By Phil Hall | August 31, 2006

Once upon a time, going to the movies meant going into a single screen cinema. Many of these cinemas were actually a lot more entertaining than the films they screened. Their distinctive architecture and lush interior designs created a breathtaking experience – indeed, they were miniature palaces.

Sadly, most of these venues are lost to us. The rise of the multiplexes and home video, coupled by the financial difficulties in running large single screen houses, sealed their fate. Some of these old structures remain, but the struggle to save them from the wrecking ball has kept movie lovers busy.

Jim Fields’ “Preserve Me a Seat” is a feature-length documentary that builds upon his earlier short film “Saving the Indian Hills.” The previous production focused on the fight to maintain the Indian Hills Cinerama in Omaha, which was billed as having the largest indoor movie screen in America. The Indian Hills Cinerama is back, along with new journeys to other cities where once-glorious theaters are facing demolition: Boston’s Gaiety Theatre, Chicago’s DuPage Theatre, and Salt Lake City’s Villa Theatre are among the stops.

In each city, it appears the same story is played out endlessly: the migration from downtown to the suburbs shrank the audience size, eventually forcing the venue to shut down. After years of neglect, the properties are sold to developers who seek to tear down the empty cinemas in favor of new construction. And belatedly, movie-loving preservationists gather together to raise funds and exert political muscle to stop the destruction.

In some cases, the destruction of these venues creates a serious void in local sociological history (Boston’s Gaiety Theatre, for example, was also the city’s only African-American vaudeville palace during the 1920s). But at the same time, it is difficult not to appreciate how the preservationists are more interested in architecture and interior design rather than in financial viability. After all, there was a good reason why these cinemas shut down – and few preservationists offer a sound business plan on keeping them open without having them run in the red.

As an exploration into an often-overlooked aspect of America’s cultural heritage, “Preserve Me a Seat” is a provocative and deeply moving celebration of the movie-going experience.

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