The Movie Palace Experience

In today's modern world, it is hard to comprehend what it was like after the turn of the century. Our lifestyle has so radically changed from those of even our recent ancestors it is truly hard for a lot of us to conceive what it was like even a few decades ago. Back during the time when the great Movie Palaces were built almost none of what we take as commonplace existed. The vast majority of our modern entertainment marvels weren't even envisioned. Communication over long distances was pretty much done by letter or telegraph. AM Radio was in its infancy and television didn't exist. People had to do other things for entertainment. The choices people had back then, were to read, tell or listen to stories, play a musical instrument and/or sing, or go out to a theater or opera house for public amusement.

Another thing to consider is that the average person rarely traveled more than twenty-five to fifty miles from their place of birth. People, places, and things that were not of the area they lived in were deemed as highly exotic, especially in the smalle cities or the vast expanses of rural America that were far away from the bigger metropolitan citiies.

When the Nickelodeon first appeared, the public had a voracious appetite to peer into the Edison Kinetoscopes to see things like cars, trains, airplanes, big city street scenes, and even farm life. As the movie camera became more portable, it traveled the world, bringing glimpses of very exotic places. The movie experience back in at the turn of the century was more like going to what we now call a penny arcade where you put a nickel into a machine and one person could watch a very short film of up to two minutes in length.

As film made the transition from the Kinetoscope to a projector and a big screen, the films also increased in length and began to tell stories. But even then, the films were still much shorter in length than they were as we got into the 1920s. In order to get more people to spend money, exhibitors felt they had to add more to an evening's performance. Vaudeville was a term given to traveling performers and shows that went around the country entertaining. Since they were pretty much the only live entertainment to a lot of small towns would see, their mere presence guaranteed packed houses. When motion picture theaters became the new rage,  in order to survive, Vaudeville acts began to merge with motion pictures to create a full entertainment program. In addition to the live traveling acts, a movie house would commonly have a house musician (pianist/organist). If the theater was really large, it could even have its own orchestra and perhaps a dance troupe that would perform along with the travelling Vaudeville acts.

Another thing to take into consideration is that a movie combined with the other presentations could last for up to three or more hours! Because of that, there was usually an afternoon "matinee" and then a more elaborate evening performance. Since the evening performance was deemed as the major performance of the day, it usually had a longer program than the matinee.

OK, its 1929 at the height of the Movie Palace Era and you are going to see a show. While there still are some silent films being produced, the "talkies" are fast becoming the standard. You've bought your expensive 65 cent ticket from the smiling girl in the kiosk at the tiny boxoffice booth at the entranceof the theater. As you walk past the front doors, you are greeted by a sharply-dressed man in a perfectly tailored uniform that asks for your ticket. He tears it in half and gives you back. As you enter into the auditorium, you're greeted by additional ushers, who like the doorman are also in uniforms to assist you in any way to find your seat.

So far this is very similar to what you experience today, perhaps with exception to the perfectly groomed employees, but now you're in for a big shock! Today, before we go deep into the multi-plex, we ususally stop at the concession stand to buy stuff to eat and to drink. Back then, there were no concessions! When the Palaces were built, part of their opulance was an attempt to place an air of importance to the motion picture industry. Back when the Kinetoscopes ruled, the upper classes deemed films to be low-brow entertainment when compared to "The Arts" such as orchestral concerts, opera, and ballet. Since no body dared to munch popcorn at one of those performances, it was felt no one would want to do it at the movies.

But there were a group of enterprising people that began to sell drinks and food outside the theaters from carts. The theater owners allowed their patrons to bring in food, so a lot of people would bring in snacks from home or purchase them from the cart vendors. It wasn't until well into the Great Depression that the film exhibitors realized just how big the profit potential was to offer food concessions in the theater once they banned outside food from entering their temples of amusement.

You've found your seats, and it's show time! Believe it or not, you're a long way from the movie. In all likelihood the evening would begin with the sounds of a mighty organ playing some grand and impressive song (referred to as Riser Music) as it rose up from beneath the stage. A Master of Ceremonies would emcee the evening introducing various acts and personalities. With the movie palaces being such large theaters, chances are it not only had the organ, but its own orchestra and dance troupe.

