With their sticky floors and seats sprinkled with popcorn crumbs, today’s movie theaters are often not much to look at. But rewind a few decades to the golden age of cinema, and you’ll find theaters as glamorous as the Hollywood films they showcased. Like modern cathedrals, their ornate ceilings, glitzy chandeliers, and red velvet seats made the escape of movie-going begin the moment you set foot in the cinema.
In his new series, Cinema, French-born, Brooklyn-based photographer Franck Bohbot snaps empty theaters that still remain from these glory days. “The greatest emotion I have ever had in my life took place in the dark and not in front of a smartphone or television,” Bohbot writes in his artist’s statement about the project. “I have decided to spotlight the grandiose movie palaces to the independent movie houses.” Instead of the films they screened, the theaters themselves become the objects of fascination. With not a human soul in sight, these resplendent spaces come alive. Blank screens appear like glowing portals. But the emptiness is also a bit eerie, as if the spaces house ghosts of the thousands of viewers that once sat rapt in their seats.
Many of these vintage theaters escaped attempts on their lives by renovators and developers. California’s Orinda Theater, which opened in 1941 with a showing of The Maltese Falcon, was slated for demolition in 1984. But preservationists saved it, and it reopened in 1989. Now, Bohbot pays homage to its gaudy art-deco carpeting with a painterly snapshot.
Other theaters seemed doomed to be forgotten: Alameda, California’s Alameda Theater, which opened in 1932, was closed in 1979 due to declining audiences. For a while, it housed a roller rink and almost became a chain pizza place for kids. But in 2005, San Franciscans voted to rejuvenate it, and now it’s back screening films, with its message from the ’30s intact: “Take the magic with you,” advises a glitzy sign above the exit.
We can only hope that someday there will be an app that magically transforms our messy living rooms and tiny laptop screens into home theaters as stunning as these.
See more of Franck Bohbot’s work at his website.