The Parma Theater: A Cinema And A Sense Of Place

This rendering represents what the Parma Theater and surrounding area could look like.

The populous Cleveland suburb of Parma, Ohio once held its downtown, present before any mall or civic buildings ever defined it, in its geographic center, at the cross streets of Snow Road and Ridge Road. At this nexus one still finds a tudor-esque two-story storefront building, another set of shops of similar vintage across the way, a bustling floral boutique, and a modern church with a campanile. Also, there is a theater. An Art Moderne theater, built in 1936, with its original streamlined details and decorative metal panels hastily removed and cheaply replaced with synthetic stucco in the 1980s. A victim of ever-expanding multiplexes, the Parma Theater sunk into a commercial decline and had closed on September 9th of 2012. Arsonists set fire to it on November 16th. The owner has since collected his insurance money, and the unknown firestarters were never brought to justice. Now the theater is vacant, but numerous hands are staking claim on its territory. At this crossroads our story begins.
The fateful story of a forgotten movie theater might well be told by way of analogy…to a forgotten film. The film, “Alice in The Cities” was an early gem by German filmmaker Wim Wenders. Wenders was king of the “Road Movie,” in which traveling characters would strive for greater, deeper meaning within themselves and a “sense of place” in the settings they encountered. Wenders would go on to direct “Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire,” and “Kings of the Road.” But the 1974 film “Alice in den Städten” (its German title) is particularly poignant and relevant to our story, as it describes a traveler encountering places that are on the verge of placelessness.
The traveler and lead character is Philip Winter, a German journalist who was entrusted by his publisher to write an article about the landscape of the United States, the American “scene.” He is driving about taking polaroids of the ubiquitous gas stations, chain restaurants, motels, blank flat-roofed modernist buildings, and the repetitive commercial signs. The sameness is an assault on his intellect and he is stultified, blinded by boredom, and as he is unable to write, misses his article deadline.
We return to our theater in Parma, which at this time is still a very strong interest for developers, who seek to utilize the site for all manner of uses, including fast food restaurants and chain drugstores. (It should be noted that the nearest fast food joint is three hundred fifty feet away, and no less than four chain drugstores are within a two mile radius).
Basically, all fast food restaurants and drugstores are without character. They look exactly the same. They provide the same basic services. If Parma receives an additional one of either, no one is going to get any service they do not already have, much less any inspiration. Were our hero journalist Philip Winter to visit Parma, an additional Burger Doodle or Drug-O-Matic would provide no literary epiphany about the people, the territory, the spirit of place, of Parma. Rather, he would experience existential ennui, great despair, and no article would be written.
In our film, “Alice in the Cities,” Mr. Winter goes back to his home continent, and eventually his home country. He finds a renewed sense of connection, and his path becomes intertwined with that of other individuals. The places he visits have character and depth, and he rises to a challenging occasion to act in a caring, and even heroic way.
Parma has already begun a heroic transformation. Recently, civic leaders have identified neighborhoods for their predominant ethnicities, and have chosen to celebrate this with all manner of parades, events, decorative banners, murals, and activities. Ukrainian Village and Polish Village are two examples, and each have restaurants and grocers and representative businesses. Perhaps others are in order, too.
So how does the Parma Theater find its place? The theater, at this moment, could very well be leveled and replaced with a rectangular glass box with counters and cash registers and aisles upon aisles of antiseptic solutions and laxatives. Exactly like every other drugstore.
But this City deserves better. It is in a multicultural suburb, a family oriented city, a town that is bustling with new families, and a place founded to be as beautiful as its namesake, a town in the Emilia-Romagna province of Italy (which also, incidentally, possesses a lovely theater).
Artists cry for a real theater, one for dramatic productions as well as film. Parma has never truly had a city arts center, and at time of this writing the number of real galleries in the city is somewhere between zero and one. Could an Arts Center truly flourish in Parma, Ohio? One could well envision a studio with well-crafted designs, artistic works of invention and inspiration, and a string of galleries expanding to the soon to be vacated Parma-Ridge branch library. This could be an Arts District, a place for Friday night gallery walks. The theater may well receive a proscenium stage, with dramatic sets and lighting, talented actors, musicians and bands, and practicing choirs.
Tell me what you think:
Christopher Lobas
Tell the City of Parma what you think:
Mayor Tim DeGeeter 

Christopher Lobas


Volume 5, Issue 8, Posted 11:48 AM, 08.01.2013