Each week from the 1910s through the 1950s, Americans "went to the show" in record numbers. "The show" drew peak crowds three to four times daily with an extra screening on weekends, and it began, as architect S. Charles Lee noted, "on the sidewalk" with the extravagant architecture of America's motion picture palaces.(1) Palaces seated between 2500 and 6000 patrons at a time; "de luxe" palaces boasted stage shows, permanent orchestras, organs, first run films, and an array of customer services unknown to today's cinemagoers. Studio head Marcus Loew recognized, "We sell tickets to theaters, not movies."(2) Movie historian Ben Hall described the movie palace as "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams."(3)
Most studies of America's movie palaces have been nostalgic, preservation-oriented efforts which have tended to isolate movie palaces in time and space from other public architecture and from the larger current of consumerism in the U.S. In his study of San Francisco's Fox Theater, Preston Kaufmann asserts that "the world portrayed by the motion picture theater was in truth a carbon copy of the era which gave it birth.
This could only be achieved in such an unforgettable decade as the Twenties."(4) Although the Twenties spawned some of the most fanciful and elaborate theater architecture, the movie palaces are understood more fully when they are read as part of a larger story - the rise of a pervasive culture of consumerism which dramatically altered the way Americans worked, played, and thought about their relationships to other citizens. When theater architect John Eberson called movie palaces "the most palatial homes of princes and crowned kings for and on behalf of His Excellency - the American Citizen," Eberson was speaking a language perfected by advertisers, retailers, religious leaders, government officials, and heads of industry during the fifty years prior.(5) Movie palaces perfectly demonstrate the anxieties, exhilarations, and pitfalls of the culture of consumerism which has become synonymous with the 'American Way.'
The Thirties: Depression and Art Deco
Despite the generally accepted beliefs about Hollywood's solvency and continued formidable presence in American life during the 1930s, movie palaces were not immune from the troubles faced by other American businesses during the Depression. Theater attendance dropped from 90 million per week in 1930 to 60 million per week two years later. During the same period, the number of operating theaters fell from 22,000 to 14,000. (6)
Theaters wishing to stay afloat had to find ways to attract customers whose leisure dollars had dried up. At the Roxy Theater, Samuel Rothapfel's successor (Roxy had left to manage Radio City Music Hall) built a miniature golf course at the back of the theater lot and included golf in the price of admission. Other theaters promoted themselves through dish nights or bank nights and gave away housewares and money as door prizes.
Despite these measures, many theaters and studios declared bankruptcy. San Francisco's Fox Theater went dark in 1932, just three years after its opening, when William Fox defaulted on the rent. The theater went into receivership and Fox declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter. His studio was reorganized as Twentieth Century-Fox in 1935 and resumed film production. Paramount suffered a similar fate: receivership in 1933, bankruptcy, and reorganization in 1936. Loew's was part of Fox when it went into receivership, but it emerged separately as MGM a few years later. RKO declared bankruptcy in 1934 and reorganized in 1939. Universal sold its theaters as a stopgap measure but went into receivership anyway in 1933, to be reorganized in 1936. Only Warner Brothers, Columbia, and United Artists survived the Depression with their theater empires intact.
Architects and builders continued to construct some movie palaces during the Depression, despite a somewhat bleak financial picture. Radio City Music Hall, opened in 1932, was the most noteworthy of these structures as it was the largest theater in the U.S. at the time it opened, housing 5,960 moviegoers at a time. Its backers saw Radio City as a symbol of the motion picture industry's resiliency and of the ultimate invincibility of American consumer culture. At its dedication ceremony, film industry leader Will Hays remarked, "This is not a dedication of a theater - it is a reaffirmation of faith in America's indomitableness and fearlessness. [It] rises like a Pharos out of the blinding fogs of irresolution and bewilderment to proclaim that leadership has not failed us...[This is] the bravest declaration of faith in their country's stability that the Rockefellers, father and son, America's most useful citizens - have yet offered."(7)
Sixty million people still visited the movie palaces each week in 1932, but if they attended one of the newer theaters they were likely to encounter a different sort of architecture. During the 1930s, Art Deco replaced other styles of theater architecture to become the standard in palace design. The first Art Deco palace, designed in 1930 by Marcus Priteca, was the Hollywood Pantages at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles.
Movie historians have offered differing and sometimes conflicting explanations for the switch to Art Deco during the '30s. Maggie Valentine wrote that Art Deco theaters "reflected the hard times in which they were built" and displayed "an optimistic rejection of the pre-Depression boom that had culminated in a bust."(8) David Naylor echoed this when he wrote, "Clearly tastes had changed. No longer did moviegoers expect a royal welcome from doormen, ushers, and lounge attendants. The architectural treatments of movie palaces were now considered exuberant, if not downright wasteful."(9) However, Radio City Music Hall, one of the most impressive displays of Art Deco architecture, was christened with the belief that it would resurrect American consumerism: in its grand scale and at its core, it was an affirmation, not a rejection, of the culture of the 1920s.
Valentine offered another explanation for Art Deco theaters, one which tied theater architecture to film content. She argued that the exotic decor of the early palaces reflected the silent, exotic nature of film during that period. Film in the 1930s, however, turned to romance and domesticity; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire demanded an Art Deco showcase. She also wrote that by the 1930s, moviegoing was a "socially acceptable form of behavior and no longer needed an architectural defense," hence the ability of theater architects to dispense with classical, Old World references.(10) The wide use of the Art Deco style in other buildings of the period, however, weakens Valentine's argument that it somehow arose organically from the film industry or from film content.
Although movie palace historians like David Naylor would have readers believe that Art Deco symbolized boredom with Old World styles and was somehow especially American, in fact it is equally European; it takes its name, in shortened form, from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs and Industriels held in Paris in 1925. The Expo traveled through the U.S. in 1926 and proved, along with the 1931 "Industrial Style" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Bauhaus movement of the 1930s, to exert considerable influence on American architects and designers. What was American about it, if anything, was what American architect Russel Wright called its "grand scale, bold, vital form, distinctive colors, no matter how vulgar," seen almost everywhere: factories, skyscrapers, kitchens and bathrooms, gas stations, movie theaters, and cafeterias