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Art, artifacts, and entertainment history have been retooled in these old-time and newly prized movie houses

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Foulds
Globe Correspondent / November 5, 2006

BRATTLEBORO -- In the 1930s, you went there to spoon.

Dimly lighted, spacious, with velvet seating and cathedral-like ceilings, classic theaters were prime necking grounds, especially in the balcony.

Rainy Saturday afternoons drew a different crowd. Children rushed the seats, brawling and finger-whistling in a deafening mayhem. A matinee was a carnival, with Betty Boop and Popeye magnified and transformed into images far livelier than anything found in books.

Mammoth curtains flowed open and scratchy images flickered onto the screen: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Moving pictures transported you into a different reality, a magical universe dissolved only by the lights coming on. In its wake, empty popcorn boxes lay crushed on the floor; globs of chewing gum clung to seatbacks like barnacles.

Where did the great movie houses go?

The most venerable, those that popularized vaudeville and burlesque, then moved on to silent and talking movies, went into decline in the 1960s and '70s, when TV westerns and sitcoms kept Americans sunk in their living room couches. Many theaters closed. But in recent decades, they've been staging a comeback. Nonprofit organizations are acquiring and restoring them, giving them new purpose, new uses, and returning the "big screen" experience to film lovers who spurn the multiplex experience.

Brattleboro's Latchis Hotel and Theatre is a shining example. A gleaming Art Deco block in the center of town, it was built in 1938 and included a restaurant and hotel. It was the showpiece of a 14-theater empire created by Peter Latchis and his Greek immigrant father, Demetrius.

What started as a tribute to Demetrius ended up an homage to Hellenic culture. Signs of the zodiac ring the lobby floor and circle the auditorium's massive indigo ceiling. Terrazzo floors, plaster friezes, and a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, suggest ancient glory.

"They spared nothing. That's the beauty of it," said Gail Nunziata, managing director of the nonprofit Brattleboro Arts Initiative.

Determined to save the building, the arts organization purchased the property from the Latchis family in 2003. In addition to the main theater, two smaller screening rooms have been added, and a fourth is planned. The complex also includes a 30-room hotel, shops, and a brew pub. Filling the 750 seats at the Latchis, however, is not an easy task in a town of 12,000.

"I love the idea that you sit here and you wait for the show to start, and you look around you," said Anne MacLeod, a writer and moviegoer who moved to Brattleboro in February. "It has a time worn elegance."

Despite cracks in the upholstery, the atmosphere is striking. The columned facades of faux Greek temples mirror each other across the room; nymphs and centaurs amble over the walls. The original concession stand in the lobby displays Goobers, Raisinets, Milk Duds, and Charleston Chews on red velvet as if they were fine jewelry. Serving as an arts center, the theater also hosts painting exhibits.

Although the Latchis theater empire crumbled, another of its facilities has survived, the Colonial Theatre in nearby Keene, N.H. The marquee lights still flash on Main Street, announcing an impressive roster of performers coming up. Kurt Steelman, who manages the theater's live events, described its premiere in 1924, when its first owner blithely handed out 10,000 free tickets, driving it to near bankruptcy.

The opening attraction featured Lon Chaney as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a silent film with musical accompaniment. After years of hosting entertainments of all kinds, the Colonial fell into serious disrepair.

"There are people in this town who remember coming to watch a film with an umbrella due to the holes in the roof," Steelman said.

Now restored, the Colonial's interior seems as fresh as at its opening, with classic Latchis decoration. The 880 seats are a blaze of green velvet, with sumptuous curtains, gilded friezes, three muses lined up in black and gold along the ceiling's edge, and tiny emerald lights running up and down the aisles. Linda Carter, a Keene resident, brings her family every year to see "The Nutcracker."

"It reminds me of going to the theat er with my grandmother," Carter said. "It's exquisite inside. It's comparable to the Wang [Center for the Performing Arts] in Boston. It's lovely."

Along with its regular schedule of films, the Colonial hosts performers such as Cherish the Ladies, the Russian National Ballet, the Harlem Gospel Choir, and a stage production of "The Full Monty."

To the north, the Chubb Theatre at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord is built around the old Capitol Theatre, which opened in 1927 and was revived in 1995 and fully restored in 2003. Today, it is the largest theater in New Hampshire and it stages performances year-round in what amounts to a 1,307-seat Egyptian palace.

At the time the classic showplaces were built, few Americans were traveling abroad, and theater owners aimed for exotica. A few years later, the glamorous decor aided Hollywood in its goal of taking the public's mind off the grim landscape of the Great Depression.

One of New England's standouts in this effort was the Garde Theatre in New London, Conn., a Moorish mansion with tiles, arches, and ceilings as ornate as an oriental carpet. Today, the 1,472-seat auditorium, part of the nonprofit Garde Arts Center, is a study in camels, elephants, and Arabian nights.

Other gems include the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a gilded turn-of-the-century palace with superlative acoustics, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, with its extraordinary soffets, stepped-down ceiling panels striped and patterned in designs that executive director Joe Zina describes as a blend of Roman, Egyptian, and Indian. The Coolidge's 40-foot red velvet curtains still slide open before and after the movie, a conscious effort by Zina to give filmgoers the experience they would have had in decades past, when just walking into the theater made you feel like royalty.

In Northampton, the Academy of Music Theatre prides itself on the Tiffany glass windows in the lobby, a century-old gift from the Tiffany family. Historical curiosities abound, including the trap door specially installed on the stage for an act by Harry Houdini.

The most arresting feature of the 900-seat Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, Maine, is the floating balcony with its nine individual loges. The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts held court here in the 1930s ; loge E was the Rockefellers' favorite, situated center front with a bird's-eye view of the stage. Today the loges contain four chairs and a table so that viewers can sip cocktails during the show.

"Everything's intact," notes owner Michael Boland, down to the theater's original Art Nouveau light fixtures.

Such care has been taken to replicate the original interior of the Paramount Theatre in Rutland that attending a performance there gives one a sense of stepping back into 1913.

The Paramount has evolved from cinema to performance hall with state-of-the-art equipment befitting a Broadway stage. Renovations completed in 2000 restored the deep rose damask wall covering, the gilded loges, and the cherubs, laurels, vines, medallions, and garlands that adorn the walls and ceiling. They even salvaged the oval canvas painting of the muses that had been stored for 30 years.

"Half of the plaster on the high ceiling was gone. There were pigeons all over. It was closed for 20 years," said Michael Sternberg, a city official who has supported the Paramount's 20-year restoration. Sternberg considers the theater an irreplaceable part of Rutland's history. Soldiers gathered here before departing for wars. It has sheltered residents from flood waters and hosted innumerable weddings and memorial services. In May, retiring US Senator James Jeffords, a Rutland native, was honored there.

Preserving the Paramount and the region's other classic theaters provides an important link to the past, places to celebrate the present, and something more.

"After all," Sternberg said, "a number of people were probably conceived here."

Contact Diane Foulds, a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt., at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

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