By Hal Doby, originally written in 1996, last revision February 2013..
In the begining, "Moving Pictures", now more commonly known as Motion Pictures or simply "The Movies" were developed by many people in many countries with the major innovators being in the United States and France. Here in the United States, moving pictures were mainly pioneered by Thomas Edison's company, best known for his development of the electric light bulb and phonograph. His company was the first to demonstrate moving pictures to the public in the Americas. His early experiments followed the same pattern as his phonograph, with the pictures recorded on to a wax cylinder.
As an historical note, Edison did not work alone. He had other scientists and engineers working with him in his laboratory and while a lot of Edison's inventions and technologies were directly credited to Edison himself, there were others who rightfully deserved credit that went un-named. In 1889, Edison handed the development of the moving pictures project to a young Scotsman named William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Dickson stopped working with cylinders and began work on a system that used strips of celluloid film, the same material that was being developed for still photography.
Dickson's camera was called the Kinetograph. It used rolls of film about 35mm wide with rows of holes down the sides to allow the film to be pulled through the camera at an even rate by gears. At the same time, Dickson developed a viewer for the films that was called a Kinetoscope. One person at a time would look through the viewing piece at the top of the box. The film ran through a series of pulleys in a continuous loop, so that it could be watched over and over again without rewinding.
Thomas Edison was renown for applying for patents for anything his team of engineers designed. He wisely knew that should any of their innovations become popular or useful, those patents would then require anyone that used anything derrived from those patents, would owe Edison a royalty fee. Also through those patents, Edison could control who, how, when, and why those innovations were used. This has made Edison a millionair through his patents for Electricity, the light bulb and the phonograph. Now Edison was looking to make millions through the control of the fledling film industry.
Edison's earliest films lasted for about 20 seconds or less because of the amount of film you could put into the camera. They were first demonstrated to the public in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. By the following year, a "Kinetoscope Parlor" opened in New York, with ten machines showing different films. At right is an early Edison film from the same time period that has been converted to an animated GIF. "The Sneeze" is presented here uncut in its full length to show you just how short "short" was back then.
In order to understand the attraction to viewing these short films, you have to remember that at the beginning of the 20th century, the common person did not travel more than 25 miles away from where they were born. Their life experiences were limited to the things that were commonplace in their small communities. Things that were not in their small part of the world were often considered to be very exotic and it was exciting to see those things that were not part of their every day worlds. No one had seen moving pictures before, so even a few moments of action was astounding. The first films were very short and most were what was termed Real Life Studies. Animals, city life, and the new modern wonders such as the aeroplane and the horseless carriage were common subjects. People who saw those films were voracious in their appetite to see more to know more about the world around them.
As the technology progressed and longer moves could be made, they began to tell short stories, but even then, they lasted just a few minutes in length. Kinetoscope parlors sprang up all over the country and rows of Kinetoscopes were added to existing entertainment venues like penny arcades. Operators attempted to attract customers through sidewalk barkers and displays set up in their wide entranceways. It became an enduring feature of movie theater construction still employed today.
While Edison's invention was very prolific in the United States, In
Europe, Auguste and Louis Lumière became the European leaders in
the technical art of cinema. Unlike Edison, the brothers worked on the concept of
presenting thier films by a projector that projected the image on to a
large screen so a multitude of people could view a film at the same
time instead of one person at a time by looking into a Kinetoscope. The
Lumières held their first private screening of projected motion
pictures in 1895. Their first public screening of films at which
admission was charged was held on December 28, 1895, at Salon Indien du
Grand Café in Paris. This history-making presentation featured
ten short films, including their first film, Sortie des Usines
Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière
Factory). Each film was 17 meters long, which, when run through a hand cranked projector, ran approximately 50 seconds.
When the Lumiere Brothers projection system came to America, the Kinetoscope was quickly replaced in favor of the projection system which is still in use today. Film exhibitioners preferred presenting a single film to a mass audience because simplification meant a lot more profit was to be made. Gone were rows of expensive machines that had to be individually maintained and each provided with a copy of a film. In their place was a single projector, one screen, and one film.
As these film theaters became commonplace, they were quickly named. Nickelodeons. The term was derrived by combining the word "Nickel", the price of admission, with "Odeon," the ancient name of Grecian theaters.The first Nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh in 1905 (as shown on the photo) when the proprietors of the Smithfield Street movie house renamed their theaters Nickelodeons.
In 1904, a 24-year-old William Fox started the Greater New York Film Rental Company with the purchase of a run-down Nickelodeon in Brooklyn. With its success, he purchased more Nickelodeons. As his fledgling chain of theaters began to grow bigger, Fox began to fight against the controlling monopoly of the Motion Picture Patents Company owned by Thomas Edison. Edison held his film patents tightly and using his power and his company's vast financial resources, Edison's Kinetoscopes dominated the American market. After long and heated court battles, Edison's monopoly came to an end in 1912 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of William Fox.
