Matt Lambros’ richly detailed photographs of abandoned theaters are portraits of gaudy decrepitude, a lamentable parade of forgotten architectural glories. The Brooklyn photographer backs up his images with research illuminating the stories behind the buildings and, once in a while, hope that restoration is on the horizon. Ten prints from Lambros’ After the Final Curtain series are on exhibit at the Jean Cocteau Cinema through March 17.
The photos of aged performance and cinema spaces are notable not only for the ghastly state of the buildings’ interiors but also for their amazing architectural details such as the ceiling of Philadelphia’s Uptown Theatre, with its spiky central star figure, and the intricate plasterwork in the Empress Theatre in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. “The Empress is all carved out,” Lambros told Pasatiempo. “Today the main level is a grocery store, and the upper level is storage for a Hasidic publishing company.” Some of the theaters have seen many uses since their heydays. The century-old Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia, for example, has functioned as a sports arena and two churches during recent decades.
The essential splendor of stage and auditorium raises questions about the fate of these buildings. What about the 1926 Embassy Theater in Port Chester, New York, which still boasts its original, glorious chandelier? Or Loew’s Majestic Theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with its beautiful, intact proscenium arch? “The Embassy was recently purchased, and I think there is a plan to restore it,” Lambros said. “The Majestic is actually the twin of the Loew’s Palace; they’re in the same building in Bridgeport, and both are over 90 years old. The city will give the Majestic to anyone who has a proposal and the money to restore it.”
The Palace, its walls covered with frescoes of formal Italian gardens, is one of the less-tattered Lambros has photographed. With 3,642 seats, it was and is the state’s largest movie theater. It was originally used for vaudeville shows and silent movies and then for talking films beginning in the mid-1930s. By the early 1970s, ticket sales had declined to the point that it was put on the market. After a few years as an adult-film house, it closed in 1975. Since then, non-X-rated movies have been shot inside it. The city hopes to restore it.
With such a high level of elaborate and often unharmed decoration, many of these faded glories around the country could be renovated, as Santa Fe’s 83-year-old Lensic Performing Arts Center was in 2000-2001. Two problems not so easily addressed are the disappearing audience and the abandonment of America’s main streets.
“I usually go on a pretty long road trip every year. I was in one Kansas town, and that downtown was not thriving,” Lambros noted with understatement. “It was a Saturday, and they had their farmers market. A block of main street was closed, but there were only two booths. One was selling raffle tickets, and the other was selling cookies. There was no actual produce.
“A lot of the old theaters ended up closing because of the changing neighborhood, but also because of the rise of television and an antitrust lawsuit in the 1940s involving movie theaters.” The suit against Paramount Pictures resulted in the end of the studios’ practice of block-booking in studio-owned theaters, freeing up movie houses to show any films the owners wished. “After that, more than one theater in the area could show the movie. Then they started dividing theaters up. They’d seal off the balcony and twin the theater, then divide them further, and then real multiplexes began to be built.”
Lambros has found abandoned architecture riveting since he was a mere tyke, visiting old barns with his grandmother in Dutchess County, New York. “Her inquisitive nature made a lasting impression on me,” he recalls in his artist statement. As an adult, his curiosity ultimately was transformed into “a vehicle for artistic expression.”
“I started out shooting abandoned hospitals, more as a fun hobby,” he said in the interview. “I started researching some of the atrocities that happened at asylums across the country, but you can only do so much of that before you get burned out. Then one day I was sitting in a theater in Manhattan watching a terrible B movie. I love those. This was a Troma film by Lloyd Kaufman, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. I’m sitting there watching and laughing with friends and I look up and notice an amazing chandelier and I start taking in more of the architecture. I’m wondering, Why is this movie being shown here? It must have been something back in the day.”
He began doing research and found out about the King’s Theatre in Brooklyn, the first abandoned theater he photographed. “I ended up finding an old newspaper that had the names of old theaters in Brooklyn, and I researched where they were and what was left and what the history was. And I found that the Three Stooges did tours, where they would show up at premieres, but it wouldn’t be Hollywood or Times Square, it was little theaters like in Brooklyn. Or in Pennsylvania, where Roy Rogers had showed up with Trigger at the Embassy Theater in Lewistown. Later people tried to find hoofprints on the stage to prove it.”
The internet is an indispensable research aid. He often starts with the website CinemaTreasures.com, at least to get ideas. He has an ongoing relationship with the Theatre Historical Society of America in Elmhurst, Illinois. And he researches at local libraries and newspapers.
Lambros used a digital newspaper archive to track down the story behind one theater in Marshall, Texas, although the process was not entirely smooth. “I found an archive on the Marshall city website of their newspaper, but it was only for 1929 to 1932, then 1955, then one from 1999. I thought that was perfect, because I knew the theater opened in 1930.
“I started out searching every issue in January and I found one article saying, ‘Theater to open in March.’ I searched through March and I finally saw ads for the first shows that showed there and even the name of the architect.” The theater opened with Young Eagles starring Buddy Rogers and Jean Arthur, plus the Laurel & Hardy short Brats.
Lambros has photographed more than 60 derelict theaters. His camera is a Canon 5D Mark II. “I try to shoot wide. I like to kind of get an establishing shot of everything, then go for the details.” Lambros sells prints on his website (www.mlambrosphotography.com), and he is represented by Galerie Sakura in Paris.
He has shot a series on electrical outlets and light switches in abandoned buildings, but After the Final Curtain will be occupying him for some time. “I have about 12 more posts that will be going up on my website. Right now I’m 12 ahead, or 12 behind, however you look at it. And I’ve researched every state and I have lists of theaters in every one.”
“My hope for my work,” he writes in his statement, “is that it will shine light on beautiful, dated architecture and on the equal yet sinister beauty in decay.” ◀
▼ Photographs of Matt Lambros
▼ Through March 17
▼ Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave.,