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This abandoned theater in the once-thriving city of Gary, Indiana stands as a relic of a vibrant past now swallowed by decay.

Palace Theater

The marquee in front of the Palace Theater | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

The Palace Theater in Gary, Indiana opened its doors in 1925. This was two years before the introduction of "talkies" and movies were predominantly silent, relying on intertitles to convey dialogue, narration, and other essential information to the viewers. One of the most popular movies released in 1925 was "The Phantom of the Opera," a silent horror film adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel. Coincidentally, while Jen and I were exploring the now-abandoned theater, I was singing Phantom of the Opera to her (badly).

I suppose in a way I did become the Phantom of the Opera myself, or at least the Phantom of the Palace (which sounds even cooler), because as we exited the old derelict theater, we struck up a conversation with a man and his son. The young boy, who couldn't have been any older than four years old, was looking at me with wide-eyed shock. His father laughed and said he had never met a white girl with blonde hair in real life before. Considering how I had just walked out of an abandoned theater, there's a non-zero chance that the young boy at first thought I was actually a ghost.


The man was nice, and we talked for a bit about the city of Gary and its various abandoned buildings. "Be careful though, and you should leave before it gets dark," he casually told us as we parted ways. I'd find out later, while researching the history of the city and the theater, this was a well-founded warning that has been part of life in Gary for decades.

Palace Theater

The stage inside the nearly century old theater | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

The history of the Palace Theater is inextricably entwined with the rise and decline of the city as a whole. Built during Gary's industrial heyday, the theater served as a focal point for entertainment, community gatherings, and cultural enrichment for residents of the city and beyond.

Located along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, about 25 miles from downtown Chicago, the city of Gary, Indiana was founded in 1906. Gary quickly became a major center for steel production and the city's rapid growth in the early twentieth century was largely fueled by the steel industry. This growth in turn attracted thousands of workers to the area from various parts of the United States and abroad that were seeking employment opportunities. Naturally, this burgeoning city needed entertainment for workers and their families.

Construction began in 1924 on the Palace Theater located at 791 Broadway in Gary. Renowned entertainment company Young & Wolf Enterprises, run by two entrepreneurs, had established several theaters in the early 1900s, both in Gary and throughout the United States. The theater was built by Maximillian Dubois' construction company "Max and Sons," who also built the Marquette Park Pavilion in Gary on the shore of Lake Michigan. The Palace Theater was the sixth theater to open in Gary and was known to be the city's most beautiful movie and playhouse.

The theater opened a year later on November 26, 1925. It could seat nearly 3,000 people and featured live stage shows, vaudeville acts, and motion pictures. It was also furnished with a Kilgen 3 manual 9 rank Wonder organ. These theater organs were typically utilized in the early 1900s to accompany silent films.

Palace Theater

The auditorium and balcony of the Palace Theater | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

The Palace Theater was designed by John Eberson, a prominent Austrian-American architect best known for his atmospheric style theater designs. Eberson designed over 500 theaters in his lifetime, earning him the moniker "Opera House John." The theater was constructed in Spanish Baroque Revival style, characterized by its ornate facade, grand marquee, and opulent interior decor. With its opulent architecture and state-of-the-art facilities, the theater quickly became a source of pride for the residents of Gary, reflecting the city's aspirations for growth, prosperity, and cultural sophistication.

This theater was the only atmospheric-style theater in Gary and was regarded as one of the finer examples of atmospheric style theater design. Atmospheric design aimed to provide audiences with a truly immersive and unforgettable theatrical experience from the moment they stepped through the doors. It was especially popular in the early twentieth century, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s. Atmospheric theaters were often inspired by exotic or romanticized settings, such as ancient palaces, Mediterranean gardens, or enchanted forests. This theme was reflected in every aspect of the theater's design, from the exterior façade to the interior decor.

The exterior of atmospheric theaters often featured elaborate facades with intricate architectural details, including towers, domes, and ornamental motifs, intended to capture the imagination and create anticipation for the theatrical experience within. Upon entering the theater, patrons would find themselves surrounded by murals and paintings depicting scenes from the theater's chosen theme. These artworks adorned the walls and ceilings, creating a sense of immersion in a fantastical or exotic world. The furnishings and decor within atmospheric theaters were typically lavish and opulent, featuring plush seating, decorative curtains, and luxurious carpeting.

One of the most notable features of atmospheric theaters was the ceiling design. Many theaters had elaborate domed or vaulted ceilings that were painted to resemble a night sky filled with stars. Some even incorporated moving clouds or twinkling lights to mimic celestial movement. Lighting also played a crucial role in enhancing the ambiance of the theater. Soft, dim lighting was often used to generate a sense of intimacy and mystery, while colored lights and projections would transform the space to reflect different moods or senses.

Palace Theater

A full house at the Palace Theater during its heyday | Source: Opacity

For three and a half decades the Palace Theater thrived as a beloved entertainment venue in the city of Gary, attracting the most customers of any theater in town. From the film industry's transition from silent films to "talkies" with the introduction of synchronized sound in the late 1920s, to the "Golden Age of Hollywood" in the 1930s and 1940s in which studios like MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount produced iconic films and made actors like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe household names, to adapting to the technological and societal changes of the mid-twentieth century, and riding out the censorship and regulation of the Hays Code era, The Palace saw it all. The theater industry underwent significant evolution as well during this time, adapting to advances in technology, audience preferences, and socio-political changes. While the Palace Theater rode out the waves of change over the decades, it would be the decline of the steel industry that would signal the beginning of the end for the venue.

The steel industry was the lifeblood of the city's economy for much of the twentieth century, and its diminution precipitated the decline of the rest of the town, including the grand old theater. The decline of the steel industry in Gary began in the late 1960s and accelerated throughout the following decade due to a combination of changes in technology, shifts in the global economy, and increased foreign competition. As the demand for steel decreased and foreign steel producers offered cheaper alternatives, many of the steel mills in Gary and across the United States were faced with closures and layoffs. Thousands of workers were left unemployed, and communities devastated from the closure of Gary’s steel mills, sending the town into a death spiral of social and economic decline.

The deindustrialization of the steel industry precipitated a broader pattern of economic disinvestment in Gary; businesses closed, factories shuttered, and commercial corridors fell into disrepair as investors and entrepreneurs left the city in search of more favorable opportunities elsewhere. The loss of private investment further exacerbated Gary's economic woes, perpetuating a cycle of decline and disrepair. There was an exodus of middle-class families from the area as well, leading to a drop in population and removing much of the city's tax base, further straining the city's resources and exacerbating social and economic disparities.

Palace Theater

The hall at the back of the theater that led from the lobby into the seating area | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

With the economic downturn and escalating unemployment, crime steadily rose in the area. The Palace Theater, once at the center of the thriving city, was now smack dab in the middle of one of the most depressed regions of the state. By the late 1960s, attacks and muggings were reported both outside and inside the once-grand theater. The precipitous rise in crime that plagued downtown Gary discouraged many locals from going anywhere near the Palace Theater.

In April 1968, 15-year-old Aldrid Black was stabbed to death in the crowded lobby of the Palace Theater after a showing of "Bonnie and Clyde." Witnesses told police that a fight broke out between the two teenagers after the older boy shoved Aldrid and called him an "insulting name." The two began to fight and the other boy pulled out a knife and stabbed Aldrid in the neck before fleeing the theater onto Broadway as over 400 people looked on in horror. As a testament to the issues with crime and violence that had plagued the area, four special policemen were on duty in the theater at the time to keep order but were unable to get to the lobby before the fight was over. An April 15, 1968, article about the stabbing in the Chicago Tribune described the incident as the latest in a series of acts of violence that had taken place in downtown Gary.

Four years later, in January 1972, a woman was attacked and sexually assaulted in the washroom of the Palace Theater. These two notable incidents, along with the generalized crime that plagued the area and discouraged people from coming to the theater, led to the theater's closure. After over 46 years of operation, the marquee above the front doors read 'CLOSED' and the Palace Theater shut its doors on January 3, 1972.

Palace Theater

The stage at the Palace Theater – an old piano can be seen in the orchestra pit in front of the stage | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

Ray Howard, the district manager for the Gary Theater Corporation, said that the theater had been losing money for years because moviegoers don't come downtown at night. "There has been a matinee business but no evening customers," Howard said in a January 1972 article in The Times. The rampant crime and violence in the beleaguered city had driven residents of Gary to the point that they did not even want to come out after dark for fear of becoming victims themselves. At night, Howard said, "You can shoot a cannon down the street and never hit anybody." Over the following months newspaper articles were printed with titles such as "Gary's Death" as many other historic buildings and cultural institutions in the heart of the city shut their doors as well.

