I took a bit of a hiatus from the site to finish this up, but now that I’m completely done I’m excited to announce that my third book is coming out this November!
“After the Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters” will feature 20 different theaters across the United States, including six exclusive ones, and a foreword written by Tim League, the founder of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain.
If you pre-order it via my site you will get a signed copy with a ticket stub and a 5×7 print of one of the theaters in the book. It should ship around the first week in November.
The streets of small towns and cities across America were filled with the lights and sounds of movie theaters in the early 20th Century. The most opulent were known as “movie palaces,” which were designed to make their patrons feel like royalty; people would dress up to visit. But as time went on, it became harder and harder to fill the 2,000+ seat theaters, and many were forced to close.
Today, these palaces are illuminated only by the flicker of dying lights, and the sound of water dripping from holes in the ceiling echoes through the auditoriums. In “After the Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters,” internationally-renowned photographer Matt Lambros continues his travels across the United States, documenting these once-elegant buildings. From the supposedly haunted Pacific Warner Theatre in Los Angeles to the Orpheum Theatre in New Bedford, MA, which opened the same day the Titanic sank, Lambros pulls back the curtain to reveal what is left, giving these palaces a chance to shine again.
Several people served as managers of the Kings since it opened in 1929. The first was Edward Douglas who managed the theater until 1943. Clyde Fuller, who managed from 1943 to 1957, followed Douglas before moving to the Loew’s State in Manhattan. Daniel Cohen, who worked at the Kings from 1957 to October 1961 and left to take a job in the publicity department of the Loew’s corporate office, replaced Fuller. Joe Beck was transferred from the Loew’s Gates Theatre to replace Cohen. During his tenure as manager, Beck arranged for a local ice cream parlor to provide coffee and doughnuts to patrons waiting in line to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s on opening day. Beck managed the Kings for a little over a year before being transferred to the Loew’s Tower East in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in March 1962.
However, none of these managers were quite as unique as Dorothy (Solomon) Panzica. Born near Boston and raised in Brooklyn, Panzica began her theater career as an usherette at the Loew’s 46th Street Theatre in Brooklyn. By 1942, she had been promoted to manager. She had managed six other Loew’s theaters (the Kameo, 46th Street, Brevoort, Palace, Commodore, and Oriental) before being transferred to the Kings in March of 1962. When she found out she was going to the Kings, Panzica reached out to Nick’s Moving Company, one of the tenants at the Loew’s Oriental. She wanted to make the move a larger than life event and she convinced Nick to provide a moving van for an impromptu parade from the Oriental to the Kings. Panzica had a banner made that read “The Fun is moving to the Loew’s Kings” and had it hung from the moving van. She filled the van with empty trunks that were decorated to look like movie tickets and concession treats, and began the four-mile drive from the Oriental to the Kings. Local school bands marched at both theaters, each playing a synchronized salute to American composer George M. Cohan.
Panzica had a rather unorthodox way of promoting movies, and that lead to her becoming known as the “Lady Showman of Flatbush Avenue.” For example, if she didn’t like the film that was playing she’d put, “One of the WORST movies we’ve shown” on the marquee, and that caused people to show up to see just how bad the film could be. Another time, people were not coming to see a movie that was playing so she instructed the ticket taker to start selling tickets and making change very slowly. Before long, a line started to form and more people would join it thinking that the movie was one worth waiting for. Panzica also rented out the theater for other functions, such as school graduations and group meetings. She brought in so much extra money through the rentals that she often won contests held by Loew’s.
Loew’s opened a modern twin theater in the Georgetown neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1968. The Georgetown Twin, as it was called, had one thing the Kings lacked – a large parking lot. Patrons flocked to the new theater, and eventually the Kings started showing films 20 minutes after they started at the Georgetown so they could get the overflow from the sold out showings.
In early 1969, Loew’s hired John J. McNamara, an associate of well-known theater architect Thomas W. Lamb, to convert the Kings from a single screen theater to a triplex. The plans called for the orchestra level to be divided into two screens with a third screen in the balcony. The balcony floor would have extended to the proscenium, and much of the ornamental plaster, including the columns would have been removed. Since the balcony of the theater is very short, the cost of extending it and dividing the orchestra would have been excessive. Dorothy Panzica paid a visit to Loew’s Corporate Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan as soon as she heard about these plans and convinced them to preserve the theater as a single screen.
