Tucked in offices above the glowing bulbs of the York Theatre's art deco-style marquee in Elmhurst, a tiny association works to document the history of movie palaces that once stood as focal points of Chicago neighborhoods and suburban downtowns.

The Theatre Historical Society of America, founded in 1969, relied on volunteers and one paid staff member for years. In the last 18 months, that has changed. Today, four professionals staff the facility, and research fellowships attract scholars from across the country to learn more about the history and cultural influence of movie houses.

The society, supported mostly by membership dues for years, was in danger of shutting down as interest declined.

"For a long time we were a nostalgia-based organization," said Rick Fosbrink, executive director. "People were there to remember about their time as ushers."

Some early society members, the ones who brought firsthand recollections of the local landmarks, died, leaving large bequests that kept the society going and helped support marketing efforts to increase membership. Those gifts also have reinvigorated the mission of the museum, which archives information about picture palaces that once thrilled audiences with exotic architecture, uniformed ushers, larger-than-life murals, crystal chandeliers, ornate plaster domes and velvet drapes.

"We had to shift away from just being a collector of stuff to an organization that educates the public," Fosbrink said.

A renovated research center unveiled this month adds room for visiting scholars and staff who used to labor in cramped conditions to understand the impact of the movie palace and the film industry on American culture, history, commerce, architecture and decorative arts.

"Previously if someone was doing research, it was hard for staff to work. Everybody was in one room and everything (in the collection) was in other rooms," Fosbrink said.

The 900-member society's archive contains millions of items, some of which are still in boxes and have not been cataloged because of a lack of time and resources.

With information about 16,000 theaters, it is a treasure-trove for scholars and enthusiasts who seek architectural plans, blueprints, documents, photographs, news accounts, dioramas, ads, models, posters and artifacts.

"The reason the movie palaces stayed so popular is because of their indelible architecture that you can't replicate or replace very cheaply," said Ross Melnick, assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "They are timepieces from the 1920s and 1930s. Once you tear them down, they are gone forever."

As a recipient of a theater society fellowship, Melnick spent a week last year in Elmhurst researching a book about theaters built overseas in cities such as Havana and Kolkata, India. Those movie palaces thrived as American ones declined after an antitrust ruling in the 1940s that caused film companies to divest themselves of the theaters they owned.

The decline of movie palaces was hastened by the introduction of TV, but Melnick said they were an icon of American culture long after their heyday.

Theatergoers reveled in the structures that were often the most luxuriously appointed public places they could easily access in their town, whether it was in the flatlands of Nebraska or a palm tree-shaded street in Miami. The picture palaces promised escape.

"The fantasy was that you'd be queen or king for a night, for 25 cents," Melnick said.

As the single-screen theaters fell into disrepair, some closed or were demolished. A few were restored and repurposed for live entertainment while others sit shuttered awaiting a similar transformation. A few continue to show movies.

"A community's movie theater was often a social center for the community," said Willis Johnson, owner of eight historic theaters. He bought his first one, the Tivoli in Downers Grove, in the 1970s and believes theaters keep business districts thriving.

The new research center is named in honor of Johnson and his wife, Shirley, funders of the renovation. They also own the Classic Cinemas chain, including the building where the society is located. Fosbrink declined to say how much the renovation cost but said it was significant.

The society's archives, Willis Johnson said, are valuable for restoring those social centers that may have been altered or remodeled to the point that their original state is a mystery.

"It's got both a historic and an economic benefit," said Nancy Baker, city planner for Woodstock, where an ornate plaster dome was uncovered during renovation of the Woodstock Theater, also owned by Johnson.

She's thrilled to have a theater that mixes old and new downtown.

"It has been on Main Street a long time, and it looks like it has. Visually, historically and aesthetically, it's a landmark," Baker said.

Founded by Ben M. Hall, a historian and author of a book commemorating America's movie palaces, "The Best Remaining Seats," the society's collection was first kept in private homes. In the 1970s it was moved to the University of Notre Dame. In the early 1980s, it was sent to a church in Chicago and then in 1991 to Elmhurst.

The fellowships, launched last year, create research opportunities for people like Melnick and Richard Grell, who sought answers after a friend sent him information that indicated his great-uncle, Louis Grell, painted unsigned murals in the Chicago Theatre.

"The family rumors were that he was an art professor, that he painted the Chicago Theatre and that Walt Disney was one of his students," said Richard Grell. "All of that was true, but there was so much more."

The research yielded enough material for an exhibit and 25-minute documentary "Discovering Louis Grell: Vision and Versatility." The exhibit and documentary were unveiled Jan. 17 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Art Gallery.

"I came away with images — actual images of what he did," said Richard Grell of his visit to the society. "Their collection was incredible. My days in Elmhurst were my most significant."

amannion@tribune.com