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Cool and Collected: treasures of a revival house

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The entrance to Elmhurst's American Movie Palace Museum is the opposite of grand. Blink and you're likely to walk right by the narrow doorway just north of the art deco facade of the York Theatre. But open that door, climb the steep staircase with its dizzily patterned theater-aisle carpet, and you'll surface among the artifacts and memorabilia of America's most opulent architecture.

The places where people first saw movies were not very different from where we see them now: like the bare boxes of today's multiplexes, nickelodeons were small, narrow rooms devoid of interest until the screen lit up. But for a brief period of time, from the end of World War I until the early years of the Depression, the buildings were the real show--exercises in over-the-top design that produced people's palaces like the Uptown, Oriental, and Avalon theaters in Chicago. In this nondescript suite of rooms above the York, the museum and sponsoring organization the Theatre Historical Society of America are preserving a record of those and many other American theaters.

Executive director (and sole paid staff member) Richard Sklenar presides over the museum and the society's archive, which includes 250 sets of blueprints, 27,000 slides, and numerous file cabinets full of stage bills, photographs, ads, legal documents, and anything else related to theater buildings. THS was founded in 1969 by journalist Ben Hall; a national organization with about a thousand members, it publishes the quarterly journal Marquee, holds annual conclaves, and serves as a public resource. It has an E-mail address and a Web site (www2.hawaii.edu/-angell/thsa), but its nerve center is an old-fashioned card catalog, cross-indexed by city, state, and theater. Want to know what happened to the neighborhood cinema of your youth? Chances are they've got a file on it. The archive has been built by donors like Terry Helgesen, a vaudeville pianist with the instincts of an anthropologist, who cataloged every theater he played as he crisscrossed the country in the 20s and 30s, filling mammoth scrapbooks with indexed notes, documents, and photographs.

He left his collection to the society a few years ago, when he passed on to the great theater in the sky.

While THS keeps records on all kinds of theaters, the museum focuses on the palaces. To make the cut, says Sklenar, a movie house had to have "at least 2,000 seats and a stage that could fly scenery." Exhibits range from ushers' uniforms to the conductor's desk from the Granada--which rose from the orchestra pit on its own elevator and was equipped with dials indicating the projection speed, so the conductor could adjust the tempo accordingly.

The museum's centerpiece is a scale model of the Avalon Theatre, built over a three-year period by set designer Frank Cronican. The Avalon, designed by John Eberson and opened in 1927, is an "atmospheric" theater, meaning its auditorium ceiling gives the impression of a night sky filled with twinkling stars and wispy clouds. The audience sits in what appears to be the courtyard of a Persian palace, surrounded by bejeweled minarets, statues, and a bubbling fountain. A large-screen TV plays a video of Gene Kelly narrating a 28-minute history of the picture palaces. Inspired by the great opera houses and cathedrals of Europe, and drawing on all sorts of exotica, they offered "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams," says Kelly. By the 1950s most of the movie palaces had fallen into disrepair, and many were subsequently razed. The Avalon, however, is still standing at 79th and Stony Island, restored and operating as the New Regal Theater.

The American Movie Palace Museum, 152 N. York, Elmhurst, is open 9 to 4 weekdays except Thursday, when the hours are 10 to 3. Admission is free, but call 630-782-1800 before visiting; hours occasionally differ. The archive is open by appointment. It costs $15 an hour to use it or to have a volunteer research it for you. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard Sklenar photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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