1969 was also the 40th anniversary year of the Kings, and Dorothy Panzica made sure there was a huge celebration. Together with the Flatbush Merchants Association, the theater celebrated the occasion with a month of contests and prizes culminating in a gala event at the theater on October 3, 1969. The Purple Wood, a band that has since faded into obscurity, entertained crowds in front of the theater. Eventually the crowds grew so large that police had to cordon them off from the arriving guests. Ebinger’s, a local Brooklyn bakery, baked a special cake that read “Congratulations Loew’s Kings 40th Anniversary – Donated by Ebinger’s” just for the occasion. Among the people attending the event were: Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark, Jack Rosenberg (president of the Flatbush Merchants Association), Bernard Diamond (VP of Loews Theatres), Harold Graff (Loews Division Manager), and Daniel Cohen (Loews Eastern General Manager and former manager of the Kings).
Flatbush experienced a shift in demographics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the Italian, Irish, and Jewish families that once made up the neighborhood moved to the suburbs, and businesses began to follow. In early November 1973, Panzica picked up the theater’s copy of Flatbush Life and saw the front-page article titled “Filthy Flatbush Avenue.” She was outraged and immediately set up a meeting with a number of local merchants, who, like Panzica, were angry at the article because it would drive customers away. The group brainstormed a number of ideas before deciding that they should organize a neighborhood cleanup. Panzica, ever the show-woman, used the cleanup to promote an upcoming film – The Way We Were starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. She had signs made that said, “Flatbush is beautiful. We are polishing up ‘The Way We Are’ for ‘The Way We Were.’ See Streisand and Redford Together at the Loew’s Kings starting Wed Nov. 14th.” Ushers and volunteers carried those signs as they swept and picked up trash along Flatbush Avenue. Panzica was awarded first prize in the Columbia Pictures The Way We Were showmanship contest for her efforts in promoting the film.
In January 1974, the “Mighty Morton” organ was played for the last time at the Kings by Lee Erwin for an audience of around 200. The 3,000-pipe organ had been largely unused, only being played during graduation ceremonies and special events. The Loews Corporation donated the organ to New York University, as the Tisch Brothers, who owned a controlling interest in Loews, were alumni of the school. Panzica said, “I’ll miss the beautiful old thing. I’m sad, but in a happy sort of way.”
Panzica announced her retirement in September 1975. She was so beloved that the week of her retirement the Loew Down, Loew’s weekly newsletter, was entirely devoted to her career. Martin Brunner, who previously managed the Loew’s Gates in Brooklyn, replaced Panzica as manager. Brunner was used to programming for a different demographic and began bringing in a lot of kung fu and “B” films to show at the Kings. According to Paul Lepelletier, Brunner did not promote the films like Panzica and also failed to bring in outside groups to rent out the theater. Attendance began to decline and, at the same time, the cost of keeping the theater open was going up. Rumors began to circulate that Loews was going to sell the Kings.
Material from for this post was taken from the first three chapters of my book, Kings Theatre; The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Wonder Theater. If you’d like to buy a copy they are available on Amazon, and on my website.
The Roxie Theatre in Los Angeles, California opened on November 25, 1931. It was the last theater in Los Angeles’s Broadway Theater District to open, and was built on the site of Quinn’s Superba Theatre, which was demolished to make way for the new theater. The Roxie originally had 1,637 seats, and was designed primarily for motion pictures, but had a small stage house so it could hold live performances.
It was designed by John M. Cooper — known for the NuWilshire Theatre in Santa Monica — in the Art Deco style, and has the distinction of being the only Art Deco theater in the theater district. Construction began in June 1931 at a cost of around $100,000 (or $1,663,794 when adjusted for inflation.)
The Roxie’s history is marred by a number of tragic events, beginning with the death of the Harry Metzger, the general manager, on August 3, 1943. A customer discovered Metzger had died of a heart attack in the ticket booth when they went to purchase a ticket. On Christmas Eve 1954, a woman killed herself in her seat during a double feature showing of “Crossed Swords” and “Track of the Cat.” The Roxie was an all-night theater at the time, so her body wasn’t discovered until the lights went on at 3:30AM. The only clues to her identity were a Canadian dollar bill and a telephone number written on a cafe receipt in her pockets. She’s never been identified. Richard Studeny, an usher, tied up the manager and robbed the theater in June of 1958. He turned himself in to the police in Florida the following December.
In 1989, the Roxie closed after a stint showing Spanish-language films operated by Metropolitan Theatres. The ticket booth was removed and the lobby was converted into retail space in 1995. A number of reuse plans for the building have been been proposed over the years, often including the nearby Cameo and Arcade Theaters. One plan proposed turning the Roxie into a restaurant and restoring the Arcade as a live performance venue, but nothing has come to pass. The Roxie’s auditorium has been used as a filming location in a number of movies over the years including “Foxcatcher,” starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.
