Photographing the Afterlives and Second Acts of America’s Movie Palaces
Matt Lambros is inspired by abandoned theaters—and their potential for revival.
Today, the United Artists Theatre in downtown Detroit is vacant, crumbling, its future uncertain, but on opening night in 1928, it was packed with “lots of high hats, plenty of low gowns and the best in town,” according to Variety. Actress Gloria Swanson supposedly pressed a button from Palm Beach to part the new curtains in Detroit to show her silent film, Sadie Thompson. The outlandish style—dripping with chandeliers, tapestries, and ornate plaster—was described as “Spanish Gothic.” It had glory years of first-run films, and darker days with more adult-oriented fare, before closing in 1971. After an auction of its furnishings—including those almost absurd chandeliers—it was used as a warehouse and a recording studio, until it graduated into its current role as one of the ruins that are providing the backdrop to the city’s revival.
The theater and other cinema relics are featured in architectural photographer Matt Lambros’s upcoming book, After the Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters. Neglected temples to the movies have long been central to Lambros’s practice—he shot little else for 10 years, has published two other books on them, and is a long-time member and on the board of directors of the Theatre Historical Society of America. What inspires his devotion? “My inspiration comes from the fact that most of the theaters I visit are largely forgotten,” writes Lambros, 36, in an email. “My generation grew up going to multiplexes and for the most part have no idea that people went to the movies in what are essentially palaces, so I felt like I needed to share that.”
These movie palaces were fixtures of American cities large and small for the first half of the 20th century, providing suitably wondrous escapist backdrops to the celluloid fantasies of their screens, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. But by the late 1950s, as urban populations declined, seats in these huge spaces grew hard to fill, and the Hollywood studio system that had created them had also fallen apart. Some found second lives as performance and event venues, but many fell into disrepair or were demolished.
Lambros spoke to Atlas Obscura about how he started photographing theaters, the ups-and-downs of such spaces, and how creepy they are sometimes.
What was your first encounter with an abandoned theater?
I’ve had an interest in abandoned buildings in general for as long as I can remember. I actually started filming various abandoned mental hospitals along the East Coast before focusing on theaters. Each of the hospital complexes was designed like a mini, self-sustaining city. They had their own power plants, farms, housing, and entertainment, which usually included a theater. Those were always my favorite parts of those buildings, but they weren’t as ornate as the ones I photograph now. The first ornate one that I photographed was St. Alphonsus Hall in Boston. Unfortunately, it was gutted a few years ago.
You also study the theaters you photograph, and contribute a lot of time to getting some of them restored. What inspires that preservation work?
These theaters were an important part of the history of the American motion picture industry, and some of them are being left to rot. I’m happy to do whatever I can to help an organization looking to restore one of them, but in many cases there isn’t one. So I tell the theater’s story through the pictures on my site.
What is the biggest challenge in documenting these abandoned spaces?
I’d say my biggest challenge is finding the owner’s contact information, and convincing them to let me into their unsafe building.
I imagine lighting must be difficult. How long does it take to set up your shots, and what are you shooting with?
Ideally, I’d like to spend at least six to eight hours photographing a theater. That’s not always possible, so I have a number of safety shots. I’ve been doing this long enough that the gear in my camera bag has gone through a number of revisions. I can and have been in and out of a theater in less than an hour. I don’t like to do it that way, but I try to be respectful of the building owner’s time. I’m currently using a Canon 5DS with a variety of lenses.
The Orpheum Theatre in St. Louis on the current cover of After the Final Curtain actually looks pretty intact. What’s the story behind that place?
The Orpheum Theatre in St. Louis was actually restored about 16 years ago, and was a functioning performing arts center until 2012. The owners went bankrupt, and the building was purchased by Jubilee World, a Christian ministry, a few years later. They told the press that they plan to reopen it, but nothing has happened yet.
Have you had any unusual or surprising experiences while shooting?
Pretty much every theater I’ve photographed has a ghost story or two associated with it, but I’ve never come across anything that didn’t have a rational explanation. On one of my first trips to the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, I kept hearing a lot of banging backstage. It sounded like someone was hitting something with a large piece of metal. The noise would start, then stop for a few minutes, and start up again in another section of the building. It turned out that there was a homeless man living in the backstage area, and he was trying—unsuccessfully—to scare us out.
Is there a theater that you haven’t shot yet that you really want?
My bucket list has gotten pretty short, but it would have to be the Warner Grand Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was designed by Rapp & Rapp, an architecture firm from Chicago. They were responsible for designing some of the most ornate theaters in the country, including the Kings in Brooklyn, and the Uptown in Chicago. The theater closed in the early 1990s, and is currently being restored to become the new home of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I wasn’t able to make it inside before construction began. Luckily, it’s being completely restored, and will reopen next year. So I will be able to shoot it, just not in an abandoned state.
Do you have a favorite?
My favorite theater is the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. It was abandoned for almost 40 years, and reopened in 2015. I was able to photograph it while it was abandoned, being restored, and after it reopened. Being able to watch one of these buildings return to life after so long is the most rewarding part of this project. I’ve been able to shoot a few more restorations since then, and hope to capture more in the future.
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