Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Can LA Do It Better Than New York?

Reluctantly, my answer is "yes." Last Saturday night, I went to see "Il Gottopardo," (The Leopard) at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway in Downtown LA, a feature of the LA Film Festival.

Having been maintained and restored, the Orpheum exudes the opulence of a bye-gone era - the birth of mass movie audiences - when it opened in 1926.


The Orpheum was the perfect setting in which to see "Il Gottopardo," Lucio Visconti's lavish masterpiece which evokes the decadent lifestyle of aristocratic Sicilians in the 19th century. The newly restored print was being premiered in LAto a full house six hours after it had been premiered in Bologna to an audience of 6,000 in an open air plaza. At The Orpheum, there was a brief introduction explaining the technical feats accomplished in transforming the original negatives into an improved film satisfactory for projection. Before the film was seen on the huge horizontal screen which must be 20 feet by 80 feet, two of Burt Lancaster's daughters were recognized in the audience. They stood to a round of applause.

Saying LA and New York in the same breadth, connotes a bifurcated American film industry. They compete regularly on the basketball court and baseball field. The museums are not in the same league. I can't evaluate symphonies nor operas, but I can evaluate cultural experiences. This one was profound. It could not have been presented under better circumstances to a more attentive and sympathetic audience who responded at the appropriate moments with sounds of awe and approval.

Such an event never could have happened in New York.

There is no extant film venue in New York equivalent to the Orpheum. Years ago, I recall having gone to movie theaters like the Loew's 86th Street. The auditorium space exuded luxury; the walls, ceilings and chandeliers evoked echoes of palatial Baroque grandeur. There was a legion of similar houses throughout the New York Metropolitan area.


No longer standing, Loew's 86th was first carved into a multiplex, eventually demolished and replaced with pedestrian residential architecture.

The motion picture palace was invented in New York. The Regent Theater which evoked an image of The Doges Palace in Venice opened in February 1913 on Seventh Avenue and 116th Street in Harlem.


Harlem Magazine, May 1913, raved about the new theater. “Harlem’s latest and handsomest entertainment house marks an altogether new era in the motion picture world, as it is,without question the largest and most completely equipped motion picture playhouse yet opened. For beauty and convenience it surpasses many of the Broadway theaters. It has been the intention of the Regent management to give New York Theatre goers something new in its form of entertainment in a combination of the finest selection of photoplays that can be produced and music of high and pleasing quality.”

Like the Orpheum in LA, The Regent is still standing, but has not shown films for over forty years. Since 1964, it has been the home of the First Corinthian Baptist Church. It is in good condition. There have been some modest alterations of the interior and the church maintains the exterior. Loew's 175th Street in Washington Heights on New York's Upper West Side is another masterpiece of cinema architecture that has survived. It was a venue for a charismatic preacher, "Reverend Ike."


Revered Ike moved to LA in 2007 and died in 2009. The building has an uncertain future.

Why it couldn't happen in New York

To the best of my knowledge, there are no former movie palaces with seats numbering in the thousands still functioning as motion picture theaters in New York. Yes, there are many venues for viewing films in New York, but they are small to modest spaces with small screens (often fuzzy projection) and imperfect sound. Opening in 1932 with 5,933 seats, Radio City Music Hall, originally conceived as motion picture / vaudeville house, was then the largest movie house in the world.


In 1981, Francis Ford Coppola presented Abel Gance's 1927 silent classic "Napoleon" for three nights. His father conducted the American Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps someone could perform a similar feat there?

For the foreseeable future, New Yorkers are going to be limited to viewing films in constricted locations. In Los Angeles, it is a different story. The website "Los Angeles Movie Palaces" provides an inventoryand report of the current status of theaters throughout the area.


Although LA wins hands down over New York on this one, there are others where it does not fare as well. Keep tuned; they are my future agenda.

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