Since moving pictures first made the scene in the early part of the 20th century, movie houses have enjoyed mega highs and way-down lows. From make-shift screens dropped in stage theaters, to magnificent movie palaces of the 1930’s, to crowded one-room joints to modern megaplexes, the architecture of the American movie theater has swung back and forth so many times it’s hard to tell what theaters were popular and when.
The Warner Palace Theater opened in 1929 on the world famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. Built as a movie house and showroom, it was giant, beautiful and elegant. But the timing was bad for such a remarkable showplace; Depression, World War II and that new-fangled thing called television proved too daunting. By the 1950’s it had been turned into a bowling alley, and by the 1980’s it was finished. Caesars Atlantic City bought the property, tore down the auditorium and turned it into a parking garage. Lights out.
But not entirely. Somehow, and no one seems to know the real reason why, Caesars didn’t demolish the building’s facade on the boardwalk. Through the ’80s and ’90s it remained, with a small building behind it that stayed open as a burger joint. This is how I remember the Warner, from the early 1990s, popping in now and then to grab a hot dog and listen to bad karaoke. I remember a friend of mine singing that bad karaoke there one night; she sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” to another friend of mine…they started dating after that, it ended badly, and that was that. Wouldn’t have expected anything different from Atlantic City.
How was that for digression, huh? Now back to the theater. The front somehow survived until the late 1990’s-early OO’s, when Caesars and Bally’s decided to pour a few million bucks into their Atlantic City properties. They had plans to build between the two casinos, essentially tying them together. The old Warner was in the way.
There’s not much left of old Atlantic City. The Steel Pier was torn down in the 1980s (I watched them remove the last of it with a crane), the Steeplechase Pier burned down around the same time (I watched it burn), the glorious hotels from the Golden Era – Marlborough-Blenhiem, Traymore – were imploded to make room for ugly glass and steel casinos that have since been torn down, gutted or remodeled. The Atlantic City Historical Society was loosing every battle.
In walks a woman named Florence Miller. I never met Florence, but my parents knew her. All I remember them saying about her was that she was relentless. I don’t know the whole story, but somehow she, along with the ACH, talked or strong-armed Caesars into not destroying the facade. They even had plans to dismantle it and move it down the boardwalk to the old Garden Pier, the site of the Atlantic City Historical Museum. But the casinos caved in, and worked it into the architecture of the new boardwalk facade.
Today, the Warner Theater’s original facade stands proudly among the glitzy casinos, restored to perfect condition. Its doors no longer open on a grand palace, its windows no longer emit sparkling light; it just sits in quiet dignity, a reminder of the glory days of the movie palace – and Atlantic City.
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Movie Palaces became obsolete when TV came on the scene. No longer did you need to be entertained in a giant, beautiful theater when you could see Uncle Milty for free at home. The Palaces slowly closed, one by one, giving way to smaller, one-room neighborhood theaters. By the 1970’s only a handful of these beautiful buildings remained; 50’s style single and twin theaters are all that held on. The 70’s also brought the Quardaplex, four screens in one building. This would set the stage (some pun intended) for the mega-plexes of the 80’s.
I think you can thank Star Wars, Rocky and Jaws for the return of the big theaters. I remember people waiting in a two-block long line to see Rocky. There were lines for Star Wars 3 months after it hit the theaters. In our area, the Towne 4 movie theater became the Towne 12, then the Towne 16, then the Towne 24. The Tilton Twin became the Tilton 6. Then Loews moved in with like a 32-screen theater or something crazy like that.
Down here in Florida, a company by the name of Muvico took a chance that people would pay an extra buck or two to see movies like Jurassic Park in a 30’s style movie palace. It paid off. Muvico runs several vintage-themed megaplexes in South Florida, my favorite being the Muvico Palace in Boca Raton. This multi-plex beauty is as close as you can get to a deco-style movie palace. A grand entrance, giant lobby with marble floors and art deco styling, large auditoriums with giant screens, and the palm trees are real. If only they played Casablanca, it would be like going back in time.