Illustration by Alizajane Hicks
I have to say, entertainment takes on a whole new meaning in the midst of what we all hope will be the most chaotic year of our lives. We have a lot of new terms to grapple with: social distancing. We have a lot of older terms that are still around, but mean something different: gather. Even what it means to be resilient has changed.
The journey of the movie theater began with magic lantern shows, then wound through Edison’s Vitascope Theatre towards the 1905 birth of the first Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh. After that came the introduction of soundtracks in the form of live organ music. Personally, I vote we return to this, perhaps incorporating elements of the movie palaces that followed later on (think dim lighting and an absurd amount of maroon velvet). The introduction of concessions, drive-in theaters, and those classic folding seats culminated in our understanding of the modern movie theater.
Movie theaters have also seen a lot of history. They punctuated the Jim Crow South with the birth and subsequent death of segregated movie theaters, then the similar rise and fall of white-only boxes, tracing the lines of a progressing society. Later on, Hollywood’s Golden Age left some dazzled and some distraught. Recent years have been marked by a concerted desire to showcase underrepresented voices, balanced against the steady gaze of a profit-driven industry.
When Atlanta businesses closed in March, the Plaza Theatre was left with a set level of expenses and an end to their most obvious source of revenue: showings. The theater already had plans in the works to begin offering long-term drive-in theater experiences, and with a little help of some rapid cost-cutting, were able to transition to showing movies on an inflatable screen in their parking lot. Additional partnerships with other viewing locations and restaurants followed suit, allowing them to stay afloat in an environment where entertainment was abruptly quite low on the societal priority list.
As the oldest operating cinema in Atlanta, losing the Plaza would have meant losing a puzzle piece in the region’s history and culture. It was designed by architect George Harwell Bond and opened in 1939 with the all-female comedy-drama The Women. After a brief period as an X-rated cinema and live burlesque theater in the 1970’s, the theatre was renovated, bought and sold a few times, and has been slowly returning to its original appearance while featuring independent and international films.
The Plaza reopened to the public in early September with a Centers for Disease Control-regulated showing of the action-thriller, Tenet, written by Christopher Nolan and produced by Emma Thomas. Thankfully, the Plaza survived our own personal brand of history, as did our future ability to appreciate all that it represents.
You can teach an old dog new tricks, but only if you have the right tools: a plan already in place, the ability to cut costs and patrons eager for a continued experience. The theaters that could adapt did, and as with so much else, we have yet to grasp the ramifications of losing those that could not, in the end, adapt.