Arts & Culture

Screen Queens: Classic Southern Movie Houses

These Southern theaters are long on charm and architectural beauty

There’s still plenty of time to catch this season’s Oscar nominated films before the winners are revealed. Sure, you could head to the twenty-theater megaplex out by the mall, where everything from the screens to the popcorn is jumbo-sized. Or you could opt for old-school Hollywood glamor, and check the showtimes at one of these six historic movie palaces.

Opulent cinemas began popping up all over the country in the early twentieth century as silent films made their debut. Some, like Birmingham’s beloved Alabama Theatre or Knoxville’s amazing Tennessee Theatre or Austin’s 100-year-old Paramont Theatre, have been turned into multi-purpose entertainment venues, hosting concerts, plays, and other performances, as well as movies. Those that remain film-focused theaters, with daily showings—long on charm and architectural beauty in a tech age, where the latest blockbuster is just a click of the TV remote away—will make you believe in the magic of movies all over again.

The Byrd Theatre
Richmond, VA
The first film was shown at the Byrd Theatre on Christmas Eve in 1928. Today, the Byrd is one of the few movie palaces in the country to have remained almost exactly as it was when it was built—save for some basic maintenance through the years. With interiors reminiscent of a European opera house—marbled walls, gold leaf arches, large-scale murals, an eighteen-foot-tall Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier, a cantilevered balcony, and mohair-covered seats. In 2004, Ray Dolby toured the Byrd and was so impressed he donated one of his state-of-the-art Dolby sound systems to the theater. Every Saturday night, the great Wurlitzer organ still rises from the depths beneath the stage for performances before the theater’s first-run offerings.—

The Kentucky Theatre
Lexington, KY
Longtime manager Fred Mills—who got his first job at the historic cinema as an usher in 1963—still welcomes moviegoers nightly for first-run features at this Lexington landmark. Built in 1922, the Kentucky cost the equivalent of nearly one million dollars today—with its gold leaf and marble lobby, massive stained-glass skylights, and crystal chandeliers. The theater was severely damaged by a fire that erupted inside a neighboring restaurant in 1987, but was swiftly rescued and restored by the community.—

The Plaza Theatre
Atlanta, GA
The beloved 1939 art-deco gem on Ponce de Leon Avenue, with its colorful neon façade, is the city’s oldest continuously operating movie house. After turns as both an X-rated cinema and a repertory theater—showing notable older films rather than first runs—the Plaza got a makeover in 2012 and now shows a mix of current indie films and contemporary classics.—

The Prytania Theater
New Orleans, LA
Run by Rene and Robert Brunet, the Prytania, which was built in 1914, runs a thrice-weekly Classic Movie Series, weekend Midnight Movies, and regular first-run films. After Katrina, the father and son pair opened the theater to first responders for free screenings and a chance to escape for just a few hours. The Prytania may be the oldest operating single-theater cinema in Louisiana, but it offers the latest sound and projection systems—even 3-D. Not bad for a centenarian.—

The Senator Theatre
Baltimore, MD
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the art-deco masterpiece was renovated in 2009 and again in 2012 to add three additional theaters adjacent to the original main auditorium. Baltimore natives John Waters and Barry Levinson often premiere their films here; Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix, Edward Norton, among others, have all attended screenings at the Senator. First-run films are back on the nightly schedule, along with upcoming revivals, including Silence of the Lambs, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Thelma & Louise.—

The Uptown Theater
Washington, D.C.
The single-screen theater built in 1939—smack in the middle of the Great Depression—has scored some big movie moments in its seventy-seven year history, including playing host to world premieres for two Academy Award-winning films: Jurassic Park and Dances with Wolves. And the chaos created by the opening night of the original Star Wars—before folks in the movie business realized just how big the sci-fi epic would be, the Uptown was the only place to see it in D.C.—is still taking up column inches as Star Wars mania sweeps the nation once again.—202-966-5401