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Photographer Finds Beauty in Old Theaters

Benita VanWinkle travels the country to capture vintage cinemas before they vanish


Benita VanWinkle, 64, is an associate professor of art at High Point University in North Carolina. Her book America’s Hometown Movie Theaters: Please Remain Standing is forthcoming from Bauer and Dean Publishers.

What started as a student project has become a lifelong calling. For one of my first assignments as a photography major in college, I chose to document the Carib Theatre, an old cinema near my hometown of Largo, Florida. Growing up, I’d spent weekends in the velvet seats of that theater, with its kitschy mix of Caribbean and Egyptian themes and its patriotic manager, who insisted moviegoers rise for the “Star-Spangled Banner” before every showing (turning on the house lights if anyone did not stand). For me, that theater was the heart of my community — a place of understanding, education and exposure to new ideas.

Two years after I’d photographed it, the Carib was torn down. The images I’d made instantly took on new meaning for me. I started thinking about how closely our identities are tied to the places we grow up in.

That’s how I started shooting other towns’ old theaters. This was in the ’80s, when these places were just starting to disappear, often replaced by malls or parking lots. To me, it felt like dominoes, one theater after another being boarded up or demolished. In 1982, there were about 13,000 movie theaters around the country. By 2020, there were less than half that number.

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It makes me sad to photograph abandoned theaters, so I try to focus on ones that are still showing movies or being used for live theater or for community activities. I’ve shot 940 theaters across the country to date, during breaks from my job as a college professor.

Every time I go to a new (old) theater, I get to hear about its history from the locals. A woman in South Dakota told me about spending her 12th birthday party at the theater, when tickets cost 50 cents. A couple from Utah remembered meeting at their local theater; their lives went down different paths for 20 years after that, but they wound up getting married at the same theater in 2022.

Documenting these community spaces is my life’s work, a never-ending passion project. My desk is cluttered with Post-it notes of towns I’m hoping to get to. Even if these theaters are disappearing, there are still more than enough to last me a lifetime.

My hope is that people will see my work and realize how important it is to have a community space for everyone, regardless of religion, identity or political view. The theater fosters a sense of belonging. And we need to preserve the kinds of spaces that bring people together, teach us to love one another in spite of our differences and anchor us to the places that raised us.

Julie Goldenberg is an associate editor of AARP The Magazine.

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