Courtesy of Tuschinski Theater

From Hollywood to Shanghai, the show must go on at these old-time movie theaters.

In the 1920s—back when people dressed up to see the latest Hollywood
feature—movie palaces resembled cathedrals. They lured moviegoers with
polished-marble foyers, ceilings glowing with tiny starlike lights,
hand-painted murals, costumed ushers, and—the pièce de
résistance—dramas unfolding on the screen like a cast spell.

Unfortunately, many of the world’s grandest movie palaces have gone
the way of silent films—nobody’s making them anymore, and very few have
survived in the era of TiVo and Netflix. Luckily, though, there are
still a few operating vintage movie houses scattered around the
globe—some in some very unlikely places.

Many still-in-business movie palaces have stayed competitive by
keeping their vintage eye-candy interiors but adopting today’s
must-have technology (including digital surround-sound speakers,
gynormous screens, and blizzard-cold air-conditioning). Others have
expanded their repertoires to include more than just movies: for
example, at Le Grand Rex, a glamorous Mediterranean-themed theater in Paris, film screenings alternate with a calendar of concerts by famed performers (Bob Dylan and Björk among them).

What’s wonderful about old theaters, says Mike McMenamin, co-owner
of a handful of palace theaters in the American northwest, is that, as
well as giving moviegoers a taste of old-school grandeur, each venue
has a unique history. “Often the stories of the theater can eclipse the
stories on screen,” he says. At his Bagdad Theater & Pub, in Portland, Oregon,
those stories include a lavish 1927 grand opening, where Carl Lamail,
then president of Universal Studios, brought a live camel to accompany
him on the red carpet.

A battered economy may leave many palace theaters struggling, but
it’s worth noting that even in the poorest days of the Great
Depression, 60 to 80 million Americans continued going to movies
regularly. “At that moment in American cultural history,” says Ross
Melnick, cofounder of theater-tracking organization Cinema Treasures,
“we viewed entertainment and the news together every week—not five
times a year (the current average movie attendance today).”

Founded in 1999, Cinema Treasures has a Web site that lists 23,000
vintage theaters (hundreds demolished, but many still aglow) in more
than 175 countries. Melnick’s organization and others like it are
fighting to keep palace theaters up and running, but regular ticket
buyers are equally—if not more—important. True, a film may look the
same at the chain theater down the street, but there’s something about
settling into a velveteen seat, in the same place where a generation
first laughed at Chaplin’s madcap antics or shed a tear during Casablanca, that gives palace theaters a starring role.