It was not uncommon for the audience to become involved with the show either. From up in the projection booth using a slide projector, words to popular songs of the day would be projected down on the screen so people could sing along while the organ or the orchestra played the melody.

There may be a number of traveling Vaudeville performers on the bill. At the Atlanta Fox's premiere show, there were 5, not counting the master of ceremonies, the organist, and the house orchestra. It was also very popular to have a "world traveler" give a presentation with photos of their expeditions to far off worlds and continents. Remember, most people never traveled more than 25-50 miles from their birthplace, so a lot of what is mundane to us nowadays was pretty exotic and exciting to our ancestors.

Finally, the lights dim and the projectors come to life. But we're still a good bit away from the feature film. First off would probably be the news. Radio was still in its infancy and most people got their news from other people or from a newspaper. The CNN of the day was the newsreel and at the Fox, it was Fox Movietone News. The newsreel would be much like what you see today on a nightly news show. Hard news, some in depth reporting on a topic and it would end with a lifestyle segment. Up next would be a cartoon and perhaps a short live action film such as the antics of the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplain, Our Gang, The Little Rascals, The Lone Ranger, Buck Rogers, Tarzan, or Flash Gordon. The trailers of coming attractions would come next and this would be the signal to get set for the feature. Run to the bathroom now 'cause the big show is about to begin. Then at last, the feature film would begin. After that, it was time to pack up and return to the ordinary world, a bit happier and refreshed than when you left it.

Just how long would this go on for? It would depend. I would imagine weekday shows were shorter than the "Big" Friday or Saturday performances. Matinees would be probably only have the motion picture part of the program too. We can do a bit of math and come up with some plausible estimates. The average film of the era was about 88 minutes long. The average cartoon is about four to six minutes. A short film normally runs about ten to fifteen minutes. The newsreel would last about ten to fifteen minutes too. Add to that another ten minutes for the coming attractions. All told, you've got about two hours worth of projector time alone. Since most live Vaudeville performances were relatively short, I would guess the audience was comfortable with about five to ten minute performances per act. So with the organ solo, the dance troupe's performance, the sing along, not to mention the emcee's introductions and speeches, I'd speculate that the whole show lasted three to four hours. That's certainly enough time to warrant nice amenities in the restrooms!

Unlike today's theaters that have shows starting every two hours, at the Atlanta Fox on opening day, there were only two shows; a matinee at 1pm and the gala premiere at 8pm. This was commonplace back then. There is something else worth mentioning that today we might find to be incredible. Just like the Opera or other "performing arts", there were no concessions sold! If you needed a drink, there were water fountains in the Fox, but that was it. I am told there were vendors that sold food that set up carts outside the theaters you could get snacks from, but there wasn't anything sold inside the theaters. The idea for inside concessions didn't come along until the late 1930s or 40s.

In the days of the movie palace, the building itself was actually a key part of the experience. By entering the palace, you were literally transported away from your mundane world and into a grand escape. Everything was much bigger, better, and grander than anything else you would experience in the ordinary world. Back in the day, since the programs were so long, when people went to the restrooms, they just didn't go to relieve themselves. They actually hung around for a while! In the Atlanta Fox Theatre, the two main sets of restrooms were referred to as lounges and that was not because of trying to be polite as they actually were lounges with big comfortable sofas and chairs. In the Mezzanine level Ladies lounge, there were vanity desks outfitted with pens, stationary, and envelopes so one could sit back and write a letter to a loved one! People could spend over 30 minutes or more relaxing in these ultra-opulent rooms.

As the Great Depression progressed cost cutting measures soon meant the end of the live performances. One by one, the live acts were reduced to organ recitals and after a while, that came to an end. Since you only had to pay a projectionist to run the films, it was much more cost-effective to make the entire program film-based. As time further progressed, it was deemed to be even more cost-effective to reduce the film presentations in order to allow for more showings of the film to make more money. By the fifties, you'd be doing good to have a cartoon, a newsreel, a few trailers, and the feature. Once television became the king of family entertainment and nightly news programs began to give the populace its news through a much faster medium, the newsreels were no longer needed. They started falling by the wayside and became extinct before the mid-1960s.

