Part 1 – Cinema for the Age of Apollo
There are many excellent websites and Facebook pages dedicated to movie theaters in general — and Huntsville movie theaters, in particular. They and a few old friends contributed to this quick look at how disposable income, education and obsession with the latest technology made Rocket City, U.S.A. a hotbed of movie theater development and regression through the 20th century, and into the 21st.
On July 1 of 1960, Redstone Arsenal’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency became a part of the newly-formed civilian space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. A month and four days earlier, the Martin theater opened. Known for the first two years of its life as the Tony, the Martin dared to implant itself a half-block north of Huntsville’s county courthouse square, on South Washington street, across the street from the city’s venerable Lyric theater.
The Lyric began life as a nickelodeon in 1912 and brought the first talkies to Huntsville in 1929. Despite its relative age in 1960, it was no fleapit. It seated 902 people, featured Western Electric sound, and brightened Washington street with its snazzy flashing sign.
The Lyric sign was, in itself, a technological leap forward. Previous flashing mechanisms had been interfering with nearby radio reception, but a new generation of mercury tubes eliminated this aggravation, doubtless earning no shortage of loyalty from the neighbors.
The Tony boasted “Alabama’s largest indoor screen,” four-track stereo sound and staggered seating. Huntsville’s interest in technology was acceded to as well. On the night before the grand opening, a free open house allowed guests to “see the projection equipment in action while cartoons and short subjects were continuously played.” There was even an RCA engineer on hand to answer questions.
The Tony’s advertising reflected criteria for cinematic supremacy that had been established for decades — screen size, sound and seating.
While the mid-20th century was the golden age of the drive-in movie, and Huntsville certainly had its share, drive-ins have no place in the discussion at hand. By their very nature, all drive-ins had huge screens. Seating was as good as the car you drove in, and sound came through a window-hung, pot-metal speaker whose design was centered not on fidelity, but survivability.
Even leaving drive-ins out of the picture, the Lyric never held a cinematic monopoly in Huntsville. In fact, it wasn’t even Huntsville’s first movie house. The Elks Theater earns this distinction, operating on Eustis Avenue from 1907 to 1954. The Center theater operated from 1947 through 1967 and is remarkable for the fact that its carcass still stands at 2380 Triana Blvd. There were others, perhaps most notably the Picto, found farther east on Washington Street. Opened in 1915, and still around in 1929, the Picto was listed in Film Daily Yearbook as “a Negro theatre.”
In 1966, as NASA-related business poured into Huntsville, the burgeoning city saw a seismic shift in its commercial life with the birth of The Mall. And yes, as historians are wont to affirm, that was its actual, complete, official name.
Gracing the corner of North Memorial Parkway and University, The Mall was a minor masterpiece of Kennedy-Modern architecture, and sharing its parking lot was the Alabama theater. Opening in January of 1966, the Alabama theater set a new standard for cinematic indulgence. Early patrons may have been taken aback by the gold-and-tangerine color scheme, but there was no denying the joys of its wide, plush seats – 890 of them – set in curved rows, so that every seat faced the center of the screen.
The Westbury Cinerama opened on Airport Road on Friday June 30, 1967. As the sharp-eyed will note, the Westbury was no mere cinema, but a venue for Cinerama. The internet teems with details on the Cinerama format and appreciations of its wonders, but briefly, at the system’s core was a screen that was not only appreciably wider than standard screens, but deeply curved and constructed of 2000 meticulously placed strips of reflective screen material. Here, too, every one of the 686 seats faced toward the center of the screen.
In December of 1967, the Madison Theatre opened, on property that is now a part of Parkway Place Mall, featuring 70mm projection, six-track stereo sound and a 70-foot, curved screen. Long before THX-certified cinemas, the Madison employed the obscure but impressive sounding “J. Arthur Rank System in the United States for Error Free Shows.”
As Huntsville went, so went the nation. Everywhere, spacious, technologically advanced movie installations were following the population and the money into the suburbs. Movies were bigger, better-sounding and more comfortable to attend than ever.
Since the rise of television, movie operators had been living in fear of becoming obsolete. They had dedicated considerable money, time and talent to the mission of distinguishing themselves from the TV’s homey glow, and it was beginning to look like it just might pay off.
They had it made if they didn’t mess up. But, of course they did. As sure as night follows day, they would mess it up — for everybody.
To be continued …