History & Culture

17 Of The World’s Most Historic Movie Theaters

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The Castro Theater in San Francisco, California at night.
The Castro Theater in San Francisco, California, was built in 1922 and is one of the world’s most historic movie theaters. Read on to discover 16 more!

A longtime favorite pastime of mine, watching movies, is a beloved form of entertainment for millions of people. Today, going to the movies typically involves choosing between several large multiplexes and multiple film options. Whether it’s a nearby strip center, a stand-alone theater, or the local mall, tens of thousands of people flock to the films every day of the week. But the silver screen experience wasn’t always that way. Historic movie theaters offer us a look back in time, and many still operate today.

In the early 1900s and for the better half of the nineteenth century, entertainment was an exclusive and unique experience. Theatergoers would dress up fancy and wait in line to snag a seat to a Friday night or Saturday afternoon showing of the latest flick.

Similar to now, the venues themselves were gathering places in city centers. Unlike today, back then, their design was unique and reflected the era and the area in which they were built. If you want to take a step back in time, taking a seat in a historic theater is to get a snapshot into the past. Let’s visit some of the most iconic movie theaters and cinemas around the world.

Why Historic Theaters Matter

Old movie theaters have a unique sense of charm. They remind us of how simple life once was and how that trip to the movies took us to a different world, if just for a little while. Many were built specifically to show films, but others were older theaters like opera houses and vaudeville houses with live performances that changed and evolved with the times.

Old movie theaters are fun for history buffs and film history fans, but they are also a reminder of times gone by and how much life has changed. Not only that, but these places foster a sense of community and belonging.

17 Classic Movie Theaters To Remember

In researching historic movie theaters, I found many different claims to fame. Several different theaters claim to be the oldest in the United States and the world. Many of these hold official historical designation, and a few even hold world records. For this list, I am sharing some of the most interesting and intriguing, but by no means does this list contain all the amazing historic movie theaters and cinemas that have helped shape one of the world’s favorite forms of entertainment.

Below, I explore some of the most iconic and classic old movie theaters. Though most of the older, more historic theaters are listed first, these are not in any particular order.

1. Cinéma Eden Théâtre (La Ciotat on the Côte d’Azur, France)

The Cinéma Eden Théâtre in France calls itself the oldest cinema in the world. It was built in 1889 in the port of La Ciotat. La Ciotat is considered the birthplace of cinema. The Eden was a popular venue for theater, music, and sporting events. The Eden theatre played a pivotal role in the evolution of moving pictures and early films.

Local brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière were highly involved with the cinema in its early days. The Lumière brothers are credited as the first people to present “moving pictures.” They created the Cinématographe, a machine that worked as a camera, projector, and film printer.

The Lumière brothers showed a collection of films at the theatre starting in 1895. The first commercial screening was on March 21, 1899. The Eden showed films for nearly a century, adapting with the time. It survived many hardships and troublesome times, including the blast from a World War II German submarine mine, the decline of the film industry in the 1960s, and financial difficulty.

In 1982, the cinema closed after a tragic robbery and murder inside, which took the life of the theater’s 25-year-old director. Though efforts were made to reopen, the Eden remained closed for the greater part of three decades.

In 1992, the cinema was obtained by the city of Ciotat, and in 1996, it was named a historical monument. That protected the theater from being demolished or converted into something else. Despite being named a historical monument, the cinema had been abandoned and subjected to severe water damage by that point. Through the work of volunteers and historical associations, the theater was saved.

In 2013, the Eden was renovated, and the screening room was restored to reflect the original 1889 appearance. The projection booth was modernized. In 2021, Eden Théâtre was given the Guinness World Record title for the oldest purpose-built cinema in operation. Today, Cinéma Eden Théâtre shows an eclectic variety of programming, including independent, historical, and art films. You can stop by and enjoy a show just about any day of the week.

What’s The Oldest Movie Theater In The World?

People often want to know what the oldest movie theater in the world is. A few different places lay claim to this title, but from my research, the Cinéma Eden Théâtre in France has a pretty good case for the title.

