A hundred years ago, roughly 90 million Americans would stop by their local cinema at least once a week to take in the latest Chaplin, Keaton or Garbo flick. Nowadays, weekly attendances are a fraction of that figure – a modern reality mirrored across the globe.
Cinemas, and cinema chains, have spent decades recalibrating and re-gearing themselves for these new economics, offering luxe experiences, fancy dining options, comfier seats, cheaper tickets and memberships, and programming tailored for their specific audiences. Inevitably, though, some of those old picture houses – many of them grand 1920s Art Deco palaces – have fallen into disrepair along the way.
As veteran photographer Simon Edelstein’s book ‘Abandoned Cinemas of the World’ records, some have been repurposed and some abandoned altogether. All of them are haunted by the ghosts of old movies, classic movie stars and those rapt bygone audiences. Join us on a worldwide tour of these haunted picture houses.
1. Ram Prakash Theatre, Jaipur, India
The culture-loving maharaja who first built this Victorian-inspired edifice as a theatre would no doubt have been delighted to know it would eventually become a home to the movies – a medium that was still a pipe dream when he built it in 1879. That didn’t happen until the 1940s, by which time its reputation as a famous theatre had cemented across India. Since then, it was sold to a private owner and closed down after an ownership dispute.
2. Loew’s Majestic Theater, Connecticut, USA
Renaissance style came to the seaside New England town of Bridgeport when this 2200-seat theatre opened in 1922, in a building it would share with another cinema, the Loew’s Poli. Its Italian frescoes, marble and stained glass mural in the lobby gave it the vague air of 16th century Florence – if 16th century Florence has been designed by Jack Warner or Louis B Mayer. But the Majestic wasn’t averse of going low brow when it helped get bums on seats: a 1935 screening of Bela Lugosi horror Mark of the Vampire saw a woman hired to scream when the terror ramped up. Its owners, Loew’s (now AMC), finally closed it down in 1967, impacted by the decline of the town’s factories. Nowadays, the seats are gone and the marbled lobby acts as storage space for a theatre company.
3. Teatro Campoamor, Havana, Cuba
Named after Spanish poet Ramón de Campoamor, but very much modelled on Broadway’s big theatres, this crumbling structure was once Cuba’s only American-style theatre. It would seat 2500 Havanas, once for operas, then movies, packed into its three tiers. It shut its doors for the final time in 1965, six years after Castro took power, and became a garage for mopeds, until lumps of concrete began falling from its superstructure. Incongruously, it sits right next door to Havana’s vast, manicured Capitol building, palm trees nosing out from amid the rubble and a caretaker, Reynoldo, and his dog living inside.
4. Le Chateau, Montreal, Canada
Spinning the old adage about cinemas being a church for movie lovers on its head, this Montreal movie house is now literally a church – and not even the kind that John Woo would unleash a gun battle and about 600 doves into, but an evangelical congregation whose worship is backdropped by an old proscenium. Once upon a time, this Art Deco building was a fixture for mostly French-speaking cinemagoers in this working class corner of the city. Its facade remains: floral and pre-Columbian motifs, and enough gold leaf to make Smaug’s eyes water.
5. Paris Theatre, Bangkok, Thailand
Cheek-by-jowl with the Marble Temple and Thailand’s royal palace in Bangkok’s Dusit district is a cinema that was once pretty palatial even in that company. The emergence of big multiplex chains in the city put the Paris Theater out of business in the mid-2000s, but a sense of faded grandeur still lingers in its chandeliered atrium, wooden staircases and projection rooms still littered with old cine reels. It’s now used as makeshift housing for itinerant workers and sex workers.
6. Gaumont, Exeter, UK
Opened by a local MP in 1932, this Devon cinema welcomed 1499 moviegoers, paying 3p a pop, to watch a musical comedy called Sunshine Susie on its first night. Unusually, cinemagoers would enter via a gate facing onto the street, with the standalone theatre set back in a courtyard. It was blessed with a Wurlitzer organ, a large dome in the ceiling, and, in a leftfield touch, murals depicting medieval life. The Gaumont had a storied life, surviving local government censorship that stopped it showing Frankenstein and taking a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during the war. Competition from television in the ’60s sparked its demise and it’s now a bingo club.
7. Gali Jagat Cinema, Delhi
The ticket prices on the old lobby blackboard – 33 rupees (about 30p) – hint at when this much-loved Delhi cinema last welcomed film lovers to watch classic Hindi movies. In the ’60s, it was K Asif's historical epic Mughal-e-Azam. In the early ’70s, the Hindustan Times records one local who would bring his family to see swooning romance Pakeeza every day via horse-drawn tonga, leaving when its big musical number was finished. But that was then; nowadays, it’s an eerie space sandwiched between dining spots and haunted by stray cats. The ghosts of those old Hindi greats, too.
8. Santos Suarez, Havana, Cuba
Few cities’ cinema cultures have gone from boom to bust quite as dramatically as Havana. The Cuban capital, which once boasted more cinema seats than New York, is now a graveyard of old cinemas – much to the chagrin of nostalgic children of the 1950s and early ’60s who grew up with weekly family outings to their local picture houses. The revolution swept away Hollywood movies, ushering in a post-revolution ‘Golden Age’ of Cuban filmmaking but also a slow decline in the cinemas themselves, starved of funding and, one by one, shuttering. More recently a fruit market, this overgrown Art Deco gem is located in Santos Suarez, a hilly neighbourhood that boasts a clutch of abandoned cinemas.
9. Cine Theatre Palace, Marrakesh, Morocco
There’s barely enough of it left to fit a popcorn concession, but this Francophile cinema was once the oldest and grandest in the very old and grand city of Marrakech. Originally a kind of North African counterpart to France’s Eden, the oldest cinema in the world, it opened in the mid-1920s with two indoor screens catering for film-thirsty Moroccans (sadly, there’s no record as to whether Casablanca played here). It closed down in 1984 and, despite a campaign to save it, was part-demolished in 2018. Its fate mirrors the sad decline of moviegoing as a whole in Morocco, a country that once boasted 240 theatres but that now has less than a tenth of that number.
10. Volturno, Rome, Italy
When cinemas fall on tough times, the whirl of projectors is often eventually replaced by the bellows of bingo callers. Thanks to some help from a group of campaigners, this century-old cinema in central Rome has just about avoided becoming another bingo hall like so many others – although after a spell as a porn theatre and a strip club, it’s now boarded up. But for decades it packed in movie-loving Romans for silver screen classics, variety shows and other cultural activities that feel a lot more, well, cultural in a plushly-appointed and domed theatre in central Rome.
11. Northwick, Worcester, UK
Once a 1100-seat cinema, this Grade II listed building closed as a picture house in 1966 with a Dean Martin spy spoof, The Silencers. It was bad news for movie lovers in the cathedral town of Worcester, for whom it had been a second church for a quarter of a century (though great news for bingo fans – the cavernous ex-cinema would be ringing with bingo lingo within months). Perhaps fittingly, for an ornate space that still features relief plasterwork by interior designer John Alexander, it’s now a home furnishings showroom, teeming with table lamps and chandeliers.