The age of the kinetoscope not only coming to an end as once Edison's monopoly was broken, other entrepreneus almost overnight began to establish new motion picture studios.
Where Kinetoscopes were limtied to showing a film of a certain length, projectors did not have this limitation. They could hold as much film as the bighest real used. During the time of the Kinetoscopes, most films were shot continuously. Any "editing" was done by turning the camera on or off. Rarely were films were actually edited and spliced together at the studio level. Around the same time the Kinetoscopes were loosing popularity, filmmakers began in earnest to tell stores. To aid in their story telling, they began to make multiple "takes" of scenes, then through editing and using multiple film elements they were able to present more and more elaborate stories. This was the beginning of the modern film.Theater-goers began to enjoy two types of films. The traditional "short-form" ran anywhere from a few minutes to about 20 minutes in length. This was joined by a much longer "feature film" that on average ran approximately 80 minutes or longer. Going to the theater, even though it was relatively cheap, was a big deal and theater operators had to present a program of films that they felt gave the customer value for their five cents. News organizations came up with the idea of taking film cameras to record important events and other news-worthy stories and they were put together as weekly newsreels. By the early 1920s, the traditional movie presentation had patrons watching one or two short films, a current newsreel, trailers of upcoming films, and then finally the feature film would conclude the program. All told, a viewing could last three to four hours.
The first "theaters" were very simple and plain. They were usually very spartan, smoke-filled, and incredibly dingy. They were nothing more than simple rooms or store fronts that had either a white-washed wall or a linen sheet hung up on a wall to act as a screen. The chairs were loose and placed into rows to suit the room. In the middle or rear of the room sat the projector with its operator, who might also act as the ticket vendor. Accompanying the film, was a piano, often played by a girl or woman from the neighborhood, using whatever music she had in her repertoire at the moment. Still, for a nickel you could be transported into a fantasy world on the screen. The theaters often included other attractions such as illustrated song slides, song and dance acts, comedy, live dramas and other features that allowed them to compete with vaudeville houses. Theaters happily operated like this for almost two decades because of the low-cost of operation. The popularity of these affordable, entertaining, and highly profitable venues was such that their numbers mushroomed to approximately 8,000 in the United States by 1908.
Attendance was growing from a few people into the hundreds and eventually thousands at a time. Because of the growing number of patrons, the old ways of showing films were beginning to have serious safety considerations. New local and federal public safety laws were made that started to have a direct bearing on the theaters and their operation. In the theaters, should there be a crisis, people could panic with no regard for others and rush to the front doors. Chairs and furnishings would be tossed about and the human stampedes would cause as much injury or death as the event that sparked the crisis. Fire was the number one threat. Stage lights, the abundance of people smoking, and the flammable nitrate-based films themselves were all serious risks that could result in disaster. The average building could go up in flames very quickly.
With the new laws established, film exhibitors could no longer convert a store front into a theater. The new entertainment wonder had to evolve. The "next-generation" theaters often began as failed opera houses, concert halls, or churches that were more readily converted into theaters. The popularity of the motion pictures was so great, pretty soon all of the available buildings with some form of an auditorium were taken and demand was still not satisfied. Even larger auditoriums were needed and with the new safety rules it began to make much more economic sense to construct new buildings instead of attempting to renovate an existing structure. The new buildings would incorporate safety features such as emergency exits, fire-retardant construction materials, and a separate projection room that separated the equipment and the very 3 ew flammable film from the rest of the structure. Smoking in the auditoriums was also banned as a further safety measure.
Motion Picures were not well regarded by upper society. Because of its popularity by "the common man" and its origins in what many considered to be sleazy Nickelodeons or "Flea Pits", the members of upper society considered the "flickers" low-brow entertainment. Yet, the pioneers of cinema had become self-made multi-millionaires almost over night. Like a lot of people that become wealthy through hard work instead of inheritance, it became important to film's pioneers to make their industry acceptable to the members of high society while at the same time incease their appeal to the common patron that made them wealthy in the first place. It was hoped that someday the fledgling industry would be held in the same high regard as what other considered to Fine Arts; Dramatic Performance/Theater, Ballet, Symphony, and Opera.
The first major step to that goal was taking the movies out of the "flea pits" and placing them into proper theaters that befitted the patronage of refined gentlemen and ladies. Moving into converted opera houses and purpose-built theaters did a lot to achieve that goal. Built in 1902, Tally's "Electric" Theatre in Los Angeles (shown at left) was the first permanent structure devoted entirely to movies. Audiences immediately preferred the comfortable, clean, and well-appointed surroundings of a proper theater. They theaters also featured better-quality musical accompaniments and even well-dressed ushers to assist patrons.