The original Loew’s Kings policy was to bring Broadway entertainment to a neighborhood district, which was a departure from the long-established operating plan of the Loew’s Theatres Corporation. During the first few months of 1930, the Kings, Valencia, and Pitkin Theatres were advertised as “Loew’s Wonder Theatres” and given top billing in local newspapers as they all hosted vaudeville performances from Loew’s Capitol Theatre in Manhattan. A show would open at the Capitol and then move to the Kings, Valencia, or Pitkin before moving on to another one of the Loew’s theaters in the New York Metropolitan area. That changed on June 7th, 1930 when Loew’s announced a new summer program for the Kings that they called “All the Show on the Screen.”
Loew’s stopped the vaudeville performances, lowered ticket prices, and switched to a Wednesday/Saturday schedule for films. A number of factors contributed to the change, the main one was the worldwide economic recession known as the Great Depression. On October 29, 1929, less than two months after the Kings opened, the stock market crash led to a severe economic depression. Because of this, attendance at certain Loew’s theaters, including the Kings, had dropped; people could not afford the higher priced vaudeville shows. Another reason that attendance dropped at the Kings was neighborhood competition from the nearby Flatbush and Kenmore Theatres which were also presenting vaudeville shows. Finally, the Kings size proved to be a detriment for live performances. Most of the seats were on the main floor, and performers complained that they could not “reach” people in the back rows. Even though Loew’s claimed it was just for the summer of 1930, the summer policy was never reversed, and the Kings joined the Bedford, Coney Island, Kameo, and Oriental Theatres as Loew’s Perfect Talking Screens, which was Loew’s term for theaters that only showed motion pictures.
In 1933, Paramount-Famous-Lasky Company was unable to pay its debts and was forced to file for bankruptcy. Soon after this, Loew’s Inc. stopped making mortgage payments to the Allied Owners Corporation on the Kings, Valencia, and Pitkin Theatres. Since Allied Owners had been originally formed to finance the Kings, Brooklyn Paramount, Pitkin, and Valencia, not being paid for three of the four theaters caused that company to declare bankruptcy as well. Allied Owners then filed suit against Loew’s and Paramount for the missed payments. The case was settled in August 1934 for $12,875,000 to be paid over a period of 25 years. The closing of the sale took place the following year on July 29, 1935 when the Kings, Valencia, and Pitkin officially became the property of Loew’s Inc. Rumor has it that Loew’s Inc. stopped the payment to Allied Owners because they were trying to acquire Paramount during the bankruptcy proceedings, but Paramount emerged from bankruptcy before Loew’s was able to take over.
For the first twenty years, the Kings primarily showed MGM and Paramount films, but that changed in 1948 because of the results of a United States Supreme Court case. The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., also known as the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, decreed that movie studios were no longer allowed to own theaters and hold exclusive rights on where the films they produced were shown. Studios owning theater circuits had created monopolies in some areas, and the verdict forced Loew’s and MGM to split into two separate companies in 1952.
In 1949, Loew’s decided to give a number of their theaters an upgrade by replacing the original marquees and vertical signs with more modern ones. They contracted Art Kraft Strauss, the company that originally installed the marquee and vertical sign on the Kings, to install new ones. On December 14, 1949 the old marquee was removed and the new one was installed over the next few weeks finishing on January 9, 1950. It was designed to fit over the frame of the original with the original underbelly remaining. The original vertical sign came down almost a year later on October 27, 1950 and its replacement was installed over the next few days. It was lit for the first time on November 3, 1950. Unfortunately, the blade wasn’t properly secured to the facade of the building, and it would sway slightly in the wind. On an especially windy day in late November it began to sway so badly that the police had to cordon off the front of the theater because they were afraid it was going to fall off. Art Kraft Strauss sent workers to secure the sign and reattach the letters “E” and “O” in “LOEW’S which had come loose during the swinging.
Part Three will be available soon. Material from for this post was taken from the first three chapters of my book, Kings Theatre; The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Brooklyn’s Wonder Theater. If you’d like to buy a copy they are available on Amazon, and on my website.
Here are the first three locations for the 2019 photo workshop season:
First up is a return to the Orpheum Theatre in New Bedford, MA on February 23, 2019. The Orpheum was the first theater profiled on After the Final Curtain, and the past workshops have been great. Attendees will be able to photograph the auditorium, ballroom and shooting range. You can find out more information and sign up here.
