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Life Arts

Vintage Cinema: Fond Glimpses of Classic Beauties

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Meryl Ann Butler     Permalink

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Auditorium Neon (det., Augusta Theatre) c. Fred Lassman
(Image by Fred Lassman)
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In 1889, George Eastman set the stage for the golden age of America's picture palaces when he registered his patent for perforated celluloid film.

Soon after, a nickel could buy dreams of adventure and love in the shrines that had been built to the sacred silver screen.

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Moviegoers were mesmerized by the magic of neon and murals even before the lights dimmed, and some of these grand "one-screen-wonder" cinema houses are still showing films today.

Augusta Theatre (exterior detail) c. Fred Lassman
(Image by Fred Lassman)
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Art Deco Grandeur

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The Augusta Theatre (Augusta, Kansas) opened on June 19, 1935, amidst telegrams of support and congratulations from the big names in the industry, including Louis Mayer, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. A two-story art deco building in the center of downtown, it was the first theatre in the U.S. to use neon illumination entirely throughout the interior.

Augusta Theatre South Mural (det.) c. Fred Lassman
(Image by Fred Lassman)
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Now called the Augusta Historic Theatre, it is currently a movie house and a community arts center operated by the Augusta Arts Council.

According to the Council, "Of the estimated 5,000 theatres built in the United States prior to 1940, more than 75 percent have either been demolished or adapted for reuse to an extent that precludes their future use as theatres."

Escape to the Movies

Colley Theater moviegoers in the 1930's. (Note the nuns!)
(Image by Tench Phillips)
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"A battered economy may leave many palace theaters struggling, but it's worth noting that even in the poorest days of the Great Depression, 60 to 80 million Americans continued going to movies regularly," according to

Bach to the Future

Hilo Palace Theatre
(Image by
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Opening in 1925, The Hilo Palace was owned and operated by the nephew of the last royal governor of the island of Hawai"i. The theatre has been refurbished, and now offers movies, live concerts and a wide variety of performances.

Eia Ka Hula (Behold the Hula) performed at the Hilo Palace, Nov. 2010
(Image by Hilo Palace)
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The venue features excellent natural acoustics and an original 1922 Robert Morton pipe organ , which has been restored and is currently in use for concerts and other events.

Bob Alder playing the historic Robert Morton organ at the Hilo Palace Theatre.
(Image by Robert Alder)
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The Robert Morton Organ Company of Van Nuys, CA, was the second largest producer of theatre organs, and the sound quality of their organs is generally accepted to be superior to the industry leader, Wurlitzer. The organ company closed in 1931, after the advent of sound in movies made theater organs obsolete, and few of these organs remain.

Artifacts from the Golden Age of Cinema

Marlee Matlin (Amanda) in the movie, What the Bleep Do We Know?
(Image by
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In 1927, Universal Pictures built the exotic Bagdad Theatre in Portland Oregon, which featured Middle Eastern de'cor, a stunning fountain, and usherettes clad in Arabian-style costume.

Nowadays the popular Bagdad Theater and Pub, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, features second run movies, "Two-dollar Tuesdays," and live, local comedy.

Bagdad interior
(Image by
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The Bagdad and its romantic interior with barreled arches, ornate wrought-iron fixtures, brilliant mosaics and painted Mediterranean designs was prominently featured in the 2004 sleeper hit What the Bleep Do We Know?

The NARO Expanded Cinema, Norfolk, VA. Photo: Mac MacKinney
(Image by Mac MacKinney)
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Celebrating 75 Years

The NARO Expanded Cinema in the historic Ghent area of Norfolk, VA, is one of the country's most active art house cinemas, seating 500.   They offer films by prominent independent, foreign, and American filmmakers; film festivals; and stimulating discussion with guest experts including such notables as: author and trial Lawyer Vincent Bugliosi, Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman,   and activist Cindy Sheehan.  

On Sunday mornings the NARO offers an innovative bagel brunch, with an advance screening, critique and conversation.

Colley Theater opening, Feb. 24, 1936. (note car at right)
(Image by Tench Phillips, NARO Expanded Cinema)
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The NARO opened its doors three quarters of a century ago, on Feb. 24, 1936, as The Colley Theatre. It was "built for what was at the time the substantial amount of $75,000" according to current co-owner, Tench Phillips.

