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The Historic Movie Theater Experience

Updated on February 12, 2018

When you walk into a historic movie theater, you enter a world of style and elegance that you don't experience when you see a new Hollywood movie at the local megaplex.

Many of the historic theaters that have been preserved for current use were built at a time when style was as much a concern as function. This style is expressed through glittering chandeliers, carefully sculpted and painted plaster, sweeping staircases, finely honed woodwork, and other detail flourishes.

This wealth of style often takes you back in time to a world that predates television, computers, and other modern ways of delivering motion picture entertainment. You experience a sense of grandeur that might otherwise have been available to you only through photographs or the memories of your parents or grandparents.

Ohio Theatre, Columbus, Ohio
Ohio Theatre, Columbus, Ohio
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan

Marquee and Ticket Booth

As you drive toward a historic movie theater, the marquee often jumps out at you from a distance. This marquee might include the theater name in vertical letters, along with a large bright information display, lined with colored lights.

The marquee is often part of the branding of the theater, and is used prominently in the publicity for the theater. The marquee helps light up the area around the theater, which can make patrons feel safer in what is often a downtown area that is populated by many kinds of people.

Beneath the marquee you might find a ticket booth that sticks out from the front doors, often with a line of people extending down a sidewalk. The booth might have a low-key stylishness that contributes to the overall look of the theater.

The ticket booth is part of the theater that greets patrons, along with the marquee and outer lobby.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan


Historic theaters often have both outer and inner lobbies that combine to gradually pull you into the magic of the theater. The following items are usually in one of these two lobbies:

  • Concession stand
  • Information table with publicity for upcoming events, including brochures that describe monthly, seasonal, or topical series of events.
  • Information counter where you can talk directly with someone about the theater or buy theater-related items like CD's, books, T-shirts and coffee cups.

Outer Lobby

The stylishness of the outer lobby can elate you with its sharp contrast with the outside world that you just left. It's the first place where you are grabbed by that indefinable, intangible essence of the theater.

When you walk into this lobby, you might be greeted by a friendly, specially dressed ticket taker or greeter who wants to give you a special welcome to the theater.

The lobby often includes elegantly framed posters that advertise upcoming events.

Inner Lobby

The inner lobby builds on the initial impact of the outer lobby to further pull you into the theater. This lobby often includes ornately designed doors and grand staircases that guide you to the theater auditorium.

This lobby usually has a very lively atmosphere, with people moving between the auditorium, concession stands, and restrooms. Adding to this atmosphere might be some music coming from a piano in the lobby or a theater organ in the auditorium.

Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan

Concession Stand

The rich smell of popcorn often emanates from concession stands. In addition, the stand often offers a selection of food that is not found at the megaplex, including a very wide variety of snack food; specialty beverages; and food from local businesses. Also, prices are often lower than at the megaplex.

Because of the historic nature of the the theaters, some theaters restrict what patrons can take into theaters, to protect the seats and floors. These theaters might compensate for this restriction by creating an eating area where patrons can relax and socialize before and after movies.

Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan


Auditoriums are the centerpiece of your historic movie theater experience.

When you walk into the auditorium for the first time, you might be first impressed by its spaciousness. You notice how it fans out in front of you, with a large, curtained stage at its front.

Walk forward a little more from under the balcony, and you might be tempted to stare up in wonder at the grandly decorated ceiling and side walls.

The stage area of the auditorium adds to the uniqueness of the theater with these features:

  • Appearances by theater staff members, who greet the audience and tell them about that day's event and future events.
  • A large curtain that adds to the color and texture of the theater decor. It can also add a touch of style to the movie presentation by opening and closing.

The auditorium can greatly enhance the main reason that you came to the theater—the featured movie.

Your anticipation for the film might be heightened as you gaze around the auditorium at the finely designed architecture of the walls and ceiling. After the movie ends, your enjoyment of it might be magnified by the spacious grandeur that greets you as the lights come back up.

Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan (Photo courtesy of DFT)
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan (Photo courtesy of DFT)
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan


The balcony is often the biggest difference between a historic theater and a modern mainstream theater. Visitors marvel at the balcony's view of the interior architecture, which helps them feel the spaciousness of the theater. It also gives them a unique view of the film, especially widescreen movies.

The rear side of a balcony can be used in creative ways, depending on the design of the theater. It could be a small decorated corridor that overlooks the inner lobby; a cafe area; or a dramatic extension of the inner lobby that includes a continuous railing from the two staircases.

Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Unique Movies

Historic theaters often show movies that aren't usually shown at mainstream theaters, such as an old movie, a foreign language film, an independent movie, or a documentary.

An old movie is probably the best way to enjoy a historic theater because of the magical way that the film and the theater combine to take you back to another era of moviegoing. Seeing old movies on the big screen helps you see more of its detail and understand the full impact of the film when it was first released.

When the theater shows a new documentary, foreign language film, or independent movie, it provides a distribution channel for specialty movies that might never have a theater audience elsewhere.

The special interest nature of these theaters often is the driving force behind events like film festivals or appearances by filmmakers or film stars.

In this digital video age, historic theaters have also tried to preserve the experience of seeing movies on 35-millimeter and 70-millimeter film.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan

Personable Experiences

Historic theaters provide a more personable experience than mainstream theaters, both with the staff and with other audience members.

Staff members usually have a special interest in the architecture and programming of the theater, and they enjoy sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with visitors.

Since historic theaters usually have unique events, they often draw a core audience of the same people. So you might see the same faces at many shows, giving you a sense of camaraderie with people even when you don't talk with them.

The applause at historic theaters often has much enthusiasm, both for the event and for people who talk on stage, adding to this unique group experience.

These theaters often create a sense of community, particularly if they are a major attraction in a city or if they partner with a local college or university. An event sponsored by a special interest group draws groups of people who interact in a lively manner before and after an event.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Civic Pride

Historic theaters promote a sense of civic pride as you help support a theater that might otherwise have been torn down or converted to another use.

You'll find yourself amazed and inspired by the historical preservation of the building and its contents. A theater organ is often a part of a historic theater, and many theater preservation efforts have started with a desire to save a theater organ.

This civic pride can be expressed in tangible ways, including:

  • Volunteering for work that can range from ushering to building renovation.
  • Tax-deductible donations to organizations that often have the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit status.

However you choose to support a theater, it will lead to a sense of ownership in a building and a mission that can add immeasurably to an area's quality of life.

Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan
Redford Theatre, Detroit, Michigan

© 2016 Bob Smith


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