Hermosa Beach’s April Wright grew up in a small town outside Chicago. At the end her street in Zion, Illinois was a movie theater called the Dunes Theatre.
Wright grew up in a movie family where her father put their 8 mm camera to good use.
“We would go see movies and talk about what makes movies good,” recalled Wright. “When I got older we went to movie theaters all the time. There were three drive-ins in my area that we went to all summer long and a lot of in-door theaters including the Dunes.”
It was at the Dunes where Wright saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” about 40 times when it first came out in 1981.
When she began researching her second documentary, “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace,” which details the rise of the movie palaces from New York to Los Angeles in the 1910s and 1920s, Wright was unable to find vintage photos of the theater she spent so much time in growing up.
When she moved to the beach cities in the 1990s, she discovered the Bijou Theater on Hermosa Avenue, which is now a Chase Bank. Originally opened in 1923 as the Metropolitan Theatre, the theater has gone through an evolution over the decades. The theater later became the Hermosa Theater, The Cove Cinema and finally the Bijou until 1999 when it closed its doors for good.
She remembered watching films such as Peter Jackson’s first film “Heavenly Creatures” or “Ill Postino.”
As a nod to her local theater, Wright added an image of the Bijou, as well as when it was known as the Hermosa Theater, in her documentary.
“Every town, community, had their neighborhood movie palace that was built in the same time period in the teens or the 20s, that was a gathering place for the community,” Wright said.
The Art Theatre, which opened in 1912, was demolished in 1928 to make way for the Fox Redondo Theatre. Images of the Fox, which opened in 1929 and later demolished in 1973 when the Redondo Beach Pier was renovated, are also included in the documentary.
The main focus of the documentary are the movie palaces that sprung up in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles during the rise in popularity of silent films. But Wright also sees the documentary as a “history of cinema,” starting with the invention of the medium to how motion pictures became one of the country's biggest exports.
“By the time you put all the pieces together, you can really understand why they are significant, not only architecturally, but culturally,” Wright said.
Three of Wright's favorite theaters profiled in the documentary are the Uptown Theatre in Chicago, which opened in 1925 and is currently closed, but is expected to be renovated; the Radio City Music Hall, which until 1978 was a movie theater; and the United Artists Theatre, which opened in 1927, and is now the Theatre at Ace Hotel.
Groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy, among others, have restored several of Los Angeles' movie palaces to their former glory as part of a historic district on Broadway. Wright believes the neglect of these buildings, as well as downtown Los Angeles in general, in fact probably saved them from demolition since developers were not interested in the downtown area for their projects.
United Artists was formed in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith as an independent studio. They later opened their own movie theaters in 1927 including what is now Theatre at Ace Hotel, which underwent renovations and reopened in 2014.
“It was saved in pretty good condition because it operated by a church for years,” Wright said.
“Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie” was Wright's first documentary, which she started researching in 2005.
“I would go to these places when they were shut down and abandoned and wondered what they looked like in their heyday and ask myself, 'How could they be allowed to get in this condition?,'” Wright said.
At their peak, Wright said there were more than 5,000 drive-ins in the U.S. and that had dipped to around 400 when she started researching.
“I thought I better make it before they are all gone,” Wright said.
Wright took road trips in the summer of 2005 and 2006 and drove the entire country, the southern route one year, the northern route another year. She visited more than 500 drive-in locations in small and big towns, in 49 states, that were still open or long abandoned. The only state she didn't visit was Alaska.
“Understanding where they were situated, helped me understand the social context and the history where drive-ins fit in,” Wright said.
“Drive-ins were such a product of the baby boom and all the suburban growth after World War II. Before television really took off, you had this period after World War II where we had this idea of freedom, celebrating the war, and doing things in our car.”
Wright said a number of factors contributed to the decline of the drive-in theater including the rising value of real estate, the growth of the multiplex and fewer family-friendly films that attracted families to the drive-ins.
'Community gathering places'
Wright said she laments the loss of these “community gathering places” that have often been torn down and replaced with a parking lot or empty shops. At least with what was the Bijou, the building, and some of its distinct features inside, still exist.
“They were built as community center pieces, community gathering places, places to interact with your neighbors, places to have a shared experience, places to create a memory,” Wright said. “When you lose these places because we're making short-term financially based decision that make sense in the short term, but in the long run it might be the best situation for the community.”
Streaming and other technological advances have changed and will soon change even more the way movie lovers will experience the theater going experience, Wright said.
“Everybody in this country, for all of the generations up till now, we grew up with this common shared experience of going to the movies, loving the movies, even the words they use, seeing it on the big screen, movies being larger than life, movies being magical,” Wright said. “When you're streaming it, it's very disposable entertainment, it blurs together, it blends together. Now we're going to have generations where that's going to be their relationship to entertainment.”
Wright is currently developing the documentary, “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” and for a couple years she followed and taped a traveling carnival for a future documentary.
Wright hopes to bring back “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace” to theaters in Los Angeles in January.
The film may also be part of a future exhibit focusing on the Bijou at the Hermosa Beach Museum at the end of January.
For more information, visit goingattractions.com.