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What is a Movie Palace?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The term “movie palace” can be used generally to refer to a movie theater, a facility where films are shown on the big screen, but most people use it specifically to refer to the grand cinema houses built between the 1910s and the 1950s. Thanks to the efforts of preservation organizations, numerous examples of movie palaces have survived to be enjoyed today, and such theaters often emphasize their historic value to customers. For modern viewers, taking in a show at a movie palace can be a real treat, especially in a well-maintained building, because it can feel like a trip back in time.

Several features characterize a movie palace, distinguishing it from a more ordinary movie theater. As the name implies, movie palaces are like palaces, with very ornate exteriors and elaborate interiors. Many are faced with complex stone carvings, and they may have extremely ornamental facades which are like works of art in and of themselves. Inside, a movie palace is usually decorated with plush carpets, plaster moldings, colorful painted designs, and elaborate lighting, in addition to the typical movie posters, and some movie palaces retain proscenium arches, complete with a curtain which rises when the show is about to begin.

Some of the most iconic movie palaces are Art Deco movie palaces created during the 1930s, when design became highly stylized, and every feature of every structure was beautifully ornamented. Such theaters often have complex stylized painted designs, and it is not uncommon for each screen to have a different theme, allowing people to watch films in the Egyptian Room or the Old West Theater. Other movie palaces are more generally classified as “atmospheric,” referencing the architect's efforts to create an atmosphere.

Atmospheric movie palaces are big on luxury, especially those built during the Depression, and they feature a range of architectural styles which put them beyond an Art Deco classification. The goal was to create a space for people to escape to, allowing themselves to enter fantastical worlds, which meant that the theater would be decked out with elaborate ornaments, fanciful painted scenes, and a variety of effects. An atmospheric movie palace might, for example, have a ceiling outfitted with special lights which look like stars, or have a screening room which is designed to make people feel like they are on an outdoor deck in some fabulous tropical locale.

While the classic movie palace has been overtaken by the more utilitarian movie theater, many people have recognized the value of the movie palaces, and some communities have worked hard to save theirs. In some cases, cities have actually purchased historic movie palaces to prevent them from being demolished, offering the structures at low cost to people or firms who are willing to restore them. In other instances, preservation organizations step forward to get movie palaces looking their best and to keep them functional.

Many modern movie palaces do more than just showing movies, to ensure that the community gets a chance to enjoy the theater whenever possible. Some are designed to accommodate staged performances, for example, while others have promotional nights with things like filmmaker panels, dinner with movies, or seat-side beverage service during the film. Many also feature classic films on a regular basis, sometimes at a discount to ensure that the house is packed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon20144 — On Oct 26, 2008

As a girl, and Auntie took us to New York City to Loew's Capitol Theater, a sumptuous movie palace like the one's you describe, and the memory is still a happy one - the place as fancy-done as the Metropolitain Opera, I can remember the classic wide-eyed wonder I enjoyed that day!

I recommend the experience to parents, and grandmas for youngsters, if the film playing is right for them.

And yes....I remember the film we enjoyed, but not telling here....a good All-American one. thanks, wise geek!


you could really serve with sharing here, even a partial list of America's Movie Palaces....would you?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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