Abandoned cinemas can be fascinating places, built to thrill large audiences, but left silent and forgotten. Many were demolished after the advent of television and some adapted for other uses. The most fascinating are those that linger on intact behind locked doors, frozen in the margins of existence.
Abandoned cinemas are popular among urban explorers, who are often avid photographers and consider dereliction an art form in itself. Since many remaining cinemas have been converted for other uses (or even incorporated into more modern buildings), the ones that remain intact are the most coveted. These picture palaces, frozen in time, were never designed to stand empty and are an ironic reminder of the golden age of Hollywood. (Above is the former Coronet Cinema in London – full report here.)
Picture palaces (or movie palaces in the U.S.) boomed as places of public entertainment during the early 20th century. Many were modernised theatres brought into the brave new world, and ranged in size from small local venues to grand city centre playhouses. Some were unflatteringly known as “flea pits”, as grim social conditions in cities at that time rendered some cinemas rather dirty.
But generally, the term “palace” was used for a reason: large or small, picture palaces offered escapism and a touch of elegance to a public hardened by tough economic and social conditions and, to a large extent, war. Three main architectural designs included the Classic style picture palace sporting period-revival architecture; the Atmospheric theatre, with an auditorium ceiling resembling the sky; and the famous Art Deco cinemas of the 1930s.
Today, their fading elegance tells the story of a time where, even if conditions were hard, there was pride and style. Abandoned picture palaces have been spared from the fast-paced world outside, and to venture inside is like passing through a window in time. Occasionally, an entire town around the cinema is abandoned. The pictures below (right) show a former cinema in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, which was evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster.
In some cases, projectors remain intact beneath years of dust and dirt, while film posters detailing the cinema’s final screening still grace the walls. These buildings, fascinating in their own right, offer a brief glimpse into our social history, to a time when going to the cinema was about far more than simply watching a film.
Unfortunately, this is also a dusty corner of history that has been all too quickly forgotten by many city planners. Many cinemas have been demolished to make way for modern redevelopment, while others wait in the doldrums, most likely for the wrecking ball. Some have been imaginatively revamped to serve the demands of the burgeoning independent cinema market. Others are in such a poor state of disrepair that even visionary developers are repelled by the cost of fixing them up.
Preservation-minded members of the public are often responsible for ensuring that old buildings, including cinemas, avoid demolition. The Neo Classical Abbeydale Picture House (above) in Sheffield, opened in 1920, is a fine example. Saved by the Friends of the Abbeydale Picture House, a huge amount of progress has been made in restoring the old picture palace on the long road to one day reopening to cinema audiences.
Want to see more? Check out these eight abandoned movie theatres in America.