In an age when you can watch just about any movie you want on a device that fits in a pocket, it’s a wonder that movie theaters even exist anymore. But they do exist—thrive,even—proving that there’s a special relationship between audiences and the silver screen. More special, however, is seeing a film in a theater that has been in business for decades, one that marries modern comforts with nostalgia and the time-honored tradition of going to the movies. From coast to coast, these are America’s best historic movie theaters.
By Zachary Laks
WHERE: New York, New York
In the heart of Midtown, Ziegfeld Theater has been in operation since 1969, named after the Vaudeville playhouse Ziegfeld Theater (from the famed theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld) that was razed in 1966. The single-screen cinema seats a staggering 1,131 people and often plays host to major premieres, as well as first-run movies. Glittering chandeliers greet guests in the grand lobby where deluxe posters of cinema classics adorn the walls. The well-maintained theater is adorned in royal red carpeting with gold trim accents, providing an elegant atmosphere for the main attraction.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s New York City Travel Guide
WHERE: Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Uptown Theatre in downtown Minneapolis is a landmark for its rich history and iconic 50-foot tower marquee. Built originally in 1913, renovated and named the Uptown Theatre in 1929, and then rebuilt after a fire in 1939, it’s the only movie theater in the Twin Cities with a true balcony. Tickets in the coveted section cost an additional $2 and are considered prime seating locations. The single-screen theater, which reopened with a renovated theater and bar in 2012, shows independent and art films, along with its signature monthly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Minneapolis Travel Guide
WHERE: Tampa, Florida
Since 1926, the Tampa Theatre has been a treasured home for the arts. Architecturally exquisite, the atmospheric theater design transports moviegoers to an exotic Mediterranean courtyard festooned with old-world statuary, flowers, and gargoyles. The ceiling is a one-of-a-kind sky mural complete with twinkling stars that bring grandeur to the movie-going experience. The cinema today operates as a non-profit and specializes in art house, independent films, as well as classic and first-run screenings. The Tampa Theatre occasionally welcomes live acts as well, including cover bands, comedy acts, and its annual Rockapella holiday concert.
Insider Tip: The theater is filled with figurines, taxidermy, and statues of birds. Arrive early with your party and, once seated, see how many replicas you can count.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Tampa Travel Guide
WHERE: Traverse City, Michigan
After originally opening as the Lyric Theatre in 1916, a fire and subsequent renovation led to the creation of the State Theatre in the same location in 1949. The Traverse City landmark shows first-run films as well as a fun line up of classics and movie-themed events. The theater was lovingly restored in 2007 by the Traverse City Film Festival, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and presenting cinema classics. The bright and classic marquee provides a warm welcome as you approach the single-screen complex. Look up when entering the theater and take in the majestic star scape that fills the ceiling. The interior is accented with gold and red curtains on the wall, and the seats, made in Michigan, are remarkably comfortable.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Traverse City Travel Guide
The Senator Theatre
WHERE: Baltimore, Maryland
Just off of Belvedere Square in Baltimore, The Senator Theatre is an iconic cinema that has been in and out of operation since it first opened with the Spencer Tracy and Nancy Kelly film Stanley and Livingstone in 1939. Currently in operation under new ownership since 2012, The Senator Theatre shows first-run movies as well as interspersed classics such as Citizen Kane and an annual holiday benefit screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. The building has been tastefully renovated in recent years and is now home to three additional theaters, as well as the historic main auditorium. The lobby’s original terrazzo floors and Art Deco murals add a touch of panache to the movie-going experience. Once inside the theater’s main auditorium, look up to see the rainbow prisms that dot along the recessed ceiling before taking in the massive gold curtain that hangs in front of the 40-foot silver screen.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Baltimore Travel Guide
The Castro Theatre
WHERE: San Francisco, California
Built in 1922 in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, The Castro Theatre’s façade was inspired by the style of Mexican cathedrals. Over 1,400 seats fill the grand building, which features a looming Art Deco chandelier from 1937. Be sure to make a trip up to the mezzanine and balcony to admire the dramatic staircases and large mirrors framed in gold, as well as the rare film poster collection on display. The Castro thrives today with an impressive roster of classic movies, sing-a-longs, double feature nights, and live performances.
Insider Tip: The concessions stand, featuring organic popcorn with no salt added, is cash only, so come prepared.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Travel Guide
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at The Ritz
WHERE: Austin, Texas
The classic Ritz Theater in downtown Austin opened in 1929 and operated as a standard movie theater until the 1970s. After housing a variety of businesses through the years, the Ritz property was reconceived and renovated when Alamo Drafthouse Cinema moved to the location in 2007. Now known as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the Ritz, the venue shows first-run movies as well as a variety of special screening events of off-beat classics. Come hungry as the impressive menu goes above and beyond standard movie snack fare with great burgers, pizzas, and shakes. An impressive beer, wine, and cocktail list makes the trip to the cinema a real night out.
Insider Tip: Make sure to book ahead for the coveted balcony seats. These special leather loveseat recliners offer the best views in the theater and the most relaxing way to enjoy your cold beverage from the bar.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Austin Travel Guide
WHERE: Somerville, Massachusetts
Having celebrated its centennial this past year, the Somerville Theatre is a longstanding cultural center in this Boston suburb. A multiplex with five screens, the main attraction is the original theater, a 900-seat auditorium originally built in 1914 for vaudeville and opera. The main theater shows primarily first-run movies with many notable events in its past, including concerts by U2 and Bruce Springsteen. With new renovations providing a facelift in 2009, the Somerville Theatre offers the modern luxuries of comfortable seats, a wine and beer bar, and local ice cream at the concession stand.
Insider Tip: While visiting the theater, sneak downstairs to the Museum of Bad Art, where a free collection of up to 40 pieces at any time displays some of the art world’s greatest blunders.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Boston Travel Guide
TCL Chinese Theatre
WHERE: Hollywood, California
The famed handprints on the sidewalk of the Hollywood Walk of Fame lead to one of America’s most iconic cinematic landmarks, the TCL Chinese Theatre offers guests a unique and historic movie-going experience. Opening back in 1927 under a different name, the TCL Chinese Theatre was beautifully renovated, starting in 2001, to update the grand Chinese decor accents and retrofit the theaters with digital capabilities. The TCL is home to one of the largest IMAX theaters in the world, with 932 seats, as well as the third largest commercial movie screen in the U.S. The theater remains a favorite for Hollywood movie premieres and is known for its many historic openings, including The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and Star Wars in 1977.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Los Angeles Travel Guide
Historic Palace Theatre
WHERE: Lockport, New York
The Historic Palace Theatre, located centrally in downtown Lockport, opened to the public in 1925. Now operating as a nonprofit organization, the theater’s fresh coat of paint and refinished detail offers an inviting place to take in a movie. Gold, orange, and green shades add a vibrant flare to the grand proscenium arch that borders the enormous movie screen. Operating as a cultural hub for the town, the theater is host to first-run movies as well as theatrical productions, movie musical nights, and live concerts.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit: Fodor’s Niagara Falls and Western New York Travel Guide