I think this cost-cutting and trying to generate more revenue was what brought the idea of selling popcorn, candy, and beverages inside the theater. Theaters share a percentage of the box-office reciepts to the film distributor. As amazing as it may sound, a lot of first-run movies demand that the distributor get as much as 90-95 percent of the money taken in on ticket sales. That means that the concession stand has to bring in the marjority of income for the theater in order to pay the bills and the employees paid while having a bit of profit to make the owners happy. That is why a large bucket of popcorn and a big drink cost more than the ticket you used to get in the door!

Today when we go to the cinema, our experience is much different than the days of old. We go into a room where they are showing commercials by video or slides until the film projector finally rolls. Instead of a short, one more commercial before the trailers of coming movies rolls may bombard us. Finally after the obligatory computer-generated talking icon tells us to put trash in its place, don't smoke, turn off the pagers and the cell phones, and to shut up, the feature film begins. How I miss the good ole days.

There is a new revolution in the film industry going on today. With the advent of televisions with much larger screens and digital surround sound, the concept of an in-home theater is becoming more commonplace. For a few thousand dollars, a family can have a near-theater experience in their own home and with the popularity of video rental and pay-per-view movies, more and more families are staying home and not going to the theaters. A lot of times, people stay home and don't go to the cinema at all as they wait for the inevitable release on home video. With the average price of a regular admission now costs over $9.00 in many markets, plus the average cost of food and drinks per person being over $8.00, a lot of families just can't afford it. They wait for the movie to release on home video, rent it from companies such as Blockbuster Video for $4.00 for a night, and enjoy it at home.

Even people like myself who were voracious moviegoers have been affected by this. Its no long imperative to get to a cinema to see that oddball film when we know it will be on home video. Sure, we will make it out to see movies like Transformers, Star Trek, and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy that really need to be seen on the big screen, but for a lot of films, watching them on a large-screen TV with a good multi-channel sound system is just fine.

The theater houses are once again in a position where they are going to have to reinvent themselves in order to stay afloat and compete with the threat of home video. I am starting to see a renaissance in the architecture of the modern movie theaters. They are a lot more nicely appointed than their predecessors of even a decade ago. Modern day auditoriums are somewhat of a hybrid between the old movie palaces and the large single-screen cinemas of the 50s and 60s. Bigger seats, stadium seating, digital sound systems, and massive-sized screens are all playing a role in making sure some movies are "must see" events in the cinema. Sure, Mona Lisa Smile is a good rental, but seeing The Matrix, Avatar, Transformers, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Sky Captain on the big screen is still a must for even the most casual Cinephile. Some theaters are experimenting with reserved seating and a wait staff to serve you concessions while you sit in the theater. 

Back in the late 1970s, a few adventureous entrepreners had good success in a new style of format. At the time, it was referred to as "Cinema & Drafthouse". A closed theater would be renovated. The traditional audience seating would be mostly removed and in its place were put tables, chairs, and booths. Instead of serving just candy, nuts, popcorn, and soft drinks, the food offerings were expanded to include what I refer to as "bar/pub-style cuisine" that included burgers, pizzas, and other low-cost/high profit food along with beer, wine and in some mixed drinks. Instead of showing first-run movies, the houses featured second-run, classic, and cult films that usually were had for such low cost, the admission was around a dollar per person. The concept was wildly popular for several years before it began to loose popularity. Most of the theaters are now long-gone. But in its wake, there is a new national chain called "Movie Tavern" that is enjoying great growth based on the old C&D concept. Instead of tables and chairs, they remove every other row of seats and in its place put fixed in place row-length table that's about 18 inches deep. It give patrons place to put their food and it gives their service staff room to get around to serve people their food. You order your food at a traditional concession stand, but for the food that has to be prepared, the staff brings it out to you once its done. Instead of showing second-run films, they are showing major new first-run films and while the admission is no where near a dollar to get it, it is usually a dollar or so less than their competitors. Movie Tavern opened their first theater in Georgia in 2008 and so far, it's been a big hit.

At least theaters can thank their lucky stars that two young people going on a date just cannot have that same experience at home. The experience two people have in a darkened theater watching the latest pop culture film cannot be replicated at home, especially with the ever-watchful eyes of parents coming from behind a door frame.

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