2. State Theatre (Washington, Iowa)

State theater Washington Iowa historic movie theater.
Photo by Tara Maurer for SafeSmartLiving.com, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

When people ask about the oldest movie theater in America, the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa, is generally the answer. The State Theatre, located at 123 East Washington, is literally a piece of living history. It holds the Guinness World Record for “World’s Oldest Continuously Operating Cinema Theatre.” This historic gem is located in a town of just over 7,200 people. The theater was built in 1893 and opened to the public on May 14, 1897, as The Graham Opera House. It has brought the magic of entertainment to people for over 125 years.

The theater started as an opera house and was actually the second Graham Opera House. The first opera house opened in 1886 and burned down in 1892. The theater housed a variety of entertainment that included local, regional, and professional companies and was not limited to opera. Live productions included Shakespeare, operas, classical dramas, minstrel shows, and notable lecturers.

Fun Fact

Many notable people from history lectured at The State Theatre. These names included Frederick Douglas, Susan B Anthony, PT Barnum, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Ward Beecher, and more.

A lot of credit for the theatre showing moving pictures goes to an influential local, Frank Brinton. Brinton was a farmer and an inventor. He traveled the world and then shared illustrated lectures of his travels around the Midwest. Eventually, these moved on to magic lantern slides and then motion pictures. Frank Brinton and his wife Indiana are credited with showing the first films at the former Opera House.

The first official moving picture shown at the State Theatre was in 1897 and was shown on a Cinématographe from France.

In 1921, the former opera house was sold to a local businessman. After closing it for a few years, it reopened as an opera house and movie theater combo in 1928. In 1931, it was renamed the State Theatre, showing films and still hosting local talent. Eventually, as newer technology moved in, the theater no longer hosted live productions, switching entirely to film.

The theater changed hands a few times over the years, with different improvements being added, including air conditioning, push-back seats, a brick facade on the lower level, and a tin front on the upper levels. Eventually, it was purchased by Fridley Theaters in 2001.

In November 2010, a fire erupted in the upstairs projection room as a result of a cigarette tossed into a trash can. Though the fire was put out quickly, extensive smoke and water damage occurred. The damage prompted the theater to be closed and renovated. It reopened in April 2011.

In 2013, the Graham Opera House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2016, the State Theater was awarded the Guinness World Record as the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the world. It is the only theater on record showing moving pictures since 1897. If you happen to be passing through Washington, Iowa, you can still stop in and catch a show at the State Theater. Due to the restoration and preservation efforts, the theater is full of nostalgia and has a vintage feel. It is a popular spot for locals and movie history buffs alike.

Our Personal Experience At The State Theatre In Washington, Iowa

I worked at the architectural firm ASK Studio, which completed the historic restoration of the State Theatre beginning in January 2011. Renovations were completed in 2015, and I was able to visit Washington, Iowa, to capture how the site was restored to its 1940s look. To this day, State Theatre holds the Guinness World Record as the oldest continuously operating cinema; it first opened in 1897 and has been selling tickets ever since.

Tara Maurer, Iowa Movie Aficionado & Writer For Safe Smart Living

3. Plaza 1907 (Ottawa, Kansas)

Plaza 1907 in Ottawa Kansas historic movie theater.

The Plaza 1907, located in the historic district of Ottawa, Kansas, holds the Guinness World Record title of the “Oldest Purpose-Built Cinema” in the world. The theater opened in 1907 in the Pickrell Building, which was built in 1885. The theater first opened under the name the Bijou Theater. In 1910, its name was changed to the Crystal Theater. In 1935, the heater went under renovation and reopened as the Plaza 1907. That name finally stuck, and the theater has been in operation ever since.

The Plaza 1907 is the oldest movie theater in the world that was built only to be a cinema. It has only ever been used as a movie theater. It was built as a single screen and remained that way until a renovation in the late 1980s. The theater became a duplex, with two smaller screens replacing the large single one. It has gone through several restorations and renovations over the years but retains many nostalgic features.

