Gary: Palace Theater

The iconic Palace Theater, built lavishly in 1925, served as Gary, Indiana’s longest-running theater and only movie palace.

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1920’s Postcard found on PreserveIndiana.com

It was designed and built in 1925 by Austrian-born John Eberson in the Atmospheric style, an architectural approach he designed that made his theaters look like exotic villages under cloudy blue skies, which darkened to stars during performances.  Sometimes, the ceilings even mimicked lightning storms and passing airplanes.  As a comparison, here is another of Eberson’s Atmospheric theaters: the restored Paramount Theater in Anderson, Indiana, which itself was almost demolished in 1989 after five years of abandonment.

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Image via Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc.  You should check out their fascinating before and after images of its restoration.  I wish there were more.

The Atmospheric style was killed by the Great Depression due to its great expense, and the big box theater we attend today became the new standard.  Because a number of other Eberson theaters have been lost or repurposed over the years, the Paramount is among the last of its kind.

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Image via opacity.us

The walls of the Palace were once covered in elaborate Spanish Baroque facing, including the above organ screen, similar to the Paramount.  Eberson spared little expense while executing his European village inside the Palace, using velvet draperies, fountains, elaborate statuary, and ornate light fixtures.  It’s hard to imagine such delicate details where only bare bricks remain, but the Palace was celebrated as the masterpiece that it was during its 1925 grand opening.

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It hosted decades of movies and Vaudeville performances.  Full disclosure, the Jackson 5 never did actually play here, even though they were from Gary.  The marquee was changed to “Jackson Five Tonite” after Michael Jackson’s death as if they had.

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By the ‘60s and ‘70s, during Gary’s severe economic downturn, criminal activity and violence cast the establishment into ill repute. It bore witness to the frighteningly public 1968 murder of fifteen year old Aldrid Black, a 10th grade student of Gary Public Schools.  A few years later, it closed suddenly in 1972 after a young girl was attacked in the bathroom.

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Several more incarnations of theater and community, including a restaurant, attempted to reignite life in the building, but ultimately failed.

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Donald Trump had a hand in the way the exterior and surroundings look today.  His solution to patch up the city for the incoming 2001 Miss USA pageant was to board up the storefronts along Broadway with plywood painted to represent what should be in each window (such as window panes, merchandise in a storefront, and occasional cartoons of staff), a tactic that looked pretty surreal at its inception but is rather unsettling 16 years later, as the boards fade and shrivel.

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Here’s the nearby “furniture store” mural, for example.  It looks like they started trying to cover the elaborate details on the original building to build a new facade, but gave up after building the frame.  At the Palace, the sun-bleached painted boards have been replaced along the front, and the false paned windows of the upper stories are peeling from their sills.

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The frames of the seats were stolen and melted for scrap years ago, but you can see them in this undated gallery.  The marquee looks like it’s about to fall, and scrappers have stolen everything, including some of the terra cotta ornamentation from the Italianate tower.  Even though Eberson’s Paramount was skillfully restored to its former glory, there seems to be little hope left for the Palace.

Sources:

PreserveIndiana.com

Opacity.us

Cinema Treasures

CNN: Miss USA Gary

Conrad Schmitt: The Paramount Theater

5 thoughts on “Gary: Palace Theater

  1. There was such a theater (not on that grand scale of course but still very grand) called “The Villa”. Like the Palace it failed sometime in the 80s (video tape killed the movie theater perhaps) and was in danger of being left derelict or to vandals, but a wealthy business owner (who deals in Oriental tapestry and rugs) bought it and turned it into a showcase for the wares he sells. I’ve not been inside since it became a store, but I fondly remember the majesty of the old theater.

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  2. Sad but terrific, as is so often the case. The interior resembles one that still exists, though in bad shape and not open to the public, at the Circle Theater here in Philadelphia. It was the only thoroughly atmospheric theater in town, offering an evening under Spanish skies. Shoppers on Frankford Avenue will find a sneaker store behind the fine facade.

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  3. That postcard of the Palace interior reminds me a little of images I’ve seen of the long-lost Granada in my hometown of South Bend. It, too, had a starry-night ceiling.

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