FROM ART DECO TO DIGITAL AGE: theater remains landmark
May 10, 2016
Tucked between two clothing stores, the Plaza Theatre’s neon sign burns bright against the dark night sky, just like it has for almost 80 years.
“We restored it all to real neon,” Michael Furlinger, current owner of the theater, said. “You don’t get that at real chains. You don’t see that anywhere else in the city.”
George Harwell Bond built the Plaza in 1939. Designed as an art deco cinema, it remains Atlanta’s longest running independent movie theater.
Since its doors first opened, the theater fell into the hands of five different owners. Most recently is Furlinger, who purchased the Plaza from Jonathan and Gayle Rej in 2013.
For the Rejs, buying the Plaza was about keeping it from closing, even if it meant having to “mortgage their house to do so,” according to Jonathan.
When the Rejs put the theater up for sale, Furlinger didn’t hesitate to buy it.
“What I do for a living is I go around the country and look for movie theaters that need a little love and are struggling,” he said.
The Plaza fit the bill perfectly.
“It’s in an amazing location, and I knew that if I gave it a little love, it could be popular again,” he said. “It had to be updated. It hadn’t been renovated since 1980.”
His renovations aimed to improve the technology while maintaining the theater’s original design. Now, the theater is home to state-of-the-art sound and digital projection, replacing the antiquated 35 millimeter film cameras it once had.
“A lot of [the renovation] is new to look old,” Furlinger said. “It’s all from the art deco period. Everything is state of the art. Before, the design was so-so. Now, it’s really beautiful.”
Though Furlinger has updated much of the equipment, he still tries to preserve the feeling of the original theater.
“I feel that it kind of represents the last of the real, beautiful movie theaters,” he said. “It represents a simpler time when people went to movies. You see them walk in the doors, and they light up. They love the cool ambiance it has.”
For Furlinger, however owning the Plaza proved to be a challenge from the beginning.
“Most people don’t realize that we can’t show the same movie within three to five miles of another theater,” he said. “So, if you have a chain that competes against the little guy, the chain will get the first choice in movies.”
In order to keep the theater from being swallowed by larger chains, Furlinger made it his priority to keep much of its tradition and uniqueness
Part of the Plaza’s tradition includes the live “Rocky Horror Picture Show” put on by the Lips Down on Dixie acting group. Since its debut at the Plaza, it has been a popular attraction for over 15 years.
Every Friday, just before midnight, a line stretches outside of the theater doors to the edge of the parking lot. People clad in all types of costumes wait for the auditorium doors to open. Women wearing lingerie chat with men wearing lingerie. Performers go down the line marking “virgins,” or those who have never been to a live show before, on the forehead with ruby red lipstick and selling raffle tickets to raise money.
Even though the cast is in a state of chaos as they prepare to start the show, it’s just another typical weekend at the Plaza.
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a place for misfits. For weirdos and freaks to come,” Samuel Cooper, stand-in director of the show, said. “We’re like a family here.”
Cooper has been a part of the live cast for five years. Since he first joined, his Friday nights have been nothing but hectic.
“The night that Rocky didn’t show up, I had to step up and play him after never playing any other character before,” Cooper said. “I learned how to play Rocky in about 15 minutes. It was terrifying. I had to tell myself ‘I got this. I can do this. Somebody has to do it, so it’s gonna be me.’”
Cooper and the rest of the live cast know that without the Plaza, their show wouldn’t be possible.
“It’s the only place you’re gonna come and see ‘Rocky’ every week. There’s so much history here,” Cooper said. “They play what they wanna play, and they sell what they wanna sell. They’re here to put on a good show and show good movies. It’s what they do.”
Even though Furlinger’s continuation of the“Rocky Horror Picture Show” are a key part of the theater’s income, the Plaza branched out and reached new heights under his ownership.
In 2014, “Men’s Journal” voted the Plaza the fifth best theater in the world. To Furlinger, this is his greatest accomplishment.
“The ones we’re up against are in Spain and France and other places in the country,” he said. “It’s cool that this little theater that was almost out of business is now number five in the world.”
In addition, the Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF) is now hosted at the Plaza for a week each spring.
“Once we finished renovating, [the ATLFF] came over to us,” Furlinger said. “They liked the old feel of the theater. Since we’re independently owned, it complements the independent films being shown well.”
The festival screened over 200 films for an audience of 25,000 in early April. Among them was James Franco, the star of “The Interview.” When it was first released, the Plaza was one of the few theaters in the nation to show the film when it was first released.
“The programs are what bring us such a diverse audience,” Furlinger said.
In spite of both the international and national audience the theater attracts every year, its heart remains in the center of the Atlanta community, and Furlinger has no plan
to change that any time soon.
“Atlanta’s all about tearing down,” he said “but we’re still here.”