Behind the screens, the old stage area remains intact. That space now houses a museum with two levels of movie history and memorabilia. The treasure trove includes old scripts, movie posters, cameras, and props used throughout the different ages of cinema.

The Plaza 1907 still runs today. It is often referred to as the oldest movie theater in the world due to the Guinness title, which was bestowed in 2018. You can drop by to catch a show on Friday or Saturday evenings, and the whole theater is available to rent out for events, private parties, and special movie showings.

4. Egyptian Theatre (Park City, Utah)

Egyptian Theatre in Park City Utah historic movie theater.

The Mary G. Steiner Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah, may be recognizable to film buffs and movie lovers as part of the Sundance Film Festival since 1978. The Egyptian Theatre was constructed in 1926 on the same site as the collapsed Dewey Theatre.

It was built in an Egyptian style due to the world’s fascination with the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. This Egyptian theme was prevalent in many theaters at the time. The theatre was built as a replica of Warner’s Egyptian theatre in East Pasadena, California. An Egyptologist, C. R. Berg, from Seattle, Washington, was consulted on the design and decoration.

The theater was originally built for live acts such as vaudeville and opera but has always been used to show films. It was renamed the Silver Wheel Theater in 1963 when Park City reinvented itself as a ski destination and resort city. Around this time, stage productions picked up, and the Egyptian continued to be an active venue for both live and film performances throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The building faced disrepair and foreclosure in the early 1990s. Due to the efforts of dedicated locals and donations, including a sizeable one from Mrs. Fields Cookies, which is located in the area, the theater was saved. In 1998, the Egyptian underwent a full-scale renovation and refurbishment project that was said to cost about $1.5 million. It was restored to highlight the beauty of its original design. This theatre continues to host community events, concerts, comedy, theater, performances, and, of course, film screenings.

5. Park Theatre, Estes Park, Colorado

Park Theatre Estes Park Colorado historic movie theater.

Located in the tiny town of Estes Park, Colorado, the Park Theatre is one of the oldest buildings in town. It also has one of the most unique looks. The Park Theatre opened in 1913. It was part of the early development of the Estes Park area land. Some parts of the building were constructed off-site and transported into the mountain community for the final build.

The original building did not have the tall, neon-outlined tower that made the building stand out among the mountain landscape. The tower and lights were added in 1926 by the owner to attract attention. The tower is nicknamed the Tower of Love, as it is said to represent the owner’s lifelong love. The owner, Ralph Gwynn, is credited with upgrading the theater, including adding twelve feet to the projection booth. The extra space allowed the projector’s light beam to pass through a window into the auditorium. This was a new method that soon became a pretty customary practice in film projection.

The Park Theatre has always been operated by locals. It continues to be operated by relatives of the same family since 1968. In 1982, a town ordinance banning all neon lighting threatened the tower’s historic neon lights. Due to a special variance, the neon lighting was restored and has been lighting up the mountain town’s sky ever since.

The Historic Park Theatre was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, which saved it from demolition. The building has had to undergo renovation and upgrades over the years but still retains its vintage charm. Among the upgrades are a new screen, a Dolby 3D system, a new Dolby surround sound system, and a new digital projector. To this day, it operates year-round as a family-run business. You can still stop by to catch a film or rent the space out for a special event.

My Personal Experience With The Historic Park Theatre

I’ve passed through Estes Park, Colorado, many times. Though a popular spot, it retains a ton of historical mountain town charm. The theater is a jump back in time. It visually stands out with the neon tower and is unlike any of the other buildings in town. It’s a lovely place to catch a film and visit a little slice of history.

6. Broadway Theater (New York, New York)

Broadway Theater New York City historic movie theater.
Photo by Sadie Cornelius for SafeSmartLiving.com, © Cover Story Media, Inc. 2024.

