Photos by Isadora Pennington
Photos by Isadora Pennington

If you’ve been in Atlanta long enough, chances are you’ve been to the iconic Plaza Theatre at least once. You may have also heard of the Plaza around Christmas time of last year when the small independent theater stood by their decision to screen the controversial movie, The Interview. At the time, Sony had pulled the film in the midst of threats and controversy. The Plaza Theatre fought to show the film and when Sony eventually did release the rights, the Plaza was one of the first theaters nationwide to screen the movie.

Located in Briarcliff Plaza shopping center at the corner of North Highland and Ponce de Leon avenues, the circa-1939 art deco theater with its distinctive marquee has gone through many changes throughout the years. The shopping center was the first in Atlanta with off-street parking, and is also home to varied retailers like Urban Outfitters (once home to the much-missed Plaza Drugs with its busy lunch counter), Righteous Room bar, FedEx/Kinkos, Island Flowers, Buffalo Exchange and the equally historic Majestic Diner, which has been serving up burgers and breakfast since 1929.

During the 1970s, the theater shifted focus from blockbuster films to hosting mainly X-rated and burlesque shows. The owner of the property, Robert Griffith, chose to renovate the entire lot and the theater was later purchased by George LeFont in the 1980s. LeFont looked upon the historic theater with a new light, booking independent and classic films, a theme that remains to this day. In early 2013, the Plaza was purchased by current owner, Michael Furlinger, a theater enthusiast aiming to restore the space with ties to its history.

I have come to know and truly love the Plaza. My time spent working at the Majestic Diner familiarized me with that area and I attended a variety of shows. Screenings at the Plaza vary so much from film to film. For many, like the Atlanta Film Festival movies, the aura is peaceful and observant. The respectful crowd watches in silence, giving only the most appropriate chuckles, and cheering and clapping for their preferred showings. At other times, like during the weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show, the vibe in the place is decidedly more raucous and vibrant. I miss the old Splatter Cinema festivals with B-movies and elaborate lobby displays.

Recently, I stopped by and talked with Plaza manager Brandon Delaney. “I’ve always had a love for the movie industry,” he told me, noting the importance of his involvement with the theater to his own filmmaking. Since Brandon came on board two years ago, the Plaza has undergone a significant shift from 35mm film projection to digital. The shift met with some resistance within the film community, however the results have not been disastrous.

“It’s been a nationwide switchover, and I think the trafficking and transferring of prints now is a lot more streamlined, convenient and much easier,” Brandon explained. “You have to evolve or wither away.”

It’s this adaptability that has kept the Plaza at the forefront of artistic filmmaking in the Atlanta community.
“There’s always something going on,” Brandon said. “You can never really put a finger down on the constructive feel of the theater because it’s always in flux.”

Despite the theater’s evolution, the Plaza has maintained its foothold in Atlanta culture. “We’ve never stopped running,” he told me, a point of pride in discussing the longevity of this theater’s history. “It’s always been a theater in some way, shape or form.”

The building itself is surprisingly resilient, requiring little more than day-to-day maintenance and upkeep. It’s clear also that the space is valued for its historic aesthetics as seen in the classic posters lining the walls and film artifacts on display in the lobby. “It’s like you walk in and you just feel the history, you feel that connection instantly and know you’re a part of something that’s been going on for a while,” Brandon said.

Many celebrities have visited the Plaza. When asked his favorite memory, Brandon recalled when he encountered one of his favorite actors, Bill Paxton. “It was late and we were cleaning up during the screening of ‘The Enemy. ‘The theater door opens, a guy walks out… and it’s Bill Paxton. It was like, wow.”

The Plaza’s influence within the local film community is evident in their collaboration with local festivals and events. Most notably, they host the annual Atlanta Film Festival as well as a variety of other festivals and screening events. “We are always looking for new ways to engage people and get people into seats,” Brandon said.

To see what’s currently showing at the Plaza, visit plazaatlanta.com.

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a writer and photographer based in Atlanta.

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