While this was decades away from the Great Depression, life was much more hard than people know it to be in the 21st century. People loved escaping their harsh worlds by getting involved in the stories this new modern marvel told. Entrepreneurs soon caught on to the idea of extending the fantasy world from just the screen image to the whole experience of going to the movies. New movie theaters were built not only to hold larger audiences, but their entire scale and grandeur was put into overdrive. Because of these buildings having such opulence and extraordinary architectural beauty, a new term was coined. These were not mere theaters, they were Palaces where the average patron would be treated as royalty. The Movie Palaces were such a commercial success, between 1914 and 1922, 4,000 Movie Palaces opened in the United States with many more to come.
Regent (shown at left) was acknowledged as America's first motion picture
palace. Built for and operated by Jacob Fabian, it opened in Paterson,
New Jersey on September 14, 1914. The Regent was located
in a working class neighborhood up-town from the "legitimate" theater
district and stood between Old Union Street (which was later renamed
World Vet's Place in 1959) and Hamilton Street. As it was being
constructed, a majority of people believed that the huge cost of the
building's construction would prove to be a great liability. To that
end, it was oftern referred to as "Fabian's Folly" during the early
days, but once the theater was open and operating, the Regent proved
all of its ney-sayers to be wrong. A reporter for the Motion Picture
News declared that
the opening night audience "was the kind to be found at the
best playhouses. Judged by their decorum and sincere appreciation,
they might have been at the opera." Indeed, going to the
movie had gone from plopping down on a chair with a beer stein
in one hand and your cigar in the other, to putting on your finest
wardrobe to see and be seen alongside society's finest.
Another form of public entertainment was what was known as Vaudeville. Vaudeville was a live performance theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s into the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies. Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary burlesque. Called "the heart of American show business," vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades. Most performers and artists joined travelling Vaudeville troops and they traveled from town to town, but a few continually performed in one location. A few performers gained what today we would call "superstar" levels of popularity and they would strike out on their own to travel around the country. As film's popularity exploded, it had a direct and very negative effect on Vaudeville and in by the 1930s, Vaudeville was almost completely put out of business.
But as theaters moved into purpose-built houses, most were able to accomodate live performances and that allowed theater owners to offer a split bill of both film and Vaudeville performances.Vaudeville circuits groups like Keith-Albee became absorbed into motion picture corporations such as RKO (Radio-Keith-Orphieum). Thier performers not only continued to perform live, but also began to work as actors in films.
After dominating the motion picture industry at the beginning of the century, Edison's monopoly gave way to a handful of film companies that rapidly achieved what they called "Vertical Integration" of the industry. The film studios controlled every aspect of the "product" they manufactured. The studio "owned" the players and film production teams by contract; they controlled the subject matter and the owned the final product. Once it was made, the studio would then self-promote the film and distribute it to be shown at theaters that were mainly wholly owned by the same studio.
It became increasingly harder for individual independent entrepreneurs to show new first-run films because none of the studios would allow their films to be shown in theaters not owned or in partnership with them. In the eyes of many, this had replaced Edison's monopoly with other monopolies that forced almost all of the independent exhibitors to sign into a studio network agreement, sell the theater to a studio, or close their doors. Of course, legal challenges were filed, but it took almost 4 decades for them to wind their way through the United States legal system before the United States Supreme Court hear the case. . As the legal challenges found their way to the highest court in the land, the damage had already been done. In a few short years the studios totally controlled movie production, distribution, and exhibition in the U.S. The "Big Five" were Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), Warner Brothers, Loew's / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox Films, and RKO. By 1929 Paramount operated 1200 theaters with Fox close behind at 1100. In 1930, the five major film companies took in approximately 70% of all box office receipts in the United States.
Many of the studio heads, architects, and film exhibitors were first-generation Americans. Among them were William Fox and Samual Rothapfel, often called by his nickname "Roxy". Their experiences as first-generation Americans might have given them a different perspective on American consumer culture, but instead they became some of its most ardent champions, and their theaters became some of its most unforgettable monuments. Most of the great palaces were designed and created by three architectural firms: Rapp and Rapp, John Eberson, and Thomas Lamb for the "Big Five" studios. A healthy competition of sorts was had between the three firms to see who could out do the others latest achievement. Each new palace was becoming "the new modern wonder of the world". Most movie palaces were built mainly employing themes from Europe's grand architecture. The rule of thumb was the more ornate, the better.
Everything about the movie palace was designed to make the average citizen feel like a celebrity, a millionaire, or royalty. When the San Francisco Fox (The exterior is shown on the left while the lobby is depicted to the right) opened in June of 1929, newspaper and magazine advertisements proclaimed: "No palace of Prince or Princess, no mansion of millionaire could offer the same pleasure, delight, and relaxation to those who seek surcease from the work-a-day world, than this, the Arcady where delicate dreams of youth are spun...Here in this Fox dream castle, dedicated to the entertainment of all California, is the Utopian Symphony of the Beautiful, attuned to the Cultural and Practical...No King...No Queen...had ever such luxury, such varied array of singing, dancing, talking magic, such complete fulfillment of joy. The power of this Purple we give to you...for your entertainment. You are the monarch while the play is on!"
In large towns, it was common for more than one movie palace to be built and it seemed where multiple theaters were, there was a very healthy competition to make the next theater bigger, better, and more over the top. Even in small cities and towns where there was no direct competition, lavish theaters were erected were citizens had never seen such opulence. While not true "palaces", these theaters were an important part of American culture. In the smaller towns, movie theaters became cultural centers for their societies. Societal life began to revolve around what was going on at the theaters. In addition to the regular movies, the theaters would be rented out for special events such as school graduations, traveling lectures, community theater, and weddings. It was very common (and still so today) for theaters to open their doors on Sunday mornings to be used by church groups that didn't have their own sanctuary.
The Great Depression took its toll on the palaces. Theater attendance dropped from 90 million per week in 1930 to 60 million per week two years later when the Depression was at its worst. During the same period, the number of operating theaters fell from 22,000 to 14,000. People were doing good just to survive, and going to the movies became a rare luxury. Theater managers had to trim their own operations just to keep the doors open. The first thing to go was live acts. They soon learned that by making the program shorter, they could have more than one show a night, which meant more revenue. The standard evening program had a newsreel, a cartoon, perhaps a short special interest film, previews, and the feature. Weekend Matinees would commonly add an episode of a serial adventure such as an adventure of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Roy Rogers, Batman, Tarzan, and Dick Tracy.
Another thing that might seem unbelievable today was the early theaters did not have food concessions. Since the movies were trying to emulate "The Arts", people simply did not eat or drink during those performances, so why should going to this new art form be any different? Some theaters allowed people to sell food and drinks outside the theaters that people were allowed to bring in. Some patrons actually brought their own sandwiches or snack food with them from home. As the exhibitors grew desperate for revenue, they realized that this was a potentially vital stream of income they had not tapped into! In short order, outside food and drink was banned as concession stands were put into the theaters. By the late 20th Century, most exhibitors made the majority of their income at the concession stand because most film distributors demand over 90% of the money generated from ticket sales. (Editor's Note: This is why I always make a point to buy popcorn and drinks in order to actually support my local theater!)
Despite their best efforts, many theaters did not make it and were boarded up. San Francisco's Fox Theatre went dark in 1932, just three years after it's opening, when Fox Films declared bankruptcy. Thanks to William Fox's attempt to control Loew's Inc/MGM through the purchase of stock in a leverage buyout, it was partly owned by Fox when Fox Studios went into receivership. As part of the court negotiated liquidation of Fox Films assets, Loew's Inc.eventually emerged from the Fox bankruptcy owning a substanial part of the Fox Theater chain. Fox Studios was sold and eventually merged with Twentieth Century Studios. The new corporation was renamed Twentieth Century-Fox (the hyphen is important!). In 1935. Famous Players/Laskey fell into receivership in 1933, but it was able to reorganize and it emerged from bankruptcy intact in 1936 as Paramount Pictures. RKO entered into bankruptcy protection in 1934 and reorganized in 1939. Universal sold its theaters as a stopgap measure but fell into receivership in 1933. It emerged from reorganization in 1936. Only Warner Brothers, Columbia, and United Artists survived the Depression without having to declare bankruptcy and their theater chains left intact.
As the economy slowly recovered, the picture palaces that survived the Great Depression began to enjoy a renaissance but it was never to be as it was prior to 1929. The Great Depression had a tremendous effect on the American Society well beyond just the financial aspects of the stock market crash. From Black Monday until mid-1932, things went from bad to worse before improvements slowly began.
One of the more recognized shifts occurred with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President in 1932. As part of his election campaign, he promised a "New Deal" to the American populace. With that, Americans began to look towards an eciting new future and with that, they abandoned a lot of the conventional perceptions of wealth and luxury and moved towards a new asthetic. The opulant style old-world European style quickly fell out of fashion. The ultra-modern style, now called Art Deco, was immediatley embraced.
Please Note: During the years when Art Deco was a fashion style, the term Art Deco was not used. The terms. Modernistic, Moderne, or Style/Art Moderne referred to this style until the term Art Deco was coined in the 60's by Bevis Hillier, a British art critic and historian. He derrived the name Art Deco from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, held in Paris, where the Moderne style was recognized as a unique art form, different from other art forms/styles.
