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The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: Cultural Appropriation in Atmospheric Movie Palaces

by Gretty Hollister

Victor A. Rigaumont’s interior architecture of the Smith Opera House is breathtaking, even more now that restoration efforts have brought it back to its 1931 glory. When Rigaumont was designing the Smith’s auditorium, he did so with the intention of making it look like a “Moorish” courtyard (McNally 55). And, it is here that, like in so many other movie palaces of the age, we run into the problem of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation, to put it simply, is the adoption of elements of a native culture by a non-native culture. In our own Smith, we run into Orientalism. Orientalism is a very specialized type of cultural appropriation usually in an exoticized representation of Asia or the Middle East in a stereotyped way. The word “Moorish” refers the Muslim culture of the Iberian Peninsula in Southern Spain, especially in the region known today as Andalusia. From the 8th century until the Renaissance, Andalusia was a center of intellectual development and its architecture is unique and specific. However, because of its Middle Eastern and Islamic influences, this architecture, especially in places like movie palaces in the first half of the 20th century, was often Orientalized. In our own Smith, the lovely gold tile-work grills on either side of the auditorium are decorated in an Andalusian pattern; the plaster work above the gold walls recalls palace walls in Southern Spain.

Of course, our opera house and architect are not the only ones guilty of Orientalism and cultural appropriation. During the golden age of movie palaces, themes ranged from Mayan Temples to Underwater Grottos to Persian Gardens. One theatre designed for movie mogul William Fox in Atlanta was even designed to “out-Baghdad Baghdad” (“Movie Palaces” 16:32). Some of America’s most iconic movie theatres, Grauman’s famous Chinese and Egyptian theatres in L.A., are perhaps some of the best examples of this Orientalism. The design of the Chinese theatre (now TCL’s) has been called “Chinese Chippendale” (“Movie Palaces” 13:42) as opposed to authentic Chinese, due to its exaggerated style and exoticized “traditional” Chinese temple facade. This theatre, however, has become such a symbol of American movie culture due to its presence on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that in the Hollywood Studios park at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, a replica of the Chinese theatre hosts the “Great American Movies” ride.

In the 1930s, it wasn’t necessarily that the architects and movie goers didn’t care about the exoticized and exaggerated touches of their movie palaces. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they didn’t know any better, because I’m sure they did, but the world was smaller then. Many of the movie-goers of the 1930s would probably never have a chance to visit a real Mayan Temple or an Ancient Egyptian tomb. So, getting to see a movie in something resembling one (however vaguely) was a special experience. It is important to recognize the faults in Rigaumont’s design and understand that his idea of a “Moorish” courtyard is just that: his idea.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t make the sky twinkling above us any less spectacular.

Works Cited:

“Movie Palaces, with Gene Kelly.” YouTube, uploaded by 20C History Project, 7 June 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhzWo6sfZiM.

McNally, Charles. The Revels in Hand: The First Century of the Smith Opera House October 1894-October 1994. Finger Lakes Regional Arts Council, 1995.