I have a thing for movie theaters. Of course I love to go inside them and watch movies, but before I do I like to explore the buildings too.
I think it makes sense to start talking about theaters with a post about the first thing everyone notices – the marquee!
As you come around the corner, already excited, doesn’t your heart beat just a little faster when you see that giant sign proclaiming brightly the title of the movie that you are about to see?
I would love to meet a movie theater marquee designer and just chat about how they do it. So much effort to make sure the eye is constantly drawn to that movie title! Of course some are too over the top. My local Grand Lake Theatre is a good example, but I still love it somehow.
Some of My Favorites
(and one that I don’t like so much)
The California Theatre
The California Theatre in Berkeley has a relatively simple neo art deco sign.
The building is a strangely boring gray near monolith, but that just makes that wonderful sign pop. It’s such a nice surprise if you do not know it is there and just happen to driving up little Kittredge Street toward U.C. Berkeley as I was years ago. The theater was built in 1913, but I suspect they replaced the sign later. It just reeks of the 60’s. Just my guess. I will try to find out.
It definitely demands attention, but compared to a lot of old theater marquees, this is not too flashy. I love that font they used for the big “California” framed in that basic rectangle.
I imagine the original design did not have that weird fin thing in the middle. The owner is sitting with the designer over a sketch of the sign. He squints at it and tilts his head one way, then the other way. Finally he says, “Yeah, this is pretty cool, but it does not stick out very much, does it? What if someone is driving up the road and not paying attention? They might not notice it!” The designer looks back at the owner for a few seconds thinking about how it’s impossible to miss then says, “OK. How about this?” He draws a squiggly line in the middle of the sign. The owner exclaims, “Yes! Yes! Now they will see it for sure!”
More Big Signs!
Grand Lake Theatre
The historic Grand Lake Theatre is in the awesome Lake Merritt neighborhood.
I got this snapshot of an employee changing the sign in November 2014. He is taking down Interstellar and putting up Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.
I saw my first movies at the little Plaza Theatre in beautiful downtown Petaluma. This is what it looked like when I was a little kid. I love this shot because Mom took me to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show there when I was about 7 or 8. Rather understated for a marquee, but it worked. It demands attention, yet it fits in with the design of the gorgeous historic buildings along Petaluma Boulevard. I think I am fond of it because it was my first theater, and I remember the excitement I felt when I saw that little marquee. I’m at the movies!
It was originally called The State Theatre, and in the late 80s they called it the Palace Theatre. Now it is know as McNear’s Mystic Theatre. I think they still sometimes play indie movies, but it is also the best place in Petaluma to see some really awesome live bands. I saw The Red Elvises there (a rockabilly band from Siberia). They added a bunch of neon and that star to the sign. I say thumbs up!
United Artists Berkeley 7
Some of the corporate marquees designed in the 80s make me sad. Berkeley 7’s building is interesting and strange and fun to look at (“Artistry” and “Unity” indeed!), and that dumb rectangular thing is just in the way. I think Charlie Chaplin would disapprove.
…but then there is Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley to cheer me up! Built in 1988, its designers grabbed a lot of the themes from classic marquees and did it just right.
Of course no writing about movie theater architecture/design would be complete without mentioning TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, formerly known as Mann’s Chinese Theatre. The building is spectacular. The two marquees used to be also.
It was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1955 (now that’s a big sign!):
Now it has electronic signs. That’s pretty neat. They can change them with a computer. But this is what they look like.
What? Boo! Where is the flare/pizzazz? That building is awesome, but the signs are meh, whatever, snore! They don’t need to be gigantic and obnoxious, but movie theater marquees should have at least a little attitude. Come on TCL, bring back the dragons!