Art Deco was originally started in Europe, it had greater achievement
in architecture and interior design in the United States and today
is pretty much recognized as an American art form. Art Deco was
derived from another artistic expression, Art Nouveau that developed
in the 1880s. Art Nouveau was a concerted attempt to create an
international style based on decoration. Art Nouveau designers
believed that all should work in harmony to create a "total
work of art," or Gesamtkunstwerk: buildings, furniture, textiles,
clothes, and jewelry all should conform those principles. Art
Deco first appeared in the 1920s. It is a "modernization"
of many artistic styles and themes from the past. You can easily
detect in many examples of Art Deco the influence of Far and Middle
Eastern design, Greek and Roman themes, and even Egyptian and
Mayan influence. Modern elements included echoing machine and
automobile patterns and shapes such as stylized gears and wheels,
or natural elements such as sunbursts and flowers. The modern
art movements of Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism influenced
Art Deco; however, it also took some ideas from the ancient geometrical
design styles, such as Egypt, Assyria and Persia. Art Deco designers
use stepped forms, rounded corners, triple-striped decorative
elements and black decoration often. The most important
Art Deco element is that all elements are in simple
geometrical order. If one is looking for appropriate words to
describe overall Art
Deco as a design style, "simplistic", "streamline", and "speed"
come to mind. During the Great Depression, Art Deco buildings
had very little protruding ornamentation and have very flat,
Architects and builders constructed the last large movie palaces in the 30s during the Great Depression, but they were nothing like the palaces that were built prior to 1929. Art Deco had replaced the previous ornate styles of architecture and it became the standard in movie theater design. There are a lot of views as to why the movie palace architects made such a fast transition to Art Deco. My opinion is there were two driving factors to adopt Art Deco. The first reason is economical. It was a substantially simpler to design and a lot less expensive to construct. Secondly, after we were plunged into the Great Depression which, pardon the pun, was depressing, we longed for a bright new future.I do not think there has been any other period in the history of man where we as a civilization have looked so forward to the prospects of a wondrous future. The Moderne style was so new, it embodied the promise of that bright and exciting future. The Moderne style WAS the future. It was the harbinger of that incredible future. In my opinion, the 1939 World's Fair in New York was the epitome of this expression with the General Motors exhibition, the World of Tomorrow literally at its pinnacle. As the world recovered from the Depression and before War loomed on the horizon, the old European ornate styles were considered very dated and out of fashion. Moderne / Art Deco was en vogue and pointed the way to the sleek new future that lay ahead.
The first Art Deco palace was designed in 1930 by Marcus Priteca. It was the Hollywood Pantages at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. While many others were built, without a doubt, the most famous Art Deco theater, and undeniably the most famous existing movie palace in the world, is Radio City Music Hall. More than 300 million people have patronized Radio City to enjoy stage shows, movies, concerts and special events. Everything about it is larger than life. Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Donald Deskey designed the Music Hall's interior spaces. In his design, Deskey chose elegance over excess, grandeur above glitz. He designed more than thirty separate spaces, including eight lounges and smoking rooms, each with its own motif. Given "The Progress of Man" as his general theme, he created a stunning tribute to human achievement in art, science and industry. He made art an integral part of the design, engaging fine artists to create murals, wall coverings and sculpture; textile designers to develop draperies and carpets; craftsmen to make ceramics, wood panels and chandeliers. Deskey himself designed furniture and carpets, and he coordinated the design of railings, balustrades, signage and decorative details to complement the theatre's interior spaces. It remains an elegant, sophisticated, unified tour de force.
Today Radio City is now the largest remaining motion picture theatre in the world today. Its marquee is a full city-block long. Its auditorium measures 160 feet from back to stage and the ceiling reaches a height of 84 feet. The walls and ceiling are formed by a series of sweeping arches that define a splendid and immense curving space. Choral staircases rise up the sides toward the back wall. Actors can enter there to bring live action right into the house. There are no columns to obstruct views. Three shallow mezzanines provide comfortable seating without looming over the rear orchestra section below. A huge proscenium arch that measures 60 feet high and 100 feet wide frames the Great Stage. It is comprised of three sections mounted on hydraulic-powered elevators. A fourth elevator raises and lowers the entire orchestra. Within the perimeter of the elevators is a turntable that can be used for quick scene changes and special stage effects. The shimmering gold stage curtain is the largest in the world. Audiences have thrilled to the sound of the "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ, which was built especially for the theatre. And what's a show without special effects? Original mechanisms still in use today make it possible to send up fountains of water and bring down torrents of rain. Fog and clouds are created by a mechanical system that draws steam directly from a Con Edison generating plant nearby.
The most grand and opluent Movie Palaces were built between 1928 and 1930. Radio City is acknowledged as the last built. Because the very nature of the film industry had changed, so were the palaces. Since live attractions similar to those of Vaudeville before the age of film were now going the way of the dinosaurs, there was no longer any need for any backstage areas. Since sound had elminated the need for live musical accompaniment, gone were the pianos, organs, and orchestra pits. Back stage became nothing more than a storage room or nothing but a wall. The size of the lobbies and the lounges were also shrinking because people spent less time at the theater. True lounges were replaced with simple restrooms. By the 1940s, most theaters consisted of four areas: the lobby, the auditorium, the restrooms, and the office/projection/storage rooms. Yet the movie theaters were still very important social centers for thier communites. During World War II, movie theaters hosted newsreels and war bond drives, attracting patriotic and news-hungry Americans by the millions, which hit an estimated post-Depression high of 85 million patrons each week. Americans packed movie theaters during the war.
Because of war time rationing, a building ban stateside stopped construction of new theaters during World War II, then in 1943 a study commissioned by the United States Navy concluded that a lack of movie theaters stateside actually contributed to delinquency and high labor turnover. The movie studios and film exhibitors gladly responded to the Navy's call for new theaters. During the '40s theater builders relied heavily on concrete since it was the most abundant non-restricted material available. Thier construction was the same technique used today to make simple box-like buildings to house an auditorium. The concrete block walls of the much smaller auditoriums were often concealed by large curtains. Cinema attendance reached its all-time American high in the immediate years following the war, but it was short lived. After the 1940s ended, everything started to go wrong for the motion picture industry. .
The tide of American consumerism, which had propelled the movie palaces to prestige and profitability was now contributing to its downfall. The political phrase, "a chicken in every pot" had morphed into "a car in every driveway and a television in every living room." Americans' pursuit of the material good life led them to a mass exodus to a new suburbian uptopia. Sub-urbanization was facilitated by the federal government and automakers in Detroit.
The accompanying lifestyle it called for spelled doom for downtown movie palaces. The growth of the suburbs and "urban sprawl" began by repaying the returning World War Two Veterans for their service through subsidies for interstate construction, the GI Bill, and the FHA mortgage program. More and more people were moving farther and farther away from the big cities where the major movie palaces were. The government promoted this sprawl by the creation of interstate highway construction that would allow for people to live farther out from the city yet be able to get to work in relatively short time thanks to driving on high-speed roads. While most cities had yet to come to know modern traffic gridlock, it was soon discovered that once a worker ended his day of work he wanted to leave the city to go home and stay there until he returned to work the following day. People did not remain in the downtown district after work to dine or to go to see a movie. Worst of all, they wanted to sit in their cushy chairs at home and watch that electronic demon, the Television, in the comfort of thier pajamas at home. Pictured at right is the 1951 DuMont Royal Sovereign television that boasts the largest black and white picture tube ever made at 30" measured diagonally.
In 1948, the Supreme Court finally heard the law suit against Vertical Integration and declared in what has become known as the Paramount Decree that the movie industry's vertical integration was an unlawful monopoly. The court ruled the movie studios were to sell off their theater chains. Up to that point, most studio/theater accountants simply put all of its operations into one pile. While one theater might be really profitable, some of those profits balanced out the losses caused by another theater that was loosing money. It was soon painfully obvious that the movie palaces had been money loosing crown jewels the studios kept mainly for prestige. they had been allowed to remain in operation because of the high profits that had come in from the smaller suburban theaters. When the studios sold off their theater chains, the new owners expected to make a profit from their investments. Theaters that could not turn a profit for their new owners were ordered closed and sold off.
This spelled doom to the majority of the downtown movie palaces. Since most of the theaters were in densely packed urban areas, the property they resided on had become highly desired and valuable. At that time, nobody really gave a second thought about the historical value or the potential contributions these old Movie Palaces could make to the arts or society. They were simply buildings that not only didn't make their owners money, but the cost a lot of money to maintain. It only made good business sense to sell the property for other purposes, which almost always meant the demolishment.
At the same time, probably the greatest perceived threat to the film industry at the time was television. Between 1947 and 1957, 90% of American households acquired a television. While newsreels continued to be made into the 60s, they were a thing of the past by the mid-1950s; TV news broadcasts meant people could get the latest news in their homes and much faster whereas the news presented on a newsreel was at least one to two weeks old when it was shown in the theaters. From the time television was debuted to the public at the 1939 World's Fair, the TV had gone from a massive structure with a relatively small imaging tube to something that a lot of people could watch with relative ease in a good-sized room in a pretty, yet substantial piece of furniture. As the manufacturing processes switched from wartime production, televisions were able to be mass-produced at a cost that became relatively affordable. Radio stations were now making the transition to television and the choices of what to watch (and when) greatly improved. While the theaters were in their dark days, the Golden Age of Television had arrived.
The movie industry was frantic to counter this new competitor, and in retaliation, they started to renovate their theaters with such luxuries as air conditioning, large "rocking chair" seats, wide screen, Cinerama (a frame from "How The West Was Won" is shown above), 3-D motion pictures (audience pictured left), stereophonic sound, and epic films, all of which meant the renovation of existing theaters to accommodate a wider screen and thus the destruction of many elaborate movie palace prosceniums and organ grilles. One of the attempts to get people back into the cinemas by exhibitors (and one that makes me grin) was "dish night", a ploy that was used during the Depression era. For every person that came to the movie, they would get a piece of dinnerware. The idea behind it was logical. By getting the whole family out to the cinema, you'd get a set of dishes for the whole family. You would return in the subsequent weeks for the other pieces of the table setting (Dinner plates, roll plates, salad bowls, saucers, etc.), so this promotion gave the exhibitor a guaranteed number of patrons for the weeks the promotion was going on. From its all time high, theater attendance declined to an average of about 42 million patrons per week and continued to drop. In 1991, average attendance was estimated to be a dismal 18.9 million per week, compared to its high of 90 million decades before. Attendance number never really started to increase until the end of the century.
The movie palaces not only faced competition from the evil television, but that also faced direct competition from the theaters that were popping up in the suburbs and a new form of theater that would go on to become another great American icon, the Drive-In Theater. While Drive-In Theaters began prior to World War II, the post-war boom brought in a new golden age of the automobile and the love of the car sparked a unique fusion of car and cinema. The Drive-in was very popular with families that could pay a single car admission for a carload of adults and kids. While the parents watched the film, the kids could often go and play at a playground located behind the large parking ground. Couples loved to go to drive-ins for the "unique" privacy being inside your own car provided. America's love affair with the drive-in lasted for about two decades before it began to fall out of favor in the 1970s. Just like the movie palaces they competed with, the property they resided on became highly valued real estate and a lot of them were torn up for other developments.
No matter what the exhibitors did, it was only minimally effective in bringing more people to the movie palaces. It was quite apparent that the days of the large downtown cinema were numbered. One by one, the big theaters were closing as people either stayed home or went to smaller theaters located in the sprawling suburbs that were now being built. Most Palaces were situated on valuable downtown property. With their owners not being able to pay their bills, not to mention the large amount of money required to maintain the palaces, selling off the property to developers was a very attractive way out of a desperate situation. In 1956, Balaban and Katz decided to demolish the Paradise Theater in Chicago and sell the land to a supermarket chain. This was widely considered to be the start of the darkest days of the Movie Palaces where the majority of the great houses were destroyed.
The Paradise Theater was built in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago, and was billed as the world's most beautiful theater. To this day it is regarded as one of the greatest movie palaces ever built. After 3 years of construction, the Paradise opened for business on 14 September 1928. Its auditorium could hold 3612 patrons in its "atmospheric" hall that was designed to replicate an open air courtyard with its painted ceiling made to look like a cloud-filled sky on a warm spring day. The photos above left and right shown the wonderful exterior and the Paradise's incredible auditorium. The Paradise put up a fight against its demolition as the demolition crew discovered that the building was built substantially better and a lot stronger than the original blueprint detailed. What was to take a few months took two years to raze. At one point the demolition foreman committed suicide because of the stress the project entailed.
One by one, the great Palaces fell. For each of the big theaters that came down, new smaller theaters would be erected in the fast growing suburbs. By then, going to the movies had been reduced from something that was a big outing for the evening to something that would last for a few hours. Gone were the shorts, the live acts, the newsreels, and the cartoons. All that was left was the trailers for coming attractions and the main feature. Part of this was simple economics. The shorter the program, you could have more showings in one evening. The exhibitor was only paying for one item to show, yet his patrons were paying the same admission fee. This meant that with the old system, you could only have one performance a night, But with the new system of just the feature film, you could get in 2 or 3 shows in the same auditorium that evening.
The photo displayed at left is the great silent film actress Gloria Swanson in a staged photo for LIFE magazine decrying the destruction of the great movie palaces. While the exact spot she is standing in is not documented, she is standing in the ruins of the New York Roxy Theatre as it was being demolished in 1961. All of the ornate plaster and ornamentation is pretty much gone from the heavily damaged wall, but you can still make out a magnificent column just to the right of Ms. Swanson, which indicates to me she is probably standing where the auditorium used to be. The Roxy was one of the largest palaces to be built with an extraordinary seating capacity of over 6,000 as shown on the photo to the right.
Several of the Palaces had extra stories above or around the theater for retail and office space. This was a godsend to those theaters because the revenue created by leases helped offset the loss of revenue of the theater itself. But that did not save them all. While the buildings were saved, the theaters were not and the space they occupied was "re-purposed". Some became department stores, some became churches, and others were gutted and made into more retail or office space. The worst bastardization of a Palace occurred with the Michigan Theatre in Detroit. The theater was only partially gutted and made into a parking lot. The stage, the movie screen, and even its stage curtain were left intact and were standing in the shell of the theater for years. The ornate lobby became the location for up and down ramps to the various levels of the parking lot. Read and see more about this theater on my Michigan Theatre Requiem tribute page.
The theaters in the smaller towns were a lot luckier than their big cousins. Most were able to stay afloat because they did not have the direct competition of other theaters in the same town. They were also much smaller buildings and usual less orante, which meant it was much less expensive to maintain compared to the true Palaces. Another major factor was that in the smaller towns, real estate was a lot more plentiful and it was much easier to buy a parcel of undeveloped land to build on rather than having to demolish or renovate an existing structure. When a small town theater closed, most of them were simply boarded up for years or even decades waiting to be rediscovered and used once more by the community.
The late fifties, the sixties, and the early seventies were the darkest time for the Palaces. After we lost the greatest as well as the majority of the Palaces, people began to take notice of what was lost and what we were on the verge of losing forever. Most metropolitan areas had several big theaters and by the 1970s all but one or two of them had been demolished, people began to stand up and fight to preserve what remained.
At the same time, the smaller, less-ornate movie theaters were undergoing a transformation. Because of the dwindling attendance figures, most of the theaters built in the suburbs were not being fully utilised. On average, most of the houses could seat around 1,000 patrons. More than half the seats were being left empty, especially after the premiere weekend of a film that by contract, the exhibitor had to show for a number of weeks. Some enterprising film exhibitioner came up with a novel idea that allowed him to double his profits with a minimal amount of investment. The theater would temporarily close while the auditorium was divided into two or more viewing halls. Since less than half of the seats were being filled, this would give the theater owner two 400 or more seat auditoriums that could show 2 different movies at the same time. This in theory would double their profits. The concept was very sound and it became all the rage. The next step in this evolution was to go for even more screens. Doubling led to Triples and Quads that lead to the modern concept of Multi-plexing.
Multi-Plexing is now the defacto standard in the movie exhibition business and its concept goes far to further refine and get the most profit out of film exhibition. Most plexes have at least one ot two huge auditoriums that hold several hundred people with smaller and smaller auditoriums that reduce in size to a where the smallest could accomodate fewer than 50 patrons. The big halls are used to show the latest blockbuster from Hollywood that's all the rage. In getting those blockbusters, the exhibitors still have to sign agreements that force them to show that particular film for a certain amount of weeks, long before it's known if the film is going to be hit or a flop. The one thing that is not usually dictated is in how large an auditorium the film is shown. This allows the exhibitor to place the film in the right-sized auditorium. So when he demand for tickets goes down, the film moves to a smaller auditorium until the contract to show it is expired. Most contracts also do not require the film be shown all day, so things like children's matinees can be shown in the same auditorium with a different film. With today's technology, they can easily move the film, at almost a moment's notice to any auditorium in the multi-plex. That way, when Rocky 25 comes out, it can get the big hall, while Star Trek 46: The Search for a Good Script fulfills its contractual agreement in the smallest auditorium available while that one die-hard Trekkie looks on by his or her self.Here in Atlanta Georgia there is no longer a single screen full-time motion picture theater in operation. Almost every theatre that is more that 25 years old is no longer in operation. When this article was written in 1996, there were only three houses older than thirty years of age. When this was revised in November of 2010, there are only five motion picture houses still in existance that date back to prior to 1990 in the Atlanta area: The Fox Theatre, a true 1929 movie palace is now an omnibus venue that only shows movies in the summer; the Garden Hills Cinema was shuttered in 2008 but still is intact; the Plaza Theater in the Midtown district is now operating as a non-profit independent "art" film house that was twinned in the late 1980s; The former AMC Northlake 8 multiplex was recently renovated and made into the "Movie Tavern" a cinema & drafthouse style theater showing first-run movies;and the "Earl Smith" Strand Theater on the Square in Marietta. The Strand completed an intensive multi-million dollar restoration in 2009 and like the Fox, is now an omnibus theater but unlike the Fox, it regularly screens films. Of the 20-30 movie theaters that once were located in metropolitan Atlanta, only 5 remain!
While the smaller single-screen theaters and now even the Multiplexes are shutting their doors, we are at least blessed that we still have a handful of the grand movie palaces in existance. After people realized their historical and architectural importance, great strives have been made to save these true treasures.A lot of creative thought went into how to revitalize the palaces and make them viable in today's world. Most are becoming omnibus venues presenting a wide range of different performances. Some have become places of worship, while others became dinner theaters or homes for local performing art groups. Regardless of what the Palaces have become, they all have a common theme of preserving one of the most unique pieces of Americana alive for year to come.