|At the Movies|
|Many movie historians maintain that the first motion picture theater ever opened in the nation was located in New Orleans. There's some debate over this, but, if the city's Vitascope Hall wasn't the very first, it was close to it. It opened in 1896, on the corner of Canal Street and Exchange Place. The building used as Vitascope Hall is no longer standing. The occupant of the current building -- on this site where U.S. movie theater history was probably made -- now dispenses burgers and fries. And there's no historical marker in evidence to indicate the site's claim to fame.|
| Most of the early movie houses started life as vaudeville theaters. They showed silent movie reels between vaudeville shows. Ultimately, when motion pictures replaced vaudeville in the public's affection, they devoted themselves entirely to movies. All across America, in the 1920's, grand movie houses were constructed -- the beginning of the Golden Age of movie palaces. The grand old theaters lasted until (progress being constant and the public's attention span being limited) visits to movie theaters took a back seat to TV and VCR's.
Some of New Orleans' downtown movie palaces have given way to the wrecking ball, but many are still here, now condos or businesses or performing arts theaters. Some are waiting to be transformed, hanging on to life by the skin of their teeth.
|Canal Street, 1930; two of New Orleans' most popular movie
theaters, Saenger on the left and Loew's on the right.
|Tulane and Crescent Theaters: above, the arcade; below, the exterior, ca. 1904.|
|The twin theaters, Crescent and Tulane, opened in 1898, at Baronne and Common (the original site of the college that would ultimately become Tulane University). The theaters were designed by Thomas Sully and known for the Arcade which served them both. The Tulane show-cased legitimate theater and the Crescent presented vaudeville and, later, "talking pictures." The theaters were torn down in 1937 to make way for the Roosevelt Hotel annex.|
|Left, the Globe, about 1920;
above, the Tudor and Globe, 1930.
|In 1914, the Tudor opened on Canal, between Camp and St. Charles. Four years later, the Globe opened next door. The Tudor was the first to install sound-reproducing equipment and had the distinction of showing the first talking movies in the city. When the Globe opened, this review appeared in The Times-Picayune (excerpted): "There are few theatres anywhere that present the elegance of appointment and the refinement of finishing that are offered in the new Globe Theatre that has recently been opened by Herman Fitchenberg."|
|The Trianon opened in 1912, near Canal and Carondelet. An excerpt of a review at the time of the opening: "The lobby is well-illuminated by many lights. The mural decorations are symbolic of various scenes in Louisiana. A five-piece orchestra furnishes the musical accompaniment to the three reels of first-run pictures, for which a price of ten cents is charged." An ad for the Trianon read: "Like a frothy summer confection, our ventilation keeps our theater cool." Intimately familiar with Louisiana summers as I am, I have a feeling that may have been a little bit of an over-statement. But, keeping customers cool during the city's hot summer months was a serious challenge in the days before air-conditioning. Some theaters had huge storage tanks in their basements, in which ice was kept during show times.|
|The Trianon, date unknown|
|The Strand Theater opened on Baronne and Gravier in 1917. It promised "swirling breezes generated by giant fan-typhoons." The Strand was the flagship of the Saenger Amusement Company until 1927, when the grand Saenger Theatre opened. (Saenger, also, owned the city's Globe and Tudor theaters, the Trianon, the Tivoli, the Liberty, the Alamo and, for awhile, the St. Charles.) From a review at the time of the opening: "The Strand far exceeded my most pleasurable anticipations. There is no other theater that I have seen outside of New York that will compare with this one in elegance of design and treatment in its furnishings."|
|Above, the Strand, ca. 1941; right, the theater after
it became known as the Joy Strand, ca. 1948.