Finally, the Colonial Theatre in Augusta, Maine on April 27, 2019. It opened in 1913, and closed in the 1960s. There’s a group looking to restore the theater, and they’ve done quite a bit of work (including fixing a giant hole in the auditorium floor.) This will be the first workshop at the Colonial, and I’m excited for all of you to see it in person. For more information visit: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/workshops/colonial-theatre
I’m still waiting on confirmation for three more new workshop locations for early 2019. I don’t want to say much about them until I get the go ahead, but two of them are active theaters. Hopefully, I’ll be able to announce them very soon.
The American Shakespeare Theatre opened on July 12, 1955 in Stratford, CT. Construction of the building began in 1954, and cost $1 million or $9.3 million when adjusted for inflation. It was commissioned by the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy (ASFTA), which was formed by Lawrence Langner, a co-founder of The Theatre Guild. Langner formed the ASFTA to create American interpretations of William Shakespeare’s plays in Connecticut.
The final full season was in 1982, with performances of “King Henry IV,” “Twelfth Night,” and “Hamlet.” In 1983, the theater was bought by the state of Connecticut for $1 million due to the threat of foreclosure. The American Shakespeare Theatre Corp. was given a 20 year, $1 a year lease but financial issues continued and the summer productions were canceled in 1986.
In 1989 the theater was closed. The final production was one-person show of the Tempest. Connecticut turned the property over to the town of Stratford in 2005 after a few failed attempts to develop the property. On January 13, 2019, a fire destroyed the theater. The cause is currently unknown.
2019 is going to be a big year for After the Final Curtain. First, in December 2019 it will be 10 years since I first photographed the Loew’s Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, NY and kicked off the project that turned into After the Final Curtain. Second, I’ve been hard at work on the follow up to 2016’s After the Final Curtain: The Fall of the American Movie Theater, which should be out later this year. I’m going to set up a book tour around the release of the book, so if there are any places you’d like me to stop at be sure to let me know!
Third, I’ll be announcing the first photography workshops of 2019 in the next few days. I’m just waiting on confirmation from two of the new locations.
Thanks for following my work and I hope you all are having a happy 2019.
Beginning on Cyber Monday November 26 and running until December 2, 2018 you’ll get 20% off select prints and books on my website: http://www.mlambrosphotography.com/store/ if you use the coupon code “Cybermonday”
I’ve been asked about a calendar for a while, and finally decided to create one. The 2019 After the Final Curtain Calendar will feature 12 of the theaters I’ve photographed in order of the month that they originally opened and will include some that I’ve never posted online.
If you have any questions, please let me know!
After the Final Curtain is a personal project, and all profits from your print purchases help me to continue photographing endangered theaters across the United States.
The Sorg Opera House in Middletown, OH originally opened on September 12, 1891. Paul J. Sorg, Middletown’s first multi-millionaire, had the opera house built as a gift to the city of Middletown. Sorg hired Samuel Hannaford, who designed the Cincinnati Music Hall, to design the 1,200-seat opera house. Opening day included a performance of the opera “The Little Tycoon,” composed by Willard Spenser and a speech by then Ohio Governor James E. Campbell.
In 1901, the Sorg began showing early forms of motion pictures, such as photo plays, and vaudeville performances before the operas. Many now famous vaudeville performers played at the opera house, including Marie Dressler, Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Bob Hope and Sophie Tucker. The live shows were discontinued in the late 1920s, and in the summer of 1929 a sound system was installed, turning the Sorg into a full time movie theater.
On January 17, 1935, a fire caused $10,000 (or $185,298 when adjusted for inflation) of damage to the backstage area of the theater, which caused it to close for several months. In April 1935, the Gordon Theatre Company took a long term lease on the theater and began repairs. It reopened in September 22, 1935 with films and stage shows. The Sorg closed again for a remodel in the late 1940s and a false ceiling was added, separating the upper balcony from the the rest of the theater to improve the sound.
The Sorg remained a movie theater until it closed in the late 1970s. Soon after, the Friends of the Sorg was formed to reopen it as a live performance venue. They were successful, and ran the theater until 2010, when a water main break forced the opera house to close again. In 2012, the Sorg Opera Revitalization Group (SORG) formed to buy and reopen the building. SORG was able to purchase the theater in August 2012 for $32,000. Since then they’ve made a number of improvements to the building, including removing the partition between the upper balcony and the rest of the auditorium, replacing the seats with ones donated from the Cincinnati Music Hall, repairing the public restrooms and re-hanging the house curtains. A full restoration of the building is estimated to cost between $9M and $11M. The Sorg reopened in late 2017 with a performance called “Celebrate the Sorg” and featured the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra.