The Lost Cinemas:
A Walking Tour of Manchester
By: Anne Saunders
On “dish night” during the Great Depression, the Vitaphone Theatre on Elm Street offered movie goers one piece in a place setting — a plate, a bowl, maybe a gravy boat. Those who returned each week could eventually put together complete sets.
Though the Vitaphone is long gone, students at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester discovered marketing tricks like this that turned the “moving pictures” from a novelty into a integral part of Manchester’s social scene in the first half of the 20th century.
The students in Jeff Klenotic’s fall semester Film History class say as many as 11 different cinemas operated in the downtown at the height of this period. By leading a walking tour of these “lost cinemas,” students led tour-goers on a path that was likely common at the time as mill workers spent their hard-earned cash on a night out with their spouses, dates or families.
“The Lost Cinemas: A Walking Tour of Manchester” on October 30th was a “capstone” project for this group of seven Communication Arts students, most of them seniors.
Assigned the task of putting together a tour, they divided up the research — nine theaters they selected — and the work of organizing, promoting and developing a narrative for the tour. Seniors Alexis Scargill and Kyle Charrette alternated as tour guides. Senior Meghan Martell did publicity and other students took charge of printing a brochure, developing a trivia quiz and popping popcorn for the tour goers.
The 90-minute expedition drew about a dozen people, starting near the mills and heading up to the Palace Theatre on Hanover Street, the one theater from this period still standing.
For David Winegar, an advisory board member at the Palace, it was a chance to learn more about the city he moved to four years ago. For Jeff Jennings, a Manchester native, it was a walk through his own and his family’s past.
Scargill talked about the Park Theater, which started as a lecture hall where Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1860 — now replaced by the Brady Sullivan Plaza on Elm Street. Charrette pointed out the Crown Theater on Hanover — hidden behind a new facade and occupied by Child and Family Services.
They described the glorious chandelier measuring 10 seats across that once hung in the State Theater on Elm Street, the leather-lined interior of a cinema knocked down for a parking lot on Lowell Street and the tiled entry-way that once led into the Strand Theater on Hanover.
For many of the students, it was their first exposure to doing original research — information they assembled by spending time at the Manchester Historical Society and the UNH Manchester library, digging through old newspapers, reading oral histories and working to corroborate what they found.
Without the research, “these places would be forgotten,” Scargill said. She and other students said this project made them appreciate the importance of preserving the past.
“I think it’s important to understand the culture, the film culture and how it affects your community, “ said Communication Arts senior Curt Lenz.
For Klenotic, Associate Professor of Communication, it was a chance to show the students the link between culture and geography, how the popularity of movies shaped the downtown and in turn, shaped the social lives of the people who lived and worked there.
“It reminds them that forms of communication create environments for people, whether it’s speech or movies or TV or social media, they create social environments,” he said.
Klenotic’s work uses GIS mapping (geographic information systems first developed by the military) to identify the locations where movie theaters stood — an effort that has gone global since he pioneered the use of GIS among film historians.
“Every dot on that map is a potential research project for somebody,” he noted of the website he created, mappingmovies.org.
As a “capstone” project, the assignment also gives students a chance to take academic knowledge and turn it into something practical. Klenotic hopes this is something they can put on their resumes.
“They’re learning about developing a concept, executing a concept in a way that shows professional communications skills. They learn about group coordination, project management, promotion, publicity, route planning, research…. The skills are applicable to any number of professional communications fields.”
This article was originally posted on the University of New Hampshire at Manchester’s blog.