- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

As new movie multiplexes continue to compete with one another over the most powerful sound systems and best stadium seating, the old, downtown single-screen theaters are growing increasingly silent.
But there are groups and individuals who either document or work to preserve these gems of 20th-century American culture. One is Michael Putnam, a New York City photographer whose black-and-white-photo exhibit “Silent Screens The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theater” is featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building.
“These theaters are so heartbreakingly beautiful. They are so much part of an old way of life,” says Melody Lawrence, Mr. Putnam’s wife, who went with her husband on his photographic journeys in the 1970s and 1980s to document old movie theaters and the towns of which they were part.
“We found that movie theaters were a basic element of each town,” Ms. Lawrence says.
Mr. Putnam, who is taking a two-week trip to India to photograph religious pilgrims, was not available for comment for this article. But in his 2000 book, which shares its name with the exhibit and was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, he writes the following about his motivation to document movie theaters:
“I saw the theaters I was drawn to photograph closed theaters for the most part as embodiments of the death of the American town.”
The exhibit consists of 72 black-and-white images of desolate, weather-beaten and decaying movie houses in towns from Texas to Virginia.
The project took eight years to complete and required 50,000 miles of road travel in an old Volkswagen bus and visits to at least 2,600 towns and cities and 1,200 theaters.

The exhibit is low-key, especially compared with the nearby “Brain: The World Inside Your Head,” a display that features interactive games and colorful displays.
Yet, the silent screens seem to be making an impression on visitors.
“Everyone has a story about old movie theaters,” Ms. Lawrence says. “The oddest thing about these pictures is everyone responds to them. It’s amazing how young people have looked at these pictures and have responded to them.”
Comments in an exhibit guest book confirm Ms. Lawrence’s impression.
“We’ve lost a lot,” writes one museum visitor. “Such tragedy to see the destruction of these theaters,” writes another. Someone else recalls that the movie theater was the only air-conditioned building in Bossier City, La.
Exhibit director Ellen Dorn, who has fond memories of going to Saturday matinees on King Street in Alexandria, says the audience response has been very good.
“It’s amazing to hear how many people say, ‘Look, that very movie theater was in my hometown,’” Ms. Dorn says.
Joe Snead, 46, a Torrance, Calif., resident and recent visitor to the exhibit, says he didn’t recognize any of the theaters but the black-and-whites spoke to him anyway.
“It’s very nostalgic I remember when I was a kid and we took the trolley to the movie theater,” Mr. Snead says. “Tickets were 35 cents.”

Mr. Putnam’s photos were shot mostly in the 1980s, a significant decade in the lives of single-screen theaters, says Ross Melnick, co-founder of cinematreasures.org, a Web site that tracks the condition of old movie theaters across the nation.
“[Mr. Putnam] captured an interesting time for movie theaters. They had been abandoned for years,” Mr. Melnick says. “They had either finally bit the dust or they were resurrected.”
The theaters had started appearing in the 1920s. Some survived structurally because they were converted to retail, office or multipurpose arts spaces.
“I think the photos are wonderful,” Mr. Melnick says. “In Buffalo [the theaters] are weatherworn, and in the South they are sun worn.”
Mr. Putnam writes in his book that by the late 1989 “I realized that my subject was disappearing.”
The small movie houses were not profitable and had to go. When the theaters went it became difficult to even find old Main Street. The strip malls and other commercial centers had become the new focus.
While the future of single-screen theaters may look bleak, some are still operating. Among them is the Uptown Theater, an 840-seat art deco movie house on Connecticut Avenue Northwest, where a line of hundreds of people snaked along the sidewalk on a recent evening to see “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”
“With the old single-screen theater the show begins on the street,” Mr. Melnick says. “Everyone is going to the same movie and there is an electricity and excitement in the air that’s very different from the mall movie experience.”

WHAT: “Silent Screens The Decline and Transformation of the American Movie Theater”
WHERE: Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 31
TICKETS: Free admission
PHONE: 202/357-2700

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