All that Glitters Could Be Gold . . . In America’s Fading Movie Palaces

You can still see them in the centers of American cities – the lavish movie theaters that were built nearly 100 years ago, back in the days when people lived and worked in cities and went to see movies downtown.

Over the last few decades as people have moved to the suburbs, dozens of old movie palaces have fallen into disuse. Some, like the magnificent Stanley Theater in Jersey City, have been acquired by Jehovah’s Witnesses and converted to places of worship. Others are being demolished, often after futile attempts by preservationists to save them from the wrecking ball. Once such battle has recently played out in Philadelphia, where the historic Boyd Theater is being demolished.

Shown: The Boyd Theater in Philadelphia, PA. Photo courtesy of After The Final

Shown: The Boyd Theater in Philadelphia, PA. Photo courtesy of After The Final

All That Glitters . . .

If you look at interior pictures of the Stanley, the Boyd and other movie palaces of their era, you will notice that their designers often used gold to impart a feeling of opulence in the main auditoriums and lobbies. The idea was to create a feeling of awe for moviegoers, especially during the years of the Great Depression, when people went to movie theaters to briefly escape from their worries. The theaters were air-conditioned at a time when few homes were. Heck, many of these movie palaces had full-blown pipe organs too.

But how much gold is really to be found in the interiors of old theaters? If you get involved in demolishing one or have the opportunity to comb through architectural materials that were salvaged from an old theater, how much gold are you going to be able to reclaim and recycle?

In most cases, very little. In just about all cases, gold leaf or gold paint was used to cover walls, ceiling, balcony edges and other visible surfaces. Gold leaf is made of real gold, but it contains very minute amounts of that precious metal. Gold is one of the most malleable metals, and it can be beaten so thin that even a few ounces of it can be used to cover hundreds of square feet of plaster surfaces. There is also the fact that it is extremely costly and difficult to reclaim the gold that is found in used gold leaf. The cost is prohibitive. If you can imagine what it would be like to incinerate 20 tons of plaster from a theater interior, then comb through the resulting ash for gold and then purify it, you have a general idea of why it is not cost-effective to extract gold from most architectural applications of gold leaf.

What about gold paint? The problem there is that gold paint rarely contains gold. It is usually made of reflective mica flakes that are suspended in yellow-tinted clear lacquer. Because gold-toned paint is not made of gold, it is not worth recycling.

Ah, But What about Hardware?

What about the gold-toned railings, doorknobs, statues, light fixtures and other hardware that adorned the interiors of old movie palaces? What about gold-toned organ pipes? Don’t they contain enough gold to recycle? The answer is, it depends. It is rare to find items in old theaters that were gold-filled or plated with real gold. The companies that constructed those opulent theaters, you remember, were trying to create an illusion of luxury, not the real thing, and they had to keep their costs under control. They used gold-toned paint extensively.

But if you do obtain some gold-toned items from an old movie palace, give us a call at 800-426-2344 to tell us about your discoveries. We’ll be happy to explain the testing procedures we use to determine whether that glittery item you own contains gold that can put money in your pocket.  There is never any obligation or cost to speak with us, so give us a call today.

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