"Some Enchanted Evenings: American Picture Palaces"

Created by Mary Halnon, American Studies at UVA

I wanted to write about movie theaters because, as I did my research for other projects and other classes at UVA, film kept surfacing as an important "glue" in American culture for the last 100 years. Our perception of ourselves, our history, our expectations for the future and our ideas about entertainment and spectacle seem to have been irrevocably altered by this invention which was considered a 'passing fad' by many a century ago.

When I began my research on the movie palaces, I was surprised by how little mention was made about other centers of commercial consumption and entertainment of that era--how little contextualization was going on--save the references to arcades, circuses, and vaudeville houses as architectural antecedents. As a consequence, I found that most accounts of the palaces were either purely descriptive or tended to look at movie theaters as some phenomenon particular to the film industry. Conversely, most accounts of other 'centers of consumption,' like those authored by Boorstin, Orvell, Leach, and Trachtenberg, focused on department stores, restaurants, and hotels and neglected movie palaces almost entirely. I believe these structures were mutually reinforcing and that the 'borrowing' that was going on was not merely architectural, but about shared conceptions and vocabularies that propelled America into its present-day position as the primary consumer culture in the world.

Finally, I chose the movie palaces because, in this multiplex moment, there is still something a little breathtaking about the idea of a giant Wurlitzer ascending from the bowels of the earth while stars cross the ceiling in a shared "garden of dreams."

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