The Cinerama Dome: Movie Theatres of my Memory

Growing up in Las Vegas in the late 1960s and early 1970s was very different from growing up there today.  Back then, as many will, no doubt attest to, there was not much for kids to do.  We could go to Mt Charleston in the winter and play in the snow or in the summer to escape the heat.  We could go to the Lake in the summer to escape the heat.  There was the Ice Palace in Commercial Center where you could ice skate all day.

But my favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon was at the movies.  I have always loved movies and Las Vegas, believe it or not, had some great theatres.

There was the El Portal downtown on Fremont Street.  When it opened in the late 1930s it was the first theatre to offer air conditioning.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, it often stayed open till the wee hours of the morning to accomodate the casino workers.  Back in the day, it was a segregated theatre.

The Huntridge Theatre on Charleston and Maryland Parkway was housed in a beautiful (in its heyday) Streamline Moderne building.  The Huntridge Station Post Office was right next door and the whole building was a wonder.  Lloyd and Edythe Katz who ran the theatre did not believe in segregation and so the Huntridge did not enforce it.  When I was a kid, the Huntridge is where you went to see the Disney Animated Films.  I remember going on my first date there to see "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" with Al Richardson.

I remember as a very young child, probably about 5 or 6, my bio-father took me to see "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Guild Theatre just off Fremont Street.  The Guild would become an art house theatre when I was in my teens.

The Fremont Hotel had the Fremont Theatre right next door.  But my memory is hazy about it as I tend to combine it and the El Portal in my mind.

The Charleston Plaza mall housed the largest theatre of its day, The Fox.  The mall was the first indoor mall we had in Las Vegas.  The theatre, all done in red, was in the west corner of the mall.  The marquee out front was huge with lots of light bulbs.  I remember going to see "The Sound of Music" there more than once.   Later when I was a teenager, we saw "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "The Hot Rock" , the "Poseidin Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" at that theatre.

We lived in Charleston Heights in the southwest corner of town (Torrey Pines and Charleston roughly) and we would catch the city bus, go downtown, transfer buses and then take another bus to either the Huntridge or the Fox.  We would catch the first bus imid- morning, stay all day at the theatre watching a double bill and then grab some dinner at Macayo Vegas and take the bus back home.  More often than not, we arrived home after dark.

Then, the Red Rock Theatre opened on West Charleston and we could walk there.  Ok, it was a long walk, but if we couldn't find another way (until Al got his driver's license)  we could walk.  It originally opened with one theatre and then expanded to three and then kept growing until it there were 11 screens under one roof.  One area was designed like a Main Street Square at the turn of the 20th Century.  We saw "The Sting" there on New Years Eve one year, "Billy Jack" (and the infamous "Trial of Billy Jack"), "American Graffitti", "The Godfather" and almost every other film made in the early and mid- 1970s.

The Boulevard Mall on Maryland Parkway was built in the mid-1960s and soon there was the Boulevard Fox theatre and the Parkway Cinemas.  We lied about our age to get into see "The Exorcist" because it was on a double bill with "The Wild Bunch" and that was the movie we really wanted to see.   I remember standing in long line with friends waiting to get into a showing of "Star Wars".

But, my two favorites were the Cinerama Dome on Paradise and the movie theatre in the original MGM Hotel (now Balley's).  The Cinerama Dome looked just like the one on Sunset Blvd here in Hollywood.  My mom took me to see "Gone with the Wind" in 70mm there in 1969 when it was reissued.  It was a wonderful theatre with tiered seating and a great sound system.  We saw "Earthquake", "The Hindenburg" and "The Three Musketeers" there over the years.  Unfortunately, the theatre bookers seemed to have a hard time getting the good first runs and the fare at the Dome was largely hit and miss. 

The theatre in the original MGM Hotel was a thing of beauty.  Lush carpet, big overstuffed love seats with lots of leg room.  There was a small table in front of each love seat.  There was a button on the front of each table.  You would press that button and a cocktail waitress would come and take your order.  The price of the movie was $2.50 and the fare changed every week.  As you entered, you got a hand-out  which gave the cast listing and a synopsis of the film.  Before each screening was a newsreel and a cartoon.  They only showed MGM films and each print was a 35mm studio print so they were gorgeous, sounded great and rarely had any scratches.  We saw many of the great MGM musicals, dramas and comedies.  A few times a year, they would show the big four:  "Gone With the Wind", "2001", "Dr Zhivago" and "Ryan's Daughter".  I loved that theatre and didn't realize how lucky we were to have it until I left home and met people from other cities that had never seen the classic studio era films on the big screen because their town didn't have a revival house.

After the movie, you could go over to Swensons and have ice cream, stroll through the Memoribilia Shop filled with posters, lobby cards and lots of Bogart and Marx Brothers collectibles.  The shop had costumes from some of the more well known movies on display.  I spent way too much money as a teenager in that Shop.

Down the hall and on the way to the pool, was a long hallway filled with make up masks in glass cases.  Each mask rested on velvet and had the name of the actor or actress on a small plaque.

All of that was destroyed in the MGM fire of 1980.

Today when I go to Balley's and take the elevator down, I can remember what it looked like in its heyday.  The art gallery, the jewelry store, the arts and crafts store, all of it and for a moment, briefly, its all still there.   It lives on in my memory.

The El Portal is now a souvenir store but they did save the neon sign.  The Fremont and the Guild are long gone.  The Huntridge sits now next to a discount mattress store which took over when the Post Office closed.  The parking lot is walled off.  But you can stll, in the right winter light, catch a glimpse of the beauty she once was.

The Fox is gone replaced by retail stores in the Plaza mall.  The wonderful, huge FOX sign is in the Neon Boneyard. The Parkway and the Boulevard Fox have given way to Linen and Things and the stores, it seems, we cannot live without today.

The Red Rock 11 Theatres were torn down and another shopping complex is being built in its place.

I don't go to the movies anymore when I am in Las Vegas but I carry with me the theatres of my childhood wherever I go.