The Broadway Theater opened on Christmas Day in 1924 as B.S. Moss’s Colony Theater and was known for screening motion pictures and vaudeville shows. The Broadway Theater has gone by several names throughout its lifetime, including Universal’s Colony Theater, Early Carroll’s Broadway Theater, and Cine Roma. It stands out as it was originally built as a movie theater and was later used as a musical theater house.

The Broadway Theater has been rebuilt twice since its original construction, once in 1956 and again in 1986. This landmark theater was originally built by architect Eugene De Rosa and is located at 1681 Broadway in New York City.

This noteworthy historical theater is known for both theatrical productions and cinematic productions. Its large seating capacity made it an excellent fit to switch to musical theater productions in the 1930s. The current capacity of the Broadway Theater is 1,761.

Did You Know?

Most notably, the Broadway Theater is known for releasing Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928. In 1940, the Broadway Theater featured another Walt Disney release with the debut of Fantasia in Fantasound on November 13, 1940.

The 1940 world premiere of Walt Disney’s ‘Dumbo” was also held at the Broadway. Though musical theater became the primary focus, the Broadway Theater showed movies through the 1950s. It has mainly been used for live theater since then. The large stage and substantially sized theater make it ideal for musical productions.

Our Personal Experience With The Broadway Theatre

David Byrne from the Talking Heads co-wrote Here Lies Love, a musical with Fatboyslim based on the life of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos. The disco-pop production had a number of off-broadway shows, including New York City, but had its Broadway debut in 2023 at the Broadway Theater. The show’s set included renovating the theater and removing the entire orchestra seating area to create a rotating stage with standing room and mezzanine seats. We sat in the balcony and could really take in the beauty of the historic theater, which transformed into a discotheque. It was classic, with crystal chandeliers and lush details. They preserved the charm while giving it an upgraded look for the show, drawing the attention of several celebrities who attended during its run.

Sadie Cornelius, Music & Theater Lover and Marketer For Safe Smart Living

7. Castro Theater (San Francisco, California)

The Castro Theater in San Francisco, California at night.

If you want to visit a historic movie palace, the Castro Theater fits the bill. Built in 1922, the Castro Theater in San Francisco is located at 429 Castro Street. The front of the building features a massive arched window with Spanish Colonial Baroque design elements.

Inside, the theater is ornate and luxurious, a testament to days long passed. The current seating capacity of the Castro Theater is 1,407. This landmark theater was designed by Timothy L. Pflueger, who is also known for his design of the Oakland Paramount Theater.

The most intriguing aspect of this San Francisco Theater for many is the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that has long stood as a featured attraction. Before each event, the pipe organ is played. The interior of the Castro Hall is nothing less than amazing, with a domed ceiling and an incredible chandelier hanging in the movie hall.

While the original Castro Theater opened in 1910 at 479 Castro Street, what is currently the Castro Theater was not built until the early 1920s. What was originally the Castro Theater now stands as a retail store. When the new location of the Castro Theater opened, it was for an invitation-only screening of Across the Continent. The next day, on June 23, 1922, the theater opened to the public.

The Castro has gained fame as a world-renewed LGTBQ+ community landmark, as well as a prominent entertainment facility. Currently, the Castro Theater is undergoing a major renovation. Historical restorations are being done inside and out. This includes the plastering, murals, marquee, historic lighting fixtures, and more. Along with that, the theater is getting an upgrade to seating flooring, upgrades to the air circulation system, and updates to the building’s accessibility.

8. Mann’s Chinese Theatre (Hollywood, California)

Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California with line of people lined up to see an IMAX.

Mann’s Chinese Theatre, also known as Grauman’s Chinese Theater, is located at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It took eighteen months to build the theater, which started in January 1926 and was completed in May 1927. The theater’s building was overseen by Sid Grauman, who had recently completed Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in 1922, also located on Hollywood Boulevard.

It was renamed Mann’s Chinese Theatre in 1973. in 2001, the theater reverted back to its original name. Then, in 2013, the naming rights were purchased by the TCL Corporation, a Chinese electronics manufacturer. Today, it is named the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX.

