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August 8, 2022

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Are movie theaters — a bedrock American tradition — fading to black?

Movie illo

December 3, Warner Bros. announced that its entire slate of upcoming films—from Wonder Woman 1984 to Dune—would appear on the HBO Max streaming service, the same day as their scheduled theatrical release. COVID-19 has shaken a business already reeling from the compound threat posed by streaming services and high-definition video. After all, why go to a movie when you can wait a couple months and stream it on Prime Video, Disney+ or Netflix? And why, in a post-pandemic world, would you go out to see Matrix 4 in theaters when it’s available 6 feet away from your couch? Or on your phone?

Admittedly, moviegoing isn’t always the best time, even when you factor in reclining seats and cocktail service. There are too many commercials before the feature begins, and too many jerks texting during the movie itself. But movies are made to be shown in theaters; even Netflix screens its movies in theaters for limited runs. And we’re meant to see them there, with crowds of others, cheering, laughing and recoiling from the screen. We’ve been doing it for more than a hundred years, and we shouldn’t give it up now.

We went there

• Huntridge Theater (1944) It’s not the oldest theater still standing in Vegas—that would be Fremont Street’s El Portal—but it’s the only one that stayed a theater into its senior years, trading first-run movies for punk shows.

• Motor Vu Drive-In (1949) Las Vegas’ first drive-in, located adjacent to the former Stardust. The Valley used to boast several drive-ins, but now only one remains: the West Wind in North Las Vegas. And that’s one more than many cities can claim at this point.

• Las Vegas Cinerama (1965) A cool, domed Cinerama theater, similar to the one that still stands in Hollywood; its former space on Paradise Road is now occupied by shops and restaurants.

• Red Rock 11 Theaters (1966, additions 1971-1973) We still miss this charming Charleston Boulevard multiplex, with its cavernous “Main Street USA”-styled lobby. Like many old Vegas charmers, it was replaced by a strip mall.

• OmniMax Theatre at Caesars Palace (1979) So many hours spent staring at IMAX-size wonders of science and nature on that giant curved screen.

• Gold Coast Twin (1986) In the mid-1990s, this was the place to see independent films in Las Vegas. And their concessions were dirt-cheap.

1874: The first motion picture

Chronophotography, a technique that captures movement as a series of individual images (think of a flip book), was used by French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen and Brazilian engineer Francisco Antônio de Almeida to capture a planetary orbit in 1874; their moving picture, Passage de Vénus, is the oldest listed on But the oldest surviving movie actually screened from a film print is Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene from 1888.

Late 1800s: First movie theaters

Washington, Iowa’s State Theater began screening moving pictures May 7, 1897, and it continues to screen them to this day. Guinness World Records certified the venue, originally built as an opera house, as the “world’s oldest continually operating cinema” in April 2016. (Though there’s some debate over the “first” designation; assorted venues began screening rudimentary moving pictures as early as 1893.)

Early 1900s: First storefront movie theater

The idea of opening up cinemas inside retail corridors like malls is hardly a recent one. The Nickelodeon debuted in a Pittsburgh storefront June 19, 1905. Its name combined the word “odeon,” ancient Greek for “theater” (literally “singing place”), with the 5-cent price of admission. Prior to its opening, movies were screened as part of vaudeville packages, alongside live acts. Later, the “Nickelodeon” name was liberally applied to a number of storefront theaters charging a 5-cent admission.

1902-1929: Firsts in sound and vision

The first motion picture filmed in color was George Albert Smith’s A Visit to the Seaside, released in 1908 (many early black-and-white films were hand-tinted; Georges Méliès, director of 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, was known for it.) The first movies seen by a paying audience that featured sound were a series of short musical films that screened at New York’s Rivoli Theater in 1923. The first hit film with sound was Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer, in 1927; the studio also released the first “talking picture” in color, 1929’s On With the Show!

1913-1948: ‘Movie palaces’

Movies soon outgrew nickelodeons. Large, upscale theaters dedicated solely to motion pictures were built, beginning with the Regent Theater in Harlem in 1913. Most of them were owned by the five major studios of the time—Fox, Loews (MGM), Paramount, RKO and Warner Bros.—and screened those studios’ films exclusively. (In a 1948 case, the Supreme Court decided that this amounted to a monopoly and forced them to sell the theaters. The ruling was recently nullified.) Some of the “movie palaces” built during this era still stand, serving for the most part as performing arts venues. But a few—including LA’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Roxie in San Francisco—still screen movies in old-Hollywood opulence.


Most of the moviegoing innovations of the past 90 or so years have been technical—the first movie with stereo sound (Walt Disney’s Fantasia, 1940), the first film shot in a 70mm widescreen format (Fred Zinnemann’s Oklahoma!, 1955), first with a Dolby sound mix (Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, 1971) and so on. The experience hasn’t changed much from those early days; there’s just improved sound, a sharper picture, better seats … and, yeah, more Coke ads.

The future

A number of theater chains and filmmakers have accused Warner Bros. of using the coronavirus shutdown as an excuse to bolster HBO Max, which is otherwise struggling to draw subscribers. But the studio—along with Disney, which experimented with simultaneous home and theater release this year with Mulan—might be reacting to trends that took root long before the coronavirus lockdowns: cheaper hi-def TVs, digital distribution and audiences that only leave home for “event” movies. If Warner and Disney are to believe that theaters aren’t obsolete, it’ll require us, once this virus is contained, to patronize cinemas in large numbers once again.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.