Silent Screens: The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theater

Overview

The single-screen movie theaters that punctuated small-town America's main streets and city neighborhoods since the 1920s are all but gone. The well-dressed throng of moviegoers has vanished; the facades are boarded. In Silent Screens, photographer Michael Putnam captures these once prominent cinemas in decline and transformation. His photographs of abandoned movie houses and forlorn marquees are an elegy to this disappearing cultural icon.

In the early 1980s, Putnam began ...

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Overview

The single-screen movie theaters that punctuated small-town America's main streets and city neighborhoods since the 1920s are all but gone. The well-dressed throng of moviegoers has vanished; the facades are boarded. In Silent Screens, photographer Michael Putnam captures these once prominent cinemas in decline and transformation. His photographs of abandoned movie houses and forlorn marquees are an elegy to this disappearing cultural icon.

In the early 1980s, Putnam began photographing closed theaters, theaters that had been converted to other uses (a church, a swimming pool), theaters on the verge of collapse, theaters being demolished, and even vacant lots where theaters once stood. The result is an archive of images, large in quantity and geographically diffuse. Here is what has become of the Odeons, Strands, and Arcadias that existed as velvet and marble outposts of Hollywood drama next to barbershops, hardware stores, and five-and-dimes.

Introduced by Robert Sklar, the starkly beautiful photographs are accompanied by original reminiscences on moviegoing by Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris, and Chester H. Liebs as well as excerpts from the works of poet John Hollander and writers Larry McMurtry and John Updike. Sklar begins by mapping the rise and fall of the local movie house, tracing the demise of small-town theaters to their role as bit players in the grand spectacle of Hollywood film distribution. "Under standard distribution practice," he writes, "a new film took from six months to a year to wend its way from picture palace to Podunk (the prints getting more and more frayed and scratched along the route). Even though the small-town theaters and their urban neighborhood counterparts made up the majority of the nation's movie houses, their significance, in terms of revenue returned to the major motion-picture companies that produced and distributed films, was paltry."

In his essay, "Old Dreams," Last Picture Show director Peter Bogdanovich recalls the closing of New York City's great movie palaces—the mammoth Roxy, the old Paramount near Times Square, the Capitol, and the Mayfair—and the more innocent time in which they existed "when a quarter often bought you two features, a newsreel, a comedy short, a travelogue, a cartoon, a serial, and coming attractions."

While the images in Putnam's book can be read as a metaphor for the death of many downtowns in America, Silent Screens goes beyond mere nostalgia to tell the important story of the disappearance of the single-screen theater, illuminating the layers of cultural and economic significance that still surround it.

"These photographs and the loss of which they speak signal the passing of a way of being together." —Molly Haskell

List of Theaters by State

Alabama • The Lyric, Anniston • The Martin, Huntsville

Arizona • The Duncan, Duncan

Arkansas • The Avon, West Memphis

California • The Town, Los Angeles • El Capitan, San Francisco • The State, Santa Barbara

Connecticut • The Dixwell Playhouse, New Haven • The Princess, New Haven

Florida • The Gateway, Lake City

Georgia • The Judy, Hartwell

Idaho • The Ace, Wendell

Illinois • The Pekin, Pekin

Indiana • The Rem, Remington • The Ritz, Rensselaer

Kansas • The Cameo, Kansas City

Kentucky • The Crescent, Louisville • The Ohio, Louisville

Louisiana • The Madison, Madisonville • The Sabine, Many • The Jefferson, New Orleans

Massachusetts • The Strand, Westfield Michigan • The Liberty, Benton Harbor

Mississippi • The Magee, Magee • The Star, Mendenhall • The Mono, Monticello • The Park, Pelahatchie

Missouri • The Star, Warrensburg

Nebraska • The Grand, Grand Isle

New Jersey • RKO Proctor's Palace, Newark

New Mexico • The Lux, Grants • The State, San Jon

New York • The Hollywood, Au Sable Forks • The Broadway, Buffalo • The Lovejoy, Buffalo • The Senate, Buffalo • The Jefferson, New York City • The Little Carnegie, New York City • The 72nd Street East, New York City

North Carolina • The Colonial, Chesnee • The Alva, Morganton

Oregon • The United Artists, Pendleton

Pennsylvania • The Lawndale, Philadelphia • The Rex, Philadelphia • The Spruce, Philadelphia • The York, Philadelphia • The Capitol, Williamsport

Tennessee • The Park, Memphis

Texas • The Royal, Archer City • The Strand, Chillicothe • The Gem, Claude • The Mulkey, Clarendon • The Texas, Del Rio • The Bowie, Fort Worth • The Chatmas, Hearne • The Queen, Hearne • The Palace, Henderson • The Alabama, Houston • The Almeda, Houston • The Crim, Kilgore • The Gulf, Robstown • The Clinch, Tazwell • The Winnie, Winnie