Grauman’s Chinese Theater opened with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings and has since been host to a large number of parties, screenings, and awards ceremonies. The most notable aspect of this unique theater is the Chinese design of the façade (a large red pagoda, a Chinese dragon across the front, small dragons along the roof, and two large guardian dogs at the entrance).

One of the most popular features of Grauman’s Theater is that it is a first-run movie theater, and a significant number of big-name films have seen their debut there.

Did You Know?

The 1977 premiere of the very first Star Wars movie was held at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. It also hosted the 1944, 1945, and 1946 Academy Awards.

The former Mann’s Chinese Theatre has been renovated several times in its history, most notably between 2001 and 2005. In 2013, it was converted into a custom-designed IMAX theater. That system was again upgraded in 2015.

The handprints, footprints, and autographs at Mann’s Chinese Theater are also big draws for visitors and tourists. Approximately 200 of these concrete slabs are outside the theater. The slabs celebrate the careers of movie industry professionals and a select few non-movie professionals like Kobe Bryant.

9. The Senator (Baltimore, Maryland)

The Senator in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Senator is a single-screen movie theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Located at 5904 York Road, this art deco-themed theater first opened its doors on October 5, 1939. Designed by architect John Jacob Zink, the Senator Theater features a combination of limestone and glass blocks on its façade, giving it a unique appearance. Behind the glass blocks, multicolored lights shine, giving it an even more unique appearance at night.

In 1989, the Senator Theater was placed in the National Register of Historic Places. Throughout the theater, even today, original symbols of its art deco décor stand out. Terrazzo floors, wall murals, and a huge gold curtain covering the single screen make this theater a regular tourist spot and a local hangout. When it was originally built, the Senator had 1150 seats, but over time, that number has been reduced to 900. Of those 900 seats, there is room for 40 in the two skyboxes reserved for private parties. The sidewalk along the front of the theater boasts a walk of fame that shines a light on local cinematic features.

The Senator has made its name in history many times, such as in 2003, when it became the first cinema to complete the certification program offered by THX, Ltd. More notably for those who keep their eye on the fame game, The Senator has also played host to a number of celebrities over the years. Numerous screenings, premieres, and fundraisers have attracted the rich and famous. The theater itself holds a position of fame as well. The front of the Senator Theater has appeared in numerous feature-length films and commercials, and it has even been featured in books.

In March 2009, the theater announced it would be screening its final first-run show. Just two days later, it was closed due to financial difficulties. Two months later, the City of Baltimore purchased the mortgage for the theater. Since that purchase, the theater has undergone a number of renovations, including the addition of a second and third movie screen, screening rooms, and a bar and restaurant.

After being shut down again for further renovations in 2012, including full digital system upgrades and preservation of their 35-millimeter projectors, the theater is now home to screenings again. In 2014, the Senator was named one of the top 20 movie theaters in the world.

10. The Picture House (Hebden Bridge, UK)

The Picture House entrance in Hebden Bridge, UK.

The Hebden Bridge Picture House in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, is famed for being one of the only remaining cinemas in Britain that is still civic-owned. The cinema first opened its doors in 1921 and played a double feature show of The Iron Stair and Torn Sails.

At the time of its opening, the Picture House had 900 seats. The biggest refurbishment of this cinema took place in 1978 when a little less than half of the seats were removed, leaving 492 seats. While this removal was a risky maneuver, leaving room for far fewer guests, it resulted in many singing the cinema’s praises due to the ample legroom.

The Hebden Bridge Picture House still currently runs daily evening screenings as well as matinees over the weekends and during school breaks. An additional perk that many locals enjoy is an 11 am screening every Thursday referred to as the “elevenses screening.” Viewers of the elevenses screening are given free tea or coffee and biscuits to enjoy while they watch the movie.

11. The Civic (Auckland, New Zealand)

The Civic theater in Auckland, New Zealand outside entrance.

The Civic in Auckland, New Zealand, is also known as the Auckland Civic Theater. This theater first opened its doors on December 20, 1929. One of the most notable features of this theater is that it was built as an atmospheric cinema – that is, it was built to give viewers the impression that they were sitting outdoors while watching a movie.

The Civic is the largest remaining atmospheric cinema in Australia and Asia – there are only seven remaining in the entire world. Inside the Civic, an Indian theme touches the decor with Buddha statues and columns throughout the foyer, as well as large domed ceilings. Inside the theater room itself are turrets, tiled roofs, spires, and panther statues.

The Civic is the largest theater in New Zealand, even after its seating capacity was reduced from 2,750. Throughout its lifetime, the Civic has experienced some financial difficulty, particularly since opening during the Great Depression. The Civic remains standing and active, however, and has even been featured in Peter Jackson’s King Kong film.

12. The Grand Rex (Paris, France)

The Grand Rex historic movie theater in Paris, France.

The Grand Rex, or Le Grand Rex, as it is known in its hometown of Paris, is the largest cinema in the entire city. Like the Civic in Auckland, The Grand Rex is an atmospheric theater and even has a starry “sky” and fountains to slip viewers into the outdoor theater role. The art deco decor of Le Grand Rex is nothing too unique as far as theaters go, but the size of the movie screen sure is. The “grand large” is the biggest screen in a movie theater in all of Europe.

In total, this indoor-outdoor theater is built to seat 2,800. Construction on this landmark cinema began in 1931 by Jacques Haik based on a design by Auguste Bluysen and John Eberson. It took just one year to build the theater, and it opened its doors on December 8, 1932. The theater has an amazing history, serving as a soldier’s theater to the German troops during their occupation of Paris. This is just one of the contributing factors that led to Le Grand Rex receiving protected status in 1981.

Every April, Le Grand Rex is host to the Jules Verne Adventure Film Festival, an event recognized worldwide by Verne fans. Noted as the most important adventure and discovery film festival worldwide, more than 48,000 attendees flock to the six-day event.

13. Warner Grand (San Pedro, California)

Warner Grand historic movie theater in San Pedro, CA.

Located at 478 West 6th Street in San Pedro, California, the Warner Grand Theater first opened its doors on January 20, 1931. The theater was designed by B. Marcus Priteca and Anthony Heinsbergen and has many of the Art Deco elements found in a number of the world’s landmark theaters. Although the Warner Grand was one of three such theaters designed and built by these two men, it is the only one of the three that remains standing.

In 1982, the theater was declared a historical and cultural monument. Despite being named a building of significance, the structure was allowed to fall into disrepair, and for a period, it stood under threat of demolition. In 1995, the Grand Vision Foundation was developed by a group of local activists to preserve the building. The theater was purchased in 1996 by the City of Los Angeles. Since then, ongoing renovations and restoration efforts have been taking place. In 1999, The Warner Grand was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

During its lifetime, the Warner Grand has been featured in a number of feature films and has become the home to the Golden State Pops Orchestra and The Relevant Stage: San Pedro’s Musical Theater Company.

14. Cable Car Cinema (Providence, Rhode Island)

Located at 204 South Main Street in Providence, Rhode Island, the Cable Car Cinema was a unique cinema that began operation in 1976. This is certainly not one of the oldest landmark cinemas; however, it is somewhat unique in a number of ways. Sadly, the venue closed in 2018.

Viewers had a unique experience. They could sit on couches and “living room chairs” to watch the movie of their choice. Before each show, viewers were treated to live performances of various art forms rather than the more traditional preview advertisements of modern cinemas.

The Cable Car Cinema had just one screen and seating for 125 people. Moviegoers were offered refreshments that included beer and wine to take into the movie screening room, adding to the informal setting.

Throughout its history, the Cable Car Cinema has passed through the hands of multiple owners and has experienced a number of renovations. In 2018, after 42 years, the theater closed. Today, the Cable Car Cinema operates as a non-profit entity. They support film festivals and programming in the local area.

15. The Fox Theater (Atlanta, Georgia)

Exterior of the Fox Theater in Atlanta GA.

The Fox Theater is also referred to as the Fabulous Fox and is located at 660 Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. This one-time theater now serves as a performing arts location. However, it maintains its original movie palace glory. Built in 1929, the Fox Theater was built to seat 5,000 under the direction of architect Olivier Vinour.

The theater itself is rather unique in terms of its architectural structure, as it combines elements of Islamic and Egyptian architecture. The interior of the new auditorium was built with the image of an Arabian courtyard in mind. The “sky” features crystal stars and clouds that are projected onto the ceiling.

The theater was originally built to serve as a Yaarab Shrine Temple to serve as the headquarters for thousands of Shriners. However, the project could not be completed. So, William Fox, the owner of the Fox movie theater chain, adopted the project and undertook a 21-year lease on the property. During its early years, the Fox Theater encountered some financial difficulty, but in the 1940s, new management brought the theater to life.

This “revamping” of the theater was not to last, however, and in 1960, the theater once again hit a rough patch. During the 1970s, the Fox was in serious trouble and faced demolition until it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. On May 26, 1076, The Fox Theater was named a national historic landmark. Additional features to this theater that make it unique include “Mighty Mo,” a four keyboard 42 rank pipe organ, and a 3,640 square-foot residential apartment.

Since being saved from demolition, the Fox Theater has undergone numerous renovations and remains a center of cultural and artistic gatherings. The theater has had a full digital upgrade, but the sing-alongs shown before each feature are still shown using the movie projector installed in 1929.

It is estimated over 750,000 people visit the Fox each year. It is also famous as the last place the artist Prince performed before his death in 2016.

16. The Broome Cinema (Broome, Australia)

The Broome Cinema exterior in Broome, Australia.

Known by most as the Sun Picture Garden, this theater is recognized as the world’s oldest picture garden to still be operational. Found in Broome, Western Australia, the Sun Picture Garden is an outdoor theater that offers viewers multiple nightly showings, unlike most other outdoor theaters that feature just one showing a few times weekly.

Sun Pictures first opened on December 9, 1916, with the screening of “Kissing Cup. The theater played silent films until 1933, when it was modified to play films with sound. The first film with sound to be played at the Sun Picture Garden was Monte Carlo. During the 1940s, the cinema became a soldier’s cinema.

One of the more unique albeit unintentional features of the Sun Picture Garden was the fact that the cinema would flood each night, and it was not uncommon to see viewers wading through the streets following the film. In 1974, this flooding problem was rectified with the construction of a levy.

In 1989, the Sun Picture Garden was named a National Estate, and in 1995, it was added to the State Register of Heritage Places. By 1997, the theater once again changed hands, and a restoration effort began in 1999. As of 2004, the Sun Picture Garden was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s oldest open-air cinema in operation.

Today, you can take a historic audio tour Monday through Friday during peak season at 11 am or catch a film at the twin cinemas. They show multiple films a night.

17. Alamo Drafthouse Theater (Austin, Texas)

Alamo Drafthouse Ritz lobby entrance of historic movie theater in Austin, TX.

The Alamo Drafthouse Theater was founded in 1997 in Austin, Texas. Located at 409 Colorado Street in Austin, Texas, the building began its life as a parking garage. Known for its second runs of popular movies, the Drafthouse became most well-known for having tables in front of the seats and offering server service to guests. Offering a wide array of food, drinks, and even beer, the Drafthouse has become a popular location for moviegoers.

Another of the biggest reasons patrons enjoy the atmosphere of the Alamo Drafthouse is that children under six years old are forbidden, and strict enforcement is put on theater-going etiquette. Such strict rules include the potential for ejection from the theater if caught texting or talking during the movie. As the theater became increasingly popular, new locations were opened in North Austin and Northwest Austin. With the opening of the second Drafthouse location that featured first-run movies, the original location began to feature special runs of classic, independent, and cult classic shows.

In 2004, the founders of the Alamo Drafthouse, Tim and Karrie League, began expanding the theater chain, opening Draft Houses throughout Texas and the U.S. in Virginia, San Francisco, Colorado, New York City, and more. In 2007, the original Alamo on Colorado closed its doors and moved to the historic, newly renovated Ritz location on 6th Street in downtown Austin.

