Rememberances of Movie Theaters in Atlanta


There have been a couple of articles recently which have made me think about some of the movie houses in Atlanta that have gone away and about the few grand old ladies that have survived. One article was about the demolition of the site where the former Garden Hills Cinema stood for many years. The second article concerned a group of dancers who will be using the space that formerly housed the Rhodes Theater for a performance.  One story is very sad and the other sad, but with a touch of hopefulness of some life for the old theater.

Atlanta is certainly not well known for the preservation of its historical sites. It is also not very different than most cities in its transformation from the old single screen movie cathedrals of the past into the modern multiplex theaters that dot today’s landscape.

I know that things change and people’s tastes change. I know also that the movie industry has gone through transitions over the last 50 or more years. Television changed our movie going habits first. Then along came the VHS and BETA tape machines. Now we have digital and blue ray machines. Those are being bypassed by cable, satellite and services such as Netflix. It is a wonder that anyone leaves home to view a movie anymore, much less travels to a cinema with only one screen.

My wife and I do enjoy going out to see a movie on the big screen. In fact, we have a favorite spot in Atlanta to see our movies. The Landmark Midtown Art Cinema is a small multi-screen theater in the city, across from the Grady High School Football Stadium. They show current popular films as well as smaller indie and art films on their screens. The lobby is relatively small and relaxed. It has a lot of the charm of an old time smaller theater.  Another plus is the audiences. They actually watch the movies!

Plaza Theater by Koffeemitschlag via wikimedia commons

There is one movie house in operation in Atlanta that dates back to December of 1939 and is still showing movies on a daily basis. That location is the Plaza Theater on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The Plaza has given in to the multi-screen mania. They closed off the balcony section and they now have two screens.

The Plaza went through some rough years as the surrounding neighborhood hit hard times. For one portion of the 1970’s it had become a showplace for live burlesque and porno films. In 1983 George Lefont purchased the theater and began its rehabilitation. After that Gail and Jonathan Rej owned and operated the Plaza for several years. Their choice of films and other events helped the Plaza to regain some of its old glory. One of the events the Plaza hosts is a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show on Friday nights. The Plaza is currently under the ownership of Michael Furlinger and continues to operate with movies and events like the Atlanta Film Festival and the upcoming John Waters Festival.

Fox Theater by Karen Mardahl via wikimedia commons

The grand old lady of Atlanta movie palaces is the Fabulous Fox Theatre. The Fox opened in 1929 and had its ups and downs through the depression years. It was a favorite of Atlanta moviegoers for years, but it was almost lost to another of Atlanta’s misguided moves for progress, as revenues declined and the owner decided to sell the property to a developer.

But after a successful local “Save The Fox” effort, Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., purchased the property and began the restoration effort that continues today. The site reopened its doors in 1975 and is designated as a national historic landmark. In 2008, Atlanta Landmarks, now known as Fox Theatre, Inc., developed the Fox Theatre Institute, a non-profit organization that is instrumental in saving and restoring historic theaters around the country.

The Fox is now used for concerts, plays and a series of movies during the summer period. There is nothing quite like seeing a movie at the Fox. The Moorish architecture, complete with star-lit sky and floating clouds, ensures that guests will remember their experiences there even years later.

Another theater that has survived in name is the Rialto. The original Rialto opened in 1916. In 1962 the original building was torn down and a new Rialto opened on the same site and was open until 1989. In 1991 Georgia State University was approached about the opportunity to move part of its school to the site. After a successful fundraising effort and extensive renovations the Rialto was reborn as the Rialto Center for the Arts. It is the scene of many cultural events including jazz concerts, world music and dance. You can see performances by students from Georgia State’s Department of Music as well as many other events throughout the year.

It is nice that Atlanta saved the Fox, the Rialto and the Plaza so that we have a small sampling of what it used to be like to go to the movies in Atlanta. Unfortunately there were some great theaters that once welcomed movie goers to view movies on their big screens in air conditioned comfort that are now gone.

Rialto-Center by Eoghanacht via wikimedia commons

Chief among these is the Loew’s Grand. Once a fixture on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, it was the home of the world premiere of the movie “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. Lowe’s was a presence in Atlanta into the early 1970s. The building was protected by its historical status, but it was damaged by a mysterious fire in 1978 and had to be demolished. The Georgia Pacific Tower now stands on the site.

The Paramount Theater stood next to the Lowe’s from 1920 until 1960. The theater was demolished in 1960 to be replaced by a 12 story building that has since been destroyed. The site is now an open space above the Marta Peachtree Center station. Such is progress in the city of Atlanta.

Other theaters that have left the scene include the Martin Cinerama, the Peachtree Art Theater and the Roxy Theater which was torn down to be replaced by the Westin Peachtree Plaza. There are other theaters that once operated in Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs that are long gone. Some of the buildings still stand and are in use in some way, but their days of movie showing glory are long gone.

I suppose it is a part of getting older, but it is hard to think of the loss of so many of these theaters as a good thing. Perhaps it is only nostalgia causing me to remember these places with the degree of fondness that I do. I’m sure I did not appreciate them as I should have when they were here.

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