Beauty and decay: inside America’s derelict movie theatres

Beauty and decay: inside America’s derelict movie theatres

In a new photobook, photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre capture a bygone era of entertainment through decaying American movie theatres

There’s something divine about decay. Traces of what once was; eras of very different social concerns, tastes and aspirations. 

Movies can give us a window into the past, and as French photography duo Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre are proving, so too can movie theatres, particularly those partially chewed up by time. 

Fox Theater, Inglewood, CA. Image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, from the book Movie Theaters, published by Prestel 
Fox Theater, Inglewood, CA. Image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

They can still be found in many American towns; majestic shrines to film, constructed during the golden age of the entertainment. But these cinemas now stand in various states of decades-long abandonment, empty, derelict, or reborn as something else entirely. Movie Theaters, published by Prestel, is an ode to these iconic American structures, or what remains of them. 

This book isn’t the duo’s first taste of tatters. They began their collaboration in 2002 by exploring Parisian remains and have published books including The Ruins of Detroit and Gunkanjima

Proctor’s Theater, Newark, NJ, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, from the book Movie Theaters, published by Prestel 
Paramount Theater, Newark, NJ. Images © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, part of the photography book Movie Theaters on derelict cinemas
Top: Proctor’s Theater, Newark, NJ. Above: Paramount Theater, Newark, NJ. Images © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

The early 20th-century brought with it an entertainment boom. Hundreds of theatres popped up across the US, with many major movie studios commissioning architects to build extravagant, palatial auditoriums to satisfy the swelling appetites of spectators. 

Since 2005, photographic duo Marchand and Meffre have travelled across America to visit these theatrical relics. In hundreds of lushly coloured images, they have captured the rich architectural diversity of the theatres’ exteriors and interiors, from neo-Renaissance to neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau to Bauhaus, neo-Byzantine to Jugendstil.

Columbia Theatre, Paducac, KY, 2011 derelict movie theaters
Columbia Theatre, Paducac, KY, 2011. Opened in 1927 and designed (1,200 seats) by Louisville-based architect W Earl Gore for Kentucky theatre operators Leo F Keiler and Rodney C Davis of Columbia Amusement and Realty Company. In the 1950s, it was modernised and partially remodelled in the Skouras style. In 1967, it was divided and a second screen was added on the balcony. It closed in 1987 and the asbestos fire curtain was renovated in 2013. It is currently awaiting renovation.
Robins Theaters, Warren, OH. Image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, part of the photography book Movie Theaters on derelict cinemas
Robins Theaters, Warren, OH. Image © Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Armed with a large-format camera, they composed images spanning landscape exteriors to intimate close-ups. There’s beauty in the flaking paint, opulence in the rows of tattered crushed-velvet seats, stories retained in the defunct equipment and abandoned concession stands. Laughs, tears, screams and gasps live on in the crumbling cornices. 

Some sites have not been left entirely for dead. But as the 1960s matured, so too did domestic TV sets and multiplexes. During the following decades, the heyday of the movie theatre was tarnished by modernisation. These majestic buildings, in turn, began taking on less majestic roles: bingo halls, basketball courts, bus depots, warehouses, fitness centres, flea markets, car parks and retail stores. 

In contemporary times, where streaming services reign and convenience outshines occasion, Marchand and Meffre’s book is not just an appetising visual record of the majestic movie palace, it’s a timely eulogy for a entertainment’s golden years. Decay, in its divinity, is evidence that things have moved on, for better or worse. §

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