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Dream Houses

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Beginning when I was about 5, my mother took my infant sister and me to the movies. Dressed in a suit, hat and high heels, Mom took us by bus and streetcar from our home in Gentilly to Canal Street. She liked the Joy because the theater had a crying room, a sound-proof booth at the back of the auditorium where mothers could retreat with noisy children without having to give up watching the movie. Growing up in a family hostile to television, movies were my chief entertainment. On Saturdays, I went to the monster matinees at the Gentilly on Gentilly Boulevard where a double feature, a Coke and box of popcorn cost me less than 50 cents. Later, I rode the bus to the Fox and Pitt on Elysian Fields. My parents took me to a re-release of Gone With the Wind at the Tiger on Franklin Avenue, an event that changed the way I looked at the world, theretofore one filled mostly with happy endings. And starting at age 13, my first dates with my wife, Joyce, involved riding the St. Charles streetcar through sweet olive-scented evenings from her house in Carrollton to watch features at the grand theaters on Canal Street. As it will for any New Orleanian of a certain age, No More Joy, director David D'Entremont and producer A.J. Roquevert's love letter to a bygone movie era, brings back a flood of memories of youth and inevitable innocence lost.

From 1978 to 1994, Roquevert managed the Joy for longtime New Orleans movie-theater operator Rene Brunet, who took over from founder and namesake Joy Houck. Not remarkably, then, the Downtown Joy lends its name to the film and plays a central role in the picture's narrative. D'Entremont and Roquevert start at the beginning, however, in 1896 with a Canal Street storefront called Vitascope Hall, the first continuously operating movie house in America. As the filmmakers chronicle the birth (and, for most, the eventual death) of scores of local movie theaters, they examine the economic forces that shaped film exhibition for 11 decades.

In the early years, the movie-theater business required little start-up capital. You needed a room, some chairs and a projector. Audiences were fascinated with moving pictures and required little storytelling. But as one- and two-reelers gave way to D.W. Griffith epics, audiences wanted greater comfort as they sat through features lasting an hour and half and longer. Thus, the second half of the 1910s saw a boom of theater openings. Soon, theaters originally designed to stage vaudeville acts were also showing movies. The 2,200-seat Orpheum, home of the symphony since 1983, opened in 1921 as a vaudeville house and switched to film exhibition by the middle of the decade. The 3,500-seat Loew's (in 1926) and the 4,000-seat Saenger (1927) were built to accommodate vaudeville but basically functioned as movie theaters almost from the beginning.

The advent of sound in the late 1920s put most of the storefront operations out of business and enhanced the dominance of the grand Canal Street theaters. Through about 1950, despite the Great Depression of the 1930s, the movie industry remained relatively stable and central to popular entertainment. Movies opened for one-week engagements at the Loew's, Saenger, Orpheum and Center, then moved to lesser Canal Street theaters for another two weeks and finally to the neighborhood houses. Brunet reports that the Loew's served 30,000 to 90,000 moviegoers per week during this period. Neighborhood theaters had regular patrons who came three times a week as programming changed every other day. The 1,250-seat Downtown Joy opened at the end of this era, in 1947, and ran smack into the advent of television, shortening its life span dramatically.

The movies would respond over the years with 3-D, Cinerama, Dolby stereo and adult material. Drive-ins bloomed in the late 1940s, were dealt a severe blow by Daylight Savings Time in the '50s, ebbed away in the '60s and largely disappeared in the '70s. The downtown theaters and the neighborhoods were both replaced by the mall multiplexes beginning in the mid-1960s. Some operations including the old Center on Canal Street and the Cinerama on Tulane Avenue resorted to porno, but they were bankrupted in the early 1980s by the advent of the VCR. Then the stadium megaplexes killed off the shopping-center cinemas in the 1990s. No More Joy details all this and more, and along the way we get interviews with figures like Brunet -- who still operates the Prytania -- Roquevert and the gracious Rose Kern, who at various times in her long career managed the Robert E. Lee and Lakeside Theater No. 1. For me, watching people who have torn my ticket and sold me popcorn, this melancholy documentary, like so much of middle-age memory, is a rose-tinted journey into an altered universe, one, as the film's segment on segregated seating and single-race theaters acknowledges, wasn't really as sweet as we would choose to recall it today.

The closing of the Downtown Joy theater serves as the focal point of David D'Entremont's documentary on New Orleans' historic neighborhood theaters,
  • The closing of the Downtown Joy theater serves as the focal point of David D'Entremont's documentary on New Orleans' historic neighborhood theaters,

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