Friday, August 5, 2011

The Theatre Historical Society of America

Remember the old, great movie palaces? Where you were treated like royalty and the theaters were not cinema complexes? It's almost difficult to envision what it was like to see Gone With the Wind in 1939 because movie theaters were so much more lavish. Today, they are flooded with flat screen televisions featuring movie trailers, posters and banners promoting the next big movie, and food that costs more than the price of admission. Sadly, the movie palaces of the past are becoming a dying breed, threatened with demolition. New owners knock 'em down and establish new developments such as apartment houses and condos. And you would think there was a way to keep them preserved beyond our memories. Thankfully, there is. 

The Theatre Historical Society of America (THS) is a national non-profit membership organization founded in 1969, which is devoted primarily in the history of theatre buildings. It exists to encourage and ensure the acquisition, preservation and publication of historic photographs, documents, artifacts and other information and material related to American theatre architecture and history, and to encourage the preservation and use of historic American theatres. THS maintains the American Theatre Architecture Archives and the American Movie Palace Museum.

The American Museum Palace Museum and National Headquarters are located on the 2nd floor of the renovated York Theatre in Elmhurst, Illinois. It showcases artifacts, posters, programs, seats, blueprints and photographs from the great movie palaces built all over the United States in the 1920s. The Museum is open to the public free of charge (donations accepted). Small group tours (up to 15 people) are welcome by prior appointment. HOURS: Tuesday - Friday: 9 am - 4 pm. 3rd Saturdays: 9:30 am - 1:30 pm (Call to confirm 3rd Saturdays).

The centerpiece of the Museum is a finely-detailed, large scale-model of Chicago's 1927 Avalon Theatre, complete with bubbling fountains and flying doves! This authentic replica of the atmospheric "Persian Palace" theatre was built over a period of three years by Frank Cronican, a New York designer of television stage sets, and is accurate down to the WurliTzer organ console. Following his death, it was donated to THSA. A large-screen television now graces its "stage" and visitors to the Museum can view videos from the THSA collection in a real "movie palace" setting, albeit a scale model! One featured video is “The Movie Palaces” which is a 30 minute film produced by the Smithsonian Institution that tells the story of our nation’s greatest movie theatres.
The Marquee Exhibit (Interactive) is a huge photo blowup of the Paradise Theatre from Chicago, and has a magnetic marquee. Letters, symbols and numbers are on hand for you to spell out words and phrases on the marquee. Give it a try and you see your name "in lights"!
The American Theatre Architecture Archives, also in the York Theatre, is dedicated to preserving the architectural, cultural and social history of America's theatres. It contains information on more than 15,000 theatres, primarily in the United States. Every period and style of theatre architecture is represented: 19th century opera houses, nickelodeons, vaudeville houses, small town and neighborhood theatres, open-air theatres, drive-ins, and movie palaces. 

The Archives’ holdings consist of photographs, negatives, slides, postcards, artist’s renderings, scrapbooks, books, periodicals, business records, blueprints and architectural drawings, supplier and trade catalogues, architectural artifacts, theatre furnishings, ushers' uniforms, and numerous other items relating to theatre buildings and their history. Talk about comprehensive!

Scholars looking into the possibility of doing research about a specific theatre might find this place of extreme value. Research can be done on-site or by the THS staff. A preliminary search has a small fee for each theatre or topic requested. Further research is done at an hourly rate. This is not uncommon considering the fact that most libraries offer the same service for an hourly fee. On-site research is by appointment only. Other costs may apply for photo prints, scanning, licenses to use, display, or publishing images (including web posting), etc. If you wish to conduct research, please contact the Archive Director, Kathy McLeister at (630) 782-1800 or e-mail her at

Among the major collections are the Theatre Files, approximately 450 linear feet containing paper-borne materials. This includes advertising, newspaper clippings, magazines, corporate documents, and representative samples of stage bills and playbills. These are organized geographically by state-city-theatre. In addition, there are materials in the Subject Files, including theatre architects, scenery, seating, theatre chains and other allied topics. THS also keeps a Reference Library which contains more than 800 books.
The THS Negative Collection and Slide Collection includes more than 6,000 negatives and 10,000 slides. The negatives are primarily 4”x5” and 35mm, but contain some odd size and oversize negatives. The slides are primarily 35mm, but contain some other sizes.

The Chicago Architectural Photographing Company Collection includes photographic images taken by the firm for architects and builders. The collection includes approximately 1,400 negatives of 250 theatres mainly in the Midwest. The negatives are 8x10 glass plate negatives, 8x10 film negatives, and 4x5 copy negatives. 

The Michael Miller Collection includes 35mm slides, 3.5x5” photographs, 35mm negatives, and a card catalog index of New York City theatres. The slides and photographs cover the United States, but are primarily New York City and the surrounding area.

The Terry Helgesen Collection consists of 26 scrapbooks (some with 600 pages) with over 2,000 photographic images of theatres across the country, mostly 1920s and 1930s era, with his index and notes. Terry Helgesen amassed his collection while traveling on the vaudeville circuit as a pianist.
As a researcher of old-time radio broadcasts, it comes as no surprise that a number of radio programs such as The Lux Radio Theatre originated from theatres and movie houses that could support a large crowd wanting to watch the performances. Some programs like The Cavalcade of America and Duffy's Tavern performed on stage on occasion, offering the general public a rare opportunity to watch their favorite radio celebrities in action. Cannot find information about the theater and the time period those broadcasts originated? This is the place to visit.

The best part of about this Society is that you can become a member! THS publishes a quarterly journal called Marquee®, and a special Annual publication on a specific theatre or topic, and a quarterly Newsletter with current THS and theatre news. I love this magazine because it features extensive articles about various theaters across the country, the people who kept them running, and superb photos that makes you wish you had Professor Peabody's Wayback Machine.

The Rivoli Theatre in Pendleton, Oregon

Every summer, THS has an annual Conclave/Theatre Tour which brings together THS members from around the world to visit a different city every year to tour theatre buildings. During the Conclave, THS tours theatres from “basement to booth,” enjoys a banquet, a silent auction, and the company of like-minded people.  
York Theatre Building
152 N. York St, 2nd Floor
Elmhurst, IL 60126
Telephone: (630) 782-1800
Richard Sklenar, Executive Director
Information on becoming a member of THS is available at its web site,

The Theatre Historical Society is also available on Facebook!  

This year, the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention is endorsing this organization for their fine work in preserving a piece of our heritage. 

Over the years, a number of museums, libraries, preservation societies and clubs have jumped in to become a part of the annual event, but this year the Nostalgia Convention is endorsing this organization with the hopes that a number of people will decide to become a member and subscribe to the quarterly magazine. Remember, a percentage of your subscription does help with future preservation efforts!