Today, there are over 40 Alamo Drafthouse locations around the United States. All maintain the same strict etiquette and behavior policy. In 2021, the Alamo Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy. Some locations closed, but the company was able to emerge from bankruptcy a few months later and has been going strong ever since.

Our Personal Experience With The Alamo Drafthouse

I was living in Austin when there was just the original Alamo Drafthouse on 4th and Colorado and attended several signature programs, film festivals, and celebrity screenings in the early 2000’s. It was in the upstairs of a warehouse building in downtown above a bar and restaurant. The original Alamo was very art house with no frills, just an empty shell of a room with some basic, beer-covered seats and their signature wooden tables in each row to order and eat food during the show. I also saw films at the new Ritz and second location on South Lamar both in Austin and have been to several Alamo Drafthouses across the country ever since. Each has its own unique character, embracing local elements in the lobby, but improving upon the overall experience now, such as reclining plush leather seats, digital food and drink ordering via phone App.

Sadie Cornelius, Music & Theater Lover and Marketer For Safe Smart Living

Challenges Of Preserving And Modernizing Old Movie Theaters

All the theaters I’ve mentioned have faced substantial challenges in surviving as long as they have. The buildings require restoration, renovation, and modernization. Most try to hang on to some of the original charm and nostalgia to varying degrees. Technology has changed, so the theaters have had to upgrade their equipment, and almost all of them have gone digital. The cost of converting to digital has been astronomical and caused many older theaters to close. The upgrade can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, funds some historic buildings just do not have.

Older buildings pose a host of problems to restore and preserve. They often have aged infrastructure, compromised or deteriorated materials, and lack modern amenities. Along with that, as many are protected historical spaces, there is a desire to stick to historical accuracy. Upgrading these buildings without compromising the original design is a challenge, as preserving the original character and charm is essential. Restoration involves not only the construction and preservation of the building itself but also of the art, history, seating, sound, and ambiance.

In many cases, old movie theaters simply shut down due to a lack of interest. They cannot stay open due to lack of funds. Without proper support from the community, many are abandoned and fall into ruin. Revitalizing these old spaces brings new life to communities and is well with the effort. It is a way to preserve cultural history and share the significance these places have. They are a connection between the past, present, and future.

Learn more about how movie theater design has changed over the last 120 years in the video below from Architectural Digest.

While we can now watch almost any movie, anywhere, there is still something unique about going to the movies in the theater. Watching that story unfold on the big screen, snuggling in the seats, and enjoying the buttery taste of kettle-made popcorn is an experience that has been cultivated and treasured by generations.

Which of these historic movie theaters have you visited? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Other Historical And Mysterious Places To Explore

If you, like me, love to explore unknown and meaningful places, you might find our guide to 35 of the world’s most mysterious places. I also give an in-depth look at the famed Easter Island heads and the mystery behind them. Or, if you want to get into more history, you can learn about the secrets of the Freemasons.

Why Trust Safe Smart Living?

Danielle is a history buff, movie fan, writer, reader, researcher, and lifelong student of the world. As a professional researcher, she uses her constant quest for knowledge to seek out, scrutinize, and explore the world around her. Her job is to share information with others, something she has years of experience with from her former career as an educator. Danielle spends countless hours reviewing and researching valuable information to share with our readers.

Danielle DeGroot

Danielle has been a professional writer for many years, working with companies and brands all over the world. She holds a BS in Communication and Marketing from Colorado State University Global and uses her skills to help others share their voices. She has researched and covered a wide range of subjects, from eco-friendly living and burial to healthy living, technology, education, science, small business, and more. Her passion is connecting people with useful information and helping others find their voice. Prior to starting her writing career, Danielle worked in public education, where she worked to support and educate children with disabilities. She works hard to stay on top of the latest changes in safety, technology, and living, which allows her to continue researching and sharing pertinent information to better others’ lives.

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