The cavernous theater briefly reopened under new ownership in 1975 as the Star Palace Theater, but closed again when the owner could not afford to pay the utility bills. In 1976, the theater was again reopened as the Star Academy of Performing Arts and Sciences with the help of a government grant. This final iteration of the theater was also short-lived, and the old Palace Theater was shuttered for good when funds from the grant ran out.

In 1987, three local physicians attempted to revive the Palace Theater. Doctors William E. Washington, Keshadvd Aggarwal, and Shreyes Desai purchased the property at a tax sale for $30,000. They planned to invest between $500,000 to $1 million to renovate the theater along with adjacent restaurants, storefronts, and 27 apartments. The plan got off the ground only insofar as briefly opening a restaurant in one of the storefronts of the theater building, but this too eventually closed up and the theater along Broadway was once again left to decay.

Palace Theater

The ticket agent that was painted on the boards that covered the front of the Palace Theater for the Miss USA Pageant in 2002 | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

When the 51st Annual Miss USA Pageant was held in Gary in 2002, Donald Trump renovated the facade of the theater. Being the main street in Gary, Indiana and a central artery for transportation and commerce, Broadway needed to look its best with the pageant coming to town. To "dress it up" the plywood covering the windows was painted to depict a false interior, a ticket agent was painted on the wooden boards covering the ticket office window. The marquee was restored and set up to read "Jackson Five Tonite" as a tribute to the band's hometown. After the pageant aired on March 1, 2002, the theater was again forgotten.

The Palace Theater, once a shining example of atmospheric theater design, has continued to deteriorate as the years go by. Exterior ornamentation has been picked away by scavengers, leaving holes in the sides of the building. The historic theater has been damaged by vandals, scrappers, the elements, and time, but even in the wreckage of what was once such a magnificent movie palace glimpses of its former beauty can be found.

The front marquee along Broadway still displays the name PALACE, though the letters that were posted on it for the Miss USA Pageant are now long gone. Many painted scenes on the boarded windows for the Miss USA Pageant have faded with time or fallen away altogether. The painted plywood panels of the ticketing office, however, still display the depicted ticketing agent at the front of the theater, at least as of 2019.

Inside the theater, the painted backdrop curtain on the stage, though torn, still reflects an idyllic scene in the gloom, illuminated by the holes in the wall and a "spotlight" created by nature itself where parts of the ceiling fell in. Here and there you can catch a glimpse of what remains of the painted ceiling. The remnants of an old piano sit among the dirt and detritus in the orchestra pit.

If you look closely, the bare bones of the forgotten theater reflect its former grandeur. The arched entryways leading into the auditorium still stand, though the glass in the windows has been mostly broken out. Upon closer inspection, the beautifully painted details on the window sashes at the back of the auditorium are still visible. While some may see the derelict theater as a total loss or an eyesore, it's a testament to the quality of the design and architecture that even after all this time and damage, these little details still shine through.

Palace Theater

The arched entryways where guests would enter the seating area of the theater | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

The Palace Theater and other parts of Gary, Indiana were featured in the History Channel's series "Life After People," in which scientists, mechanical engineers, and other experts speculated on what might happen to the planet and civilization if humanity suddenly disappeared. In the second episode of season one, which aired in April 2009, the series explores what abandoned cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and London might look like as nature begins to overtake the abandoned cities. The Palace Theater was used as an example for what parts of Chicago might look like after 30 years without humans.

In 2012, there was renewed interest in reviving the theater, both to preserve the historic building itself and as part of a broader effort to revitalize downtown Gary. Community activists, historic preservationists, and local leaders have come together to advocate for the restoration of the Palace Theater. Plans put forth include renovating and restoring the building to its former glory and preserving its architectural integrity while also updating it to meet modern standards of accessibility and functionality.

The decline of Gary, Indiana – and by extension the Palace Theater – was a complex and multifaceted phenomenon rooted in decades of economic, social, and political change. Despite efforts to revitalize the downtown area, the theater has remained shuttered and neglected for decades. The abandoned Palace Theater in Gary stands as a haunting relic of faded grandeur, its dilapidated facade a testament to a bygone era of opulence and cultural vibrancy now lost to time.

Palace Theater

The front of the Palace Theater on Broadway | Photo © 2019 Sugarbomb​

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