Virginia • The Earle, Big Stone Gap • The Home, Strasburg

Washington • The Pasco, Pasco

West Virginia • The Ritz, Ansted • The Alpine, Rainelle

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review - Eric P. Nash

The boarded-up movie theaters in Michael Putnam's Silent Screens wear their faded glamour like battered hats. Putnam's photographs, taken with an 8 by 10 view camera, are starkly formalistic: the boxy, Art Deco theaters are largely shot head-on and centrally placed in the frame, making the viewer conscious of minute variations in detail and texture. The stylized neon marquees that read 'Ritz,' 'Lux,' or 'Judy' contrast with the blank peeling facades, as if we can see the dream palace that once was and the shell it has become.

Wilson Quarterly - Richard Schickel

Disused small-town and neighborhood movie theaters are to photographer Putnam what the decrepit churches and storefronts of the rural South were to Walker Evans: objects that, austerely photographed in their decline, can cause us to reflect... As you study Putnam's well-composed and well-lit photographs of abandoned theaters, a pang for the lost past inevitably afflicts you. Even more saddening is his record of conversions—theaters turned into evangelical churches, bookshops, banks, restaurants, a swimming pool.

Cherry Hill Courier-Post - Kevin Riordan

Evocative enough to make a viewer nostalgic for places he has never been.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - James L. Enyeart

Michael Putnam's strikingly beautiful photographs document American movie theaters and the passing of that era in American culture. They penetrate the barrier that traditionally separates significant aesthetic achievement and historical events. Such is the contribution, historically, of great documentary photography.

New York Times Book Review
The boarded-up movie theaters in Michael Putnam's Silent Screens wear their faded glamour like battered hats. Putnam's photographs, taken with an 8 by 10 view camera, are starkly formalistic: the boxy, Art Deco theaters are largely shot head-on and centrally placed in the frame, making the viewer conscious of minute variations in detail and texture. The stylized neon marquees that read 'Ritz,' 'Lux,' or 'Judy' contrast with the blank peeling facades, as if we can see the dream palace that once was and the shell it has become.

— Eric P. Nash

New Yorker

Several years after The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry hoped for 'some present-day Walker Evans' to document the abandoned theaters of his youth, and [Michael] Putnam has answered his wish.

Wilson Quarterly
Disused small-town and neighborhood movie theaters are to photographer Putnam what the decrepit churches and storefronts of the rural South were to Walker Evans: objects that, austerely photographed in their decline, can cause us to reflect... As you study Putnam's well-composed and well-lit photographs of abandoned theaters, a pang for the lost past inevitably afflicts you. Even more saddening is his record of conversions—theaters turned into evangelical churches, bookshops, banks, restaurants, a swimming pool.

— Richard Schickel

DoubleTake

A haunting portrait of the gradual decline of cinemas in small-town America. Putnam's book is a superb example of a documentary project's ability to arrest particular, concrete situations—and their attending emotional counterparts—and thereby illuminate the social and economic movements that engender them.

Route 66 Magazine

Takes us back to the wonderful world of the small hometown theater—not as they were but what they have become. A wonderful chronicle of a time when twenty-five cents was the price of an afternoon of entertainment and a soda.

Playboy

These poignant and often distressing pictures of boarded-up neighborhood bijous speak volumes about main-street moviegoing in decades past, as opposed to the multiplex experience of today.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Michael Putnam's strikingly beautiful photographs document American movie theaters and the passing of that era in American culture. They penetrate the barrier that traditionally separates significant aesthetic achievement and historical events. Such is the contribution, historically, of great documentary photography.

— James L. Enyeart

Booknews
Photographer Putnam captures the once prominent single-screen theaters that used to punctuate small-town America's main streets and city neighborhoods but are now in decline and transformation. The archive of images shows theaters that have been converted to other uses, are on the verge of collapse or being demolished, and even vacant lots where the buildings once stood. Original reminiscences on movie-going by Peter Bogdanovich, Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris, and Chester H. Liebs as well as excerpts from the works of poet John Hallander and writer Larry McMurtry accompany the starkly beautiful b&w images. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The New Yorker
Several years after "The Last Picture Show," Larry McMurtry hoped for "some present day Walker Evans" to document the abandoned theatres of his youth, and Putnam has answered his wish.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801863295
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Series: Creating the North American Landscape
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 10.24 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Putnam is a freelance photographer. His photographs have appeared in such publications as U.S. Camera, Du, and America Illustrated. He also served as one of four photographers for A Guide to the National Road, also available from Johns Hopkins.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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