s Paramount Theatre was turned into a gymnasium.
  • Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have photographed abandoned theatres throughout the US for more than a decade.
  • Their images show the decline of movie-going in American cities, though a few of the contemporary ruins are undergoing a transformation.
  • Marchand and Meffre’s collection of images will be showcased in April in New York City.

Decades before the decline of retail stores, movie theatres around the United States started to shutter. As cities lost residents to the suburbs around the 1950s, some of their most popular theatres, auditoriums, and opera houses began to empty out.

Around that time, television became a staple part of the American home, reducing the need to pay for entertainment. Newer movie theatres also built multiple auditoriums, each with fewer seats, to allow for more than one showing at a time. In a matter of decades, large, grand movie palaces became virtually obsolete.

With no customers to keep them afloat, buildings designed to seat thousands, like the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia and the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn, were abandoned.

Read more:
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Recognising this pattern of decay, photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre set out to capture deserted theatres across America. Their ongoing project kicked off in 2005 after they discovered an abandoned movie theatre in Detroit.

Even though residents have returned to cities, refurbishing old theatres can be too costly for developers and city governments. Meffre said they have come across some theatres that were in decent condition, while others had a “post-war, apocalyptic” atmosphere.

Since many theatres lack windows, Marchand and Meffre sometimes take photographs in total darkness, relying on a handmade flashlight to illuminate certain details.

In April, their images will be showcased at The Photography Show, which is hosted by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers in New York City.

Here’s a preview of some of the most striking contemporary ruins shown in their collection.

The Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia was in such bad shape, a developer purchased it for $US1 in 2012.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia in 2012.

The structure has undergone numerous transformations over the last 110 years. It was built in 1908 as a home for the Philadelphia Opera Company, but was eventually converted into a ballroom, sports arena, and, finally, a church.

By the mid-1990s, the crumbling structure was declared imminently dangerous to the public. City building authorities wanted to tear it down, but a developer, Eric Blumenfeld, wound up purchasing the property for a single dollar.

Renovations were stalled for many years before the entertainment company Live Nation swept in with a $US56 million redevelopment plan. The newly renovated venue opened to the public in December 2018 with a concert featuring Bob Dylan.

The Blue Horizon in Philadelphia was one of the world’s most famous boxing venues from the 1960s to 2010.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Blue Horizon in Philadelphia in 2018.

The building was first constructed as housing complex in 1865, before transitioning to a boxing venue in the late 1930s. By the 1960s, the arena became known as a place to watch boxing legends. The site was also used to shoot boxing scenes for the fifth Rocky movie and the 2006 film Annapolis.

In 2010, the Blue Horizon closed after reportedly running into tax issues. For nearly a decade, it seemed to represent the decline of Rust Belt cities in the wake of deindustrialization. Now it could be part of Philadelphia’s revival. Marriott plans to convert the building into a $US22 million “micro-hotel” with 140 guest rooms.

Developers in Newark, New Jersey, are revamping the city’s Paramount Theatre, which once served as a vaudeville house.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Paramount Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, in 2011.

Like the Blue Horizon, Newark’s shuttered Paramount Theatre came to symbolise the plight of industrial towns during the 1980s. The building opened as a vaudeville house in 1886 and closed a century later after a long history as a movie theatre.

Developers now plan to transform the structure into a mixed-use development. A key part of their vision involves preserving the “Newark” sign on the building’s facade, which has become one of the city’s most recognisable icons.

The signature blue ceiling of the Kenosha Theatre in Wisconsin has been torn down.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Kenosha Theatre in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2009.

The theatre’s design was inspired by the Alcázar of Segovia, a Spanish castle that also served as the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World.

In their photograph, Marchand and Meffre capture the bright blue ceiling, which once held scattered lights that mimicked the night sky. The ceiling has since been replaced due to water damage.

The theatre opened in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1927. Some of the liveliest elements of its history occurred within the first two years. In an effort to lure early patrons, the theatre offered free plane flights as a perk for people who bought movie tickets. Then in 1928, the theatre fell victim to a robbery orchestrated by its own night watchman.

The building is now being restored, with hopes of transforming it into a performing arts facility.

Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre hosted artists like Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn in 2008.

The Paramount Theatre has been credited with igniting the jazz scene in Brooklyn. It boasted appearances from artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzergald, and Miles Davis. In the 1950s, it also became home to rock n’ rollers like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.

The theatre was later purchased by Long Island University, which converted it into the gymnasium seen in the above photograph. It is now being transformed into an event venue for the university’s students.

The Spooner Theatre in the Bronx used to show movies. Now it’s home to a Burger King and some retail stores.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Spooner Theatre in the Bronx in 2009.

For much of its history, the Spooner Theatre operated as a second-run movie theatre under the ownership of the Loew’s theatre chain. In the late 1960s, it became a space for clothing and furniture stores.

Today, the building holds a Burger King, The Children’s Place clothing store, and cell phone retailers like T Mobile. Marchand and Meffre photographed the auditorium before it was gutted in 2010.

The Rivoli Theatre in Berkeley, California became a 99-cent store.

Yves Marchand and Romain MeffreThe Rivoli Theatre in Berkeley, California, in 2013.

The theatre offers a fitting example of what Meffre called “the spectacle of modernity penetrating the baroque.”

After closing in the 1950s, the Rivoli become a drugstore, a supermarket, and, eventually, a 99-cent store.

Meffre said many of theatres he visited were located on higher floors with grocery or retail stores below. He and Marchand would ask the managers to let them upstairs without being sure of what they’d find.

“The ones that stayed unused the longest were above supermarkets or places that were actually functioning,” Meffre said. “It’s a kind of preservation by neglect.”

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