|The Orpheum Theater, on University Place, opened as a vaudeville house in 1921 and many well-known entertainers such as Houdini and Burns & Allen appeared there. Before long, it offered movies, as well It, also, served as a site of several Carnival balls. It was one of the more lavish theaters of the golden movie palace days. The grand old Orpheum was scheduled for demolition in 1979, but was granted a reprieve at the last minute. It underwent major renovation and, eventually, re-opened as home to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, whose musicians prized the auditorium for the quality of its acoustics. The building was severely damaged during the flood following the levee failures. It has not re-opened, however, it's been sold to a private individual who has announced tentative plans to restore it. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, it was placed on the Louisiana Landmarks Society's list of most endangered historical sites in the city.|
|In 1926, the Loew's State Theatre opened as a vaudeville house, but included movies from the beginning. At the time it opened, the Loew's was the largest movie theater in the city, with 3,400 seats. The theater thrived for many years as one of the most popular on Canal Street. In the late 1980's, it underwent extensive restoration. Adjoining commercial spaces were remodeled and connected to the theater's lobbies, creating a large entertainment complex. Sadly, the building is now vacant and languishing.|
|Loew's State Theater, 1930's|
| The lavish Saenger Theatre opened across the street from Loew's in 1927. It took several years to design and construct and cost $2.5 million. When people talk about "movie palaces," they have a theater like the Saenger in mind. It boasted 4,000 seats and the interior was designed to resemble an Italian Baroque courtyard. Lights were installed in the ceiling, arranged in the shape of the constellations of the night sky. The Saenger had special effects machines that projected images of moving clouds, sunrises/sunsets across the theater's interior. (Sometimes, if the movie wasn't interesting, I'd lean back and spend some time admiring the night sky show on the ceiling, which never failed to be entertaining.)
In 1964, the balcony area of the Saenger was closed off from the rest of the theater and became the Saenger-Orleans, home to big-budget, long-run features. Both spaces closed in the 1970's, but the Saenger-Orleans was converted into a performing arts center, offering touring theater productions.
Flooding from the levee failures caused extensive damage to the Saenger and it sat vacant for four years, its fate unknown. But, in 2009, it was announced that the Saenger was to be meticulously restored and returned to its original glory. The marquee was ceremoniously re-lit in October, 2009 to signify the theater's rebirth. The Saenger is on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the outstanding movie palaces of pre-depression America. It is one of only a handful of Saenger movie palaces still standing in the United States.
|Left, the Saenger, 1980; right, Saenger marquee the night of the Saints' Superbowl Victory parade, 2010.|
|In 1906, the Shubert Theater opened as a vaudeville house in the 500 block of Baronne Street. By 1910, it had become the Lafayette. From the '20's to '40's, it was the Star, the Poche and, finally, in 1951, it became the Civic. In the 1960's, it was briefly home to the Repertory Theatre of New Orleans. It sat empty for many years before being purchased and renovated, using historic preservation guidelines, and turned into apartments. It is the oldest surviving movie theater building in New Orleans.|
|Above, the Civic when it was known
as the Poche, 1941; right, 1962.
|Mr. Houck's sign remains, but no more movies at the Joy Theater.|
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The Past Whispers - Home
|CLICK HERE to see a list of movies playing at
several movie theaters in New Orleans in 1922.
| Opening in 1947, the Joy Theater was a late-comer to the theaters of Canal Street, but it soon made an excellent name for itself. Although less luxurious than the Saenger or Loew's, it became one of the more popular downtown movie houses. It was the flagship of a theater circuit named for its owner, Joy Houck. The company was based in New Orleans and owned theaters and drive-ins across the South. When I was doing research for this page, I found an interesting story about Mr. Houck, written by one of his nephews:
"The president of Paramount Pictures had an office in the Saenger Theater facing Canal Street. When Joy established his headquarters office in New Orleans, he made a courtesy call to introduce himself to the man. Joy was treated rudely and told, 'I don't need to know who you are. I'll have you run out of town within two months.' Joy was not a man to take such treatment lightly. He bought the corner lot across from the Paramount office windows, where he built the Joy Theater. When he ordered the theater sign, saying simply 'JOY,' he had it made 80 feet high - HUGE. Joy remarked often, 'Every time that #%#% looks out of his window, he'll know I'm STILL in town!"
And, indeed, the Joy Theater lasted as long as the rest of the downtown movie houses, in fact, longer than most. It closed its doors in 2003. The theater is referred to in the title of a documentary about the decline of the grand old movie palaces, "No More Joy: The Rise and Fall of New Orleans' Movie Theatres." The Joy Theater suffered extensive damage from flooding during the levee failures and remains boarded up, abandoned and waiting to be rescued. Update, 7/15/11: Good news! An investor has purchased the Joy and plans to renovate it!