The past importance of movie theaters to suburban downtowns and the difficulty of reviving them today

The downtown movie theater was once an important part of suburbs but a number of these theaters have been difficult to revive in recent years:

Theater stories abound in the suburbs. The lavishly restored Paramount Theater in Aurora offers Broadway plays and big-name musical acts. The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles is another success story. Others — including the Wheaton Grand, Des Plaines Theater and Clearwater Theater in West Dundee — face uncertain futures after opening and closing multiple times in recent years…

Main Street theaters became popular in the late 1920s, when film was just emerging, Fosbrink said. Their construction boomed through the late 1930s and 1940s, particularly as suburbs took hold.

“Planning to have a theater in your town, or an opera house or something (for entertainment) was just as important as planning a city hall or fire station,” he said…

“People at this point in time are paying a lot more attention to how a theater can be a catalyst for economic development in a downtown business district,” Fosbrink said. “Theaters really can drive economic development, and we see a lot of that happening all over the country.”

Once a status symbol and source of local entertainment, these theaters are now possible ways to attract more people to a suburban downtown and hope they spend more money while they are there. Even though they aren’t really needed now (even the multiplexes have had a difficult time in recent years), they might anchor new entertainment districts where suburbanites don’t go to the city for culture but instead stay nearby.

It would be interesting to think about how many of these downtown theaters the Chicago suburbs could support. Particularly if they hope to all thrive, how much money is there to spread around?

“This [car] is bound for glory…”

Megan Garber of the Atlantic explains the car-centric origins of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral:

The efficiencies of the [Orange Drive-In Theatre where Rev. Schuller first held services in 1955 in Orange County, CA] were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car….”

The Schullers, and their contemporary entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged….It was, with its peculiar yet practical combination of openness and enclosure, an improvised idea that happened to fit its time. The Schullers’ motto? “Come as you are in the family car.”

As the article goes on to note, Schuller eventually moved out of the drive-in and into his Crystal Cathedral, which has been “in the news most recently for its financial troubles — culminating in bankruptcy, a controversial shift in the the church’s leadership structure, and, finally, the sale of the Cathedral itself to a neighboring (Catholic) diocese.”  I guess things went a little off the rails at some point.

More seriously, however, I find Schuller’s integration of the automobile into Christian liturgy fascinating (and more than a little disturbing).  Megan’s article makes it clear that, by and large, Schuller’s drive-in congregants remained in their cars throughout services (“Church rubrics, the guidebooks for services, included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows”).  It’s hard to understand how attendees could have Christian communion–in either the literal or general sense–by themselves from the walled-off comfort of their own cars.