Superior's vintage Palace Theater
(June 2002) The era of silent movies and vaudeville is gone, but majestic reminders remain in dozens of Wisconsin cities: The ornate movie house. Mike Simonson reports.
Twenty years after its projector rewound its last movie, people in Superior are again showing interest in the 1917 vintage Palace Theater. Since the city took ownership for back taxes, City Planner Cliff Knettel and preservation committee chair Kathy Laakso are poking around in the old place. "It looks pretty rough, just from the surface, but the work to restore it is not that difficult. There's really no structural problems with the roof at this time. It's pretty much intact" The Palace was remodeled in 1953...lowering the ceilings and removing the chandeliers. But Knettel still sees remnants of its earlier grandeur. "This whole tile ceiling used to be 30 feet up, a chandelier out here that hung down."
Like the remaining 20 or so single screen large movie houses in Wisconsin, Laakso says the Palace was built to please. Architect George Rapp left his mark on theaters around the Midwest. "He liked to make his movie palaces very palatial because it kind of removed all stigma, it made everybody equal in the theater. Everybody was the same when they went there and they could forget about everything and just totally sink down and enjoy the beauty of it. And a lot of times they decorated them Spanish, Greek, very beautiful far away places. I guess maybe it showed that people could then travel through going to the theater, even though they were still in their little Midwestern town or whatever."
Rapp's design was part of a plan across the country to make silent movies less low-brow. Theater Historical Society of America Director Richard Sklenar says moving pictures needed respectability. "Theaters of that type were replacements for nickelodeons that had been built in the period from 1905 to 1910 and then from '10 to like 1917 they were building cinemas and movies, whereas the nickelodeons had been conversions usually of storefronts where they would just bring in a projector and a screen and bring in folding chairs from the church or local undertaker." So, Sklenar says the posh movie house was born. Velvet curtains and seating, marble floors, and chandeliers all had a purpose. "In those days a school looked like a school, a bank looked like a bank, and a movie theater looked like a palace. Just the idea of making it something special gave it legitimacy and created a wonderful, huge, big audience which made Hollywood what it is today." And the rarity today, is the balcony. "If they were a little older they were in the balcony maybe not paying attention to the movie. If they were a little younger they were in the front rows of the balcony dropping juju-beans on somebody's head down below or popcorn." That's why most theaters banned kids from balconies.
Jan Provost of Superior was an usherette at the Palace from 1949 to 1951, before television cut into movie crowds. She remembers the crush of kids on Saturday afternoons. "Trying to keep them out of the balcony, because when they were in the balcony they were always, they'd sneak up there. They weren't supposed to be, but they'd get under the rope. They'd get up there and start pelting their pals with popcorn or whatever else they'd have in their hands so I had to keep order." Provost says there was a section of the balcony which was much quieter...way in the back. "The romance section is where all the couples came that really didn't care to see the movie, okay? We'll put it that way. I had no control over them (ha ha)." As a kid, Provost says going to the movies was an event. They'd see news of World War Two, cartoons, and then the feature film. Kids would line up around the block with a quarter in their hand for a ticket. "Big lines, people just loved to drop their kids. Things that you couldn't do now. Most people go to the movies with their kids. But in those days it was no worry and you'd drop them off and pick them up at the door."
Today, the Palace Theater balcony is quiet, and neglected. But Knettel and Laakso climb the stairs and see signs of its old grandeur. "Let me look at all the detail still on the boxes, it's a matter of scraping the paint and putting some plaster over it." Knettel estimates it'll cost $3 to $4-million to get the Palace back in shape. Sklenar says that's typical, but worth it for any community. "They have been part of the psyche of small towns, middle-sized cities, big cities for three or more generations of people. That building has been on that corner in Superior Wisconsin for 85 years. How many families and children of families, and their children have gone to that place to see movies or to be entertained." Superior is just starting and has a long way to go. Sklenar says empty movie palaces that are still standing are rare. And renovation is even rarer, since most were given facelifts in the past 20 years. "It's late in the game but it can still work and we know, our experience is to track the history of theater buildings. Indicating how valuable renovated theaters can be for downtown areas."
Superior's Palace Theater marquee has been dark for two decades, but it reminds Provost of another time that she thinks the city could recapture if it is restored into a performing arts center. It could become a magnet to revitalize downtown, and make Saturday nights majestic once again. "And people really dressed up like Saturday nights to come to the movie. People dressed up, unlike now we don't even dress up to go to church half the time, people are in jeans and tennis shoes. But in those days it was a real night out, just to go to a movie." Of the 44 theaters listed as classic in Wisconsin by the New York based "Cinema Treasures" preservation group, 23 are closed. Seven are being renovated, three like the Palace, sit empty, and 10 of those have been lost forever to the wrecking ball.