Olivia de Havilland (Public Domain)
(Image by Public Domain)
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The opening night feature was A Midsummer Night's Dream starring James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland. Robert Levine purchased the theatre in the mid-60's and re-named it after his parents, Nathan and Rose, whose images still grace the walls. Phillips and Thom Vourlas took it over in 1977, when the "historic Ghent" area was pretty much just the NARO and the restaurant next door.

Modern Times
(Image by NARO Cinema)
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The NARO Cinema's 75th Anniversary will be celebrated on Thursday, February 24, 2011, with a screening of one of the most famous films of 1936, Charlie Chaplain's Modern Times .

Rocky Horror Picture Show poster
(Image by Rocky Horror Picture Show)
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The cinema house shows the Rocky Horror Picture Show twice a month as well as on Halloween. Depending on how you calculate it, the NARO ranks first, second or third for longest-running RHPS in the U.S., according to the movie's fan-run, Frequently Asked Questions website.

The NARO also offers an annual Green Screen Film Festival of feature films and shorts, about sustainability issues, which is coordinated with community seminars.

Cyrano de Bergerac movie poster. Courtesy the wiki.
(Image by
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Years ago, when I brought my preteen to see Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gerard Depardieu, Phillips was manning the door. When he saw her, he cautioned me, "Do you realize this is a foreign film, with subtitles?" "Yes," I responded, "but I think it's good to expose her to art house fare."

Phillips laughed, "Well, so do I, and I'll contribute to her education - she's my guest!" as he waved her in.

That Retro Flavor

Hot popcorn
(Image by wikipedia)
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You can still get a bag of what Vourlas calls "the best popcorn in the state" made in their antique popcorn machine. And the NARO is the only theater I've been to that offers the indispensable brewer's yeast to sprinkle on top! Tasty baklava and fresh-baked brownies are unique but reasonably priced concession stand staples.

After selecting your treats, climb the teeny weeny stairwells up to the balcony for the best seats in the house.

If you're not lucky enough to live near any of the vintage cinema houses mentioned, find one near you on the art house theater map at and have a great time at the movies!


Fine Art Photography by Fred Lassman

All Fine Art Photography by Fred Lassman used with permission. All photos shown of the Augusta Historic Theatre are " -2011 Fred Lassmann, All Rights Reserved."   Photos shown have been cropped for this article. Full versions of photos shown are available as posters, fine art prints and Giclee prints at A portion of the sale of these photographs is returned to the Augusta Arts Council for use on theatre needs. 

Augusta Historic Theater/Augusta Arts Council:



Hilo Palace Theater



Hilo Theater Organ Society website:

The pipe organ in the Palace Theatre is owned by the Hilo Theatre Organ Society. HTOS a 501-C-3 tax exempt organization and accepts tax-deductible contributions toward preserving the historic Robert-Morton Pipe Organ.

Hear Bob Alder play "Waikiki" on the historic Robert-Morton Pipe Organ

The Eia Ka Hula (Behold the Hula) performance at the Hilo Palace on Nov. 19, 2010, was in celebration of the Beamer Solomon Hula School's 152nd Anniversary.

Bagdad Theater

website :


NARO Expanded Cinema




Rocky Horror Picture Show

"What theatre has been showing RHPS for the longest time?

"In the US...The Graceland Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, which had been showing RHPS regularly since 1976, has closed. The Austin Cast's run, with two weekly shows since May 12, 1976, was disrupted in 1997. The longest run left is probably the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or the Clinton Street Theatre in Portland, OR, which have both been running since 1977, according to Fox. The theaters themselves claim their runs started in 1978 (January and April, respectively). The Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, VA has also been running the film since 1978 (September). It's gotten to the point of "how do you define a run?" (the Oriental now only shows the film once a month, for example)."


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Meryl Ann Butler is an artist, author, educator and OpedNews Managing Editor who has been actively engaged in utilizing the arts as stepping-stones toward joy-filled wellbeing since she was a hippie. She began writing for OpEdNews in Feb, 2004. She became a Senior Editor in August 2012 and Managing Editor in January, (more...)

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