Readers’ Choice: More of the Best Movie Theaters in America

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As much as we would’ve welcomed it, we unfortunately had neither the time nor budget to visit every theater in America to fully research our post last week on the best movie theaters in the country; instead, we relied on our own experience and the testimonials of friends and colleagues. “If we left off your favorite,” went the conclusion of the introduction, “we’re certain you’ll let us know in the comments.”

Did you ever. As of this morning, our fine, far-flung readers had suggested 63 additional theaters, so a follow-up seemed in order. Of course, lists are finite, so not all could make the cut; we began by focusing on the houses that received multiple mentions and narrowed from there — again, based either on the quality of presentation, the eclecticism of the programming, or both.

“Writing a list of this type,” wrote commenter Kent Schuelke, “of course raises the hackles of fans of theaters that did not make the list, but I think everyone who bothers to read the comments section of this article is likely a movie fan so I am simply pleased to see so much love for not only the 12 theaters mentioned in the article but also the ones mentioned in these comments.” Hear, hear. Check out our amended list (13 more, for a grand total of 25) after the jump.

The Music Box, Chicago, IL

“Sad that Chicago doesn’t have a horse in the race.”- pinkston “That’s okay, let’s keep the Music Box our little secret.” – Joe “Another huge vote for the Music Box.” – Josh “Totally disregarding Chicago’s precious Music Box!!” – Larissa Nikola-Lisa “Another vote for The Music Box. It’s a gem.” – Jeff“Music Box has great architecture, stars twinkling up above in the main screening room, and midnight and matinee screenings in addition to their regular hours.” – Cobalt “How can The Music Box in Chicago NOT be on this list? It’s an icon!” – R3NEE “As mentioned above, an institution.” – Clinton McClung “The Music Box in the Windy City. I’ll bet Frank Sinatra loved it too!” – david nastasi “REVISE THIS LIST AND ADD THE MUSIC BOX RIGHT. NOW. It’s how this lonely girl found solace in the suburbs of Chicago and convinced her to break out of the midwest and head to film school. Also, they always have Toblerones at the Music Box. Also, they shot there in High Fidelity, which we know you love.” –Maddy “Crazy to not have the Music Box Theatre on here.” – mandrake “No fucking Music Box in Chicago? Get the fuck outa here.” – Alex “Looks like a few disgruntled Chicagoans beat me to it… Ok, the secret’s out.” – Sharon

We could bore you with the reasons why the Music Box was missed (and not, we’d like to stress, purposefully excluded), but those are just excuses — I don’ t have many hard, fast rules, but one of them is that when Ebert tells you that you got it wrong, you got it wrong, and then you apologize and make it right. Which brings us to the Music Box, originally opened in 1929 as an 800-seat house (in a downtown Chicago dominated by much larger venues). As with so many of our classic theaters, it fell into disrepair and underuse in the 1970s, but was rescued in 1983 by Christopher Carlo, Robert Chaney and Stan Hightower — first as a rep house, then as a venue for new foreign, independent, and cult pictures (with a second screen added on in 1991). It was the favorite theater of Mr. Ebert’s colleague, the late Gene Siskel, who wrote in 1991, “the Music Box Theater has established itself as a significant Chicago cultural attraction, a showcase for progressive filmmaking at a time when American movie theaters are as homogenized as the films they exhibit… For variety, the Music Box has no commercial equal in Chicago.”

The Loew’s Jersey, Jersey City, NJ

“The JERSEY LOEWS in Jersey City, NJ should really be on this list. What a pleasure to watch a movie there.”- Toropoet “I second the Jersey City Loews, my god that place is really breathtaking.” – joni “And yes to the Jersey City Loews!” – Roy “Jersey Loews…having a Bernard Hermann film fest this weekend!” – alex schkrutz “The Loews Jersey is the single greatest movie theater experience going. Good thing they don’t have daily screenings, cause otherwise I’d have to move in there.” – thighmaster

Just a short PATH ride from Manhattan, this classic theater was built in 1929 and was a popular venue for both films and live shows for the nearly fifty years. As America entered the megaplex era, the Loew’s Jersey was turned into a three-screen in 1974; the doors were finally closed in 1986. It was dormant for a decade and a half, originally slated for destruction before being sold to the city of Jersey City, and the long restoration process began. That process is ongoing, but the luminous theater is open for special events and, one weekend a month, for rep film programs (like the above-mentioned trio of Hermmann-scored pictures) at $6 a ticket.

The Fox, Atlanta, GA

“Whatever you do, PLEASE DON’T mention Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theatre, with its Mighty Mo organ and The Phantom of the Fox. (We’d hate for word to get around …)” – JB “The FOX in Atlanta definitely beats them all for pure elegance and splendor. It only shows movies during the summertime,. but see one there and you WILL NOT forget it. I’m seeing TRUE GRIT for the first time there tomorrow night!”- Dean Treadway “Also let us not forget the fabulous FOXes in Atlanta GA and St. Louis MO. Both are art deco masterpieces!” – david nastasi “The Atlanta Fox is gorgeous too, but its not solely a movie theater like the others are.” – Kelly

It’s true — the Fabulous Fox is mostly used these days as a venue for Broadway touring companies like Rock of Ages and Wicked. But they still screen a couple of movies in the summer months for their “Fox Film Festival” — classics and contemporary alike — on “the biggest screen in Atlanta,” with pre-show music on the “Mighty Mo” organ, a sing-along, and a classic cartoon. The 4,678 seat venue opened in 1929 (big year for new movie theaters, that) and was one of the city’s premier venues until (all together now) dwindling audiences nearly led to its destruction in the 1970s. Luckily, the Fox was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974, and after a lengthy restoration effort, the theater is now back to its original splendor.

The Seattle Cinerama, Seattle, WA

“Cinerama in Seattle”- sue “Recently restored (again) and updated. After the Ziegfeld in NYC, my favorite place to see big movies.” – Clinton McClung “The Cinerama in Seattle matches up with most of the theater’s you East-Coast-centric folks are listing.” – Hank Graham

In praising the ArcLight Hollywood, we mentioned the Cinerama Dome, one of only two remaining theaters in the US equipped to show films shot in that distinctive, three-screen process. The other is the Seattle Cinerama, which opened in 1963 as a venue for both Cinerama epics like This is Cinerama and How the West Was Won and large-screen 70mm spectaculars like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Grand Prix. In the lean 1970s and 1980s, it became a broken-down second-run house; the venue’s savior was Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who purchased the Cinerama in 1997 and initiated an expensive, two-year renovation. The theater now has both a 90-foot-long, 30-foot-high screen for Cinerama and 70mm screenings (they hosted the premiere of the 2001 70mm restoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and a second, smaller screen that’s used for standard exhibition.

The Egyptian, Hollywood, CA

“Though I go to the New Beverly from time to time, the theater is ugly. Tiny marquee, postage-stamp lobby with no personality, and a bland theater. The Egyptian in Hollywood would be a much better choice – 89 years old, architecturally interesting with a great history, and repertory/classics screening five nights a week.” – Elizabeth “The programming at LA’s Egyptian Theatre may be the best in the Country. The Egyptian opened in 1922, the oldest theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The theater is the home of the American Cinematheque which programs a 5 night per week (every f’ing week of the year!!) selection of cinema gold, a mix of beloved classics and cutting edge indies.” – Kent Schuelke

Originally named Grauman’s Egyptian (and built, like Grauman’s Chinese, by showman Sid Grauman), this 1922 classic hosted the very first Hollywood premiere, of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood. The gorgeous venue fell out of favor and into disrepair, of course, in the 1980s and 1990s, but the city of Los Angeles sold it to the American Cinematheque in 1996 for one American dollar — so long as the organization restored it and reopened it as a movie theater. Two years and over $12 million later, they did just that. It now operates as a two-screen venue (with one large, 616-seat auditorium, and a smaller 77-seater) mixing new indies, foreign films, and classics in single, double, and even triple features (this weekend: all three Evil Dead movies — who’s putting me up in LA?), often introduced by filmmakers and historians.

The Oriental, Milwaukee, WI

“Where’s the Oriental in Milwaukee and the Orpheum in Madison, WI???????” – William Dais The Oriental in Milwaukee is an old school movie palace–lions and Buddhas and pipe organs. (oh my).” – Marni Chan

The Oriental dates clear back to 1927, and in sharp contrast to many of our other favorites, has shown films continuously for (as their website proudly proclaims) “84 years solid.” Operated by the art-house Landmark chain since 1976, the Oriental sports all of the original design elements, a Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ, a full-service bar, and weekend midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show — in fact, the Oriental is the record holder for longest continuous run of the film in America (it’s been playing there since January 1978).

The Hi-Pointe, St. Louis, MO

“What about the Tivoli AND Hi-Pointe Theaters in St. Louis???” – greenetoile “St. Louis gets no love? What about the Moolah Theatre with it’s full bar, couches, and lounge? Or the Hi-Pointe with its classic feel and location. Lame!” – Moviefan87

Lame indeed, Moviefan87. The Hi-Pointe is St. Louis’s oldest continuously-operating movie house, built in 1922 in the historic Hi-Pointe district and originally operated by the Warner Brothers Circuit. A few other chains followed, but the venue has been owned since the 1970s by George and Georgia James; these days, they screen first-run movies at discount prices (five bucks a ticket on weekdays), and we hear the popcorn can’t be beat.

The Byrd, Richmond, VA

“When you do the List of the Next Dozen Best, think about Richmond’s Byrd Theatre. Richmond’s Grand Movie Palace has been open for 80 years and is looking forward to the next 80.” – Rob “Rob, I agree. Richmond, VA’s The Byrd is a fantastic and beautiful theater. I love going to shows when they play the Wurlitzer.” – Becky

Miracle of miracles, the Byrd is another continuously-operating movie house, going strong since 1928 (it was the state’s first sound-equipped venue) and still sporting its original seat frames and upstairs upholstery, as well as its original, famous “Mighty Wurlitzer”. Added to the Register of Historic Places in 1979, it is now operated by the Byrd Theatre Foundation as a second-run house, and tickets are a steal at only $1.99 a pop.

Silent Movie Theatre/Cinefamily, Los Angeles, CA

“The best theatre outside of the Alamo doing their style of adventurous, event based programming.” – Clinton McClung “I’ll second the shout out for Silent Movie Theatre/Cinefamily in LA because the programming is impressive.” – Ryan

This small venue (184 seats) on Fairfax Avenue was opened in 1942 by collector John Hampton as a venue solely for silent cinema, and it operated as such (almost continuously, though under changing ownership) until 2006, when it was sold to Sammy and Dan Harkham — who transformed it, under the “Cinefamily” banner, into a more traditional revival house (albeit one where silent cinema is still very much on the menu). Upcoming events include a Father’s Day matinee of Chaplin’s The Kid, a screening of Eating Raoul with co-star Mary Woronov, the second annual Everything Is Festival! (featuring the found footage horrors of the Everything Is Terrible website), and the “Cinefamily Senior Prom” (a double-feature of Carrie and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, with prom attire encouraged).

Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT

“I’ve lived away from western New England for three years, but I miss my two favorite film venues as much as the Berkshires: the Keene State [NH] on-campus cinema, and Real Art Ways in Hartford (with Trinity’s lovely Cinestudio a mile away). Two well-appointed art cinemas, run by sticklers whose standards for screening and sound are exacting enough to make projection-snobs of its viewers. R.A.W. also has the most comfortable seats I’ve ever enjoyed.” – jwarthen “Real Art Ways in Hartford! A hidden treasure…” – Sara

This not-for-profit art space in Hartford was established in 1975 by a group of artists and musicians. These days, they host not not only movies, but live music events, theater, and a visual arts gallery. The Real Art Ways Cinema opened in 1996 with the goal of showing first-run indies seven nights a week; they also offer “Monday Matinees” of classics and foreign films, late shows of genre titles, and “Film Field Trips” for school groups.

The Tampa Theatre, Tampa, FL

“Tampa Theatre – a 1926 atmospheric movie palace – should absolutely be on this list.” – Kelly Also suggested by EOB and Leah Lo.

The Tampa, designed by the great John Eberson, opened in 1926 and was notable not only for its architecture and programming, but for being the first air-conditioned commercial building in Tampa (and if you’ve ever been to Florida in the summer, you can appreciate how huge that must’ve been). Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, the Tampa now presents a rotating schedule of current independent and foreign releases with “summer classics” (complete with Looney Tunes shorts) like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, and the 1924 silent version of Peter Pan, accompanied by their 1400-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ.

Coolidge Corner Theatre, Boston, MA

“The Coolidge is a classic theatre with the best big screen in town. “ – Clinton McClung Also suggested by Kelly.

The Coolidge Corner building dates clear back to 1906; originally a church, it was converted into an Art Deco movie palace in 1933 and hasn’t closed its doors since. It came to the brink in 1988, though, before being rescued by the “Friends of the Coolidge,” which became the not-for-profit organization that operates it today. Their current schedule is an ambitious mix of new indies, late night cult titles (The Room? Bravo), and classics, as well as occasional family shows and live performances.

Grauman’s Chinese, Hollywood, CA

“The Chinese in Hollywood is breathtaking and should have been included.” – Clarite Radio “And shouldn’t Grauman’s Chinese in L.A. be mentioned?” – Hank Graham “I know you were probably trying to mix it up a little because there are so many great, old time theaters in Los Angeles/Hollywood, but how on earth could you not include Grauman’s Chinese? To this date, it has the best sound system in any theater I’ve ever attended and the screen is so big it’s literally where most movies are world premiered. You guys fell for the classic hipster trap of hating the most obvious choice!” – Jeff

Ah yes indeed, we fell for the “classic hipster trap” — allow me to turn down my Fleet Foxes vinyl, put down my falafel, and remove my iconically oversized glasses to fix you with my hipster glare. Indeed, we figured that since Grauman’s Chinese is pretty much the one movie theater that everyone in the world has heard of, it would probably didn’t need the attention. But yes, fine. Opened in 1927. Lotsa premieres. Footprints in the cement. People out front dressed like superheroes. Grauman’s Chinese. There ya go.

Honorable mentions to The Vista in Los Feliz, CA; The Orpheum in Madison, WI; The Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI; The Avon in Decatur, IL; The Somerville in Somerville, MA; The Harris in Pittsburgh, PA; The Normal in Normal, IL; The Shaker Square Cinema in Cleveland, OH; The Lark in Larkspur, CA; the list goes on and on. So many great theaters, so little time. As self-proclaimed “total movie theatre nerd” Clinton McClung noted in the comments: “There are tons more, and tons of gorgeous classic theatres still out there – some in disrepair, some just treading mainstream waters, and some thriving. But always worth the visit rather than a staid old multiplex. To find the one nearest you, visit http://cinematreasures.org/.”