After The Final Curtain – America’s Abandoned Theatres

Matt Lambros is an American movie location scout and photographer of abandoned entertainment buildings. On Saturday February 22nd the Cinema Theatre Association hosted Matt in London to talk about his new book “After The Final Curtain – America’s Abandoned Theaters”, featuring his photographs of scores of abandoned theatres across America. In a talk illustrated with generous amounts of his original photography, Matt took us with him on his travels across America to find forgotten delights.

Matt does what we would all love to do- if we had the time and energy. He travels the country photographing these abandoned gems in whatever state he finds them. His stories about gaining access are often tortuous, but Matt’s perseverance is boundless – and he comes up with the goods.

Getting in is one challenge; what he finds inside is quite another. He describes swarms of rats (he has regular tetanus shots), crumbling masonry, asbestos, water and even sheet ice, all in an often pitch-black environment (no electricity!). Matt relies on his LED camera light packs to give him the illumination he needs, both for navigation and for photography. And the results of this limited lighting, as seen in his many photographs, are pretty breathtaking.

Covering America from coast to coast, the theatres that Matt presented in his talk were mostly built between 1915 and 1925, the majority as vaudeville houses. Pretty soon, cinema took the place of vaudeville, and many of the theatres became movie houses before changing hands in the 70s and 80s through a succession of short-term owners whose interest in the buildings declined with their lack of viability as money-makers. Mostly left to rot, these decaying beauties simply sat and succumbed to the ravages of neglect. Many now plainly past saving, Matt’s photos are a vital (in some cases perhaps the only) record of these once important public amenities.

Along the journey, Matt shared with us some oddities, such as the State Theatre in South Bend, Indiana which eschewed the traditional balcony for small stepped boxes along the upper side walls of the auditorium with a shallow gallery high up at the back- making both an odd-looking auditorium and losing several hundred potential prime balcony seats in the process!

Apparently the Americans have not yet compiled a register of theatres at risk, (which the Theatres Trust do within the UK), so it appears that, worryingly, no-one is keeping a watchful eye over these fading gems.

Matt told us that he also tried to photograph each theatre’s usually ornately decorated fire curtain; he often attempted to lower these heavy steel curtains. However, with these decaying, unmaintained buildings he had to bear in mind that they might not go back up.

If all this dereliction sounds rather bleak, Matt recognised this and provided us with a most welcome “happy ending”, highlighting several theatres which have been rescued, restored and returned to live use, saving until last the Fischer Theatre in Darwin, Illinois which took less than a year to renovate from start to finish, which Matt reckons may well be a record.

Many thanks to Matt for his five-star presentation, and here’s to more happy endings for these American forgotten beauties.

Many of Matt’s photos can be found at his Instagram address here

You can buy Matt’s book “After The Final Curtain: America’s Abandoned Theaters” here

You can find out more about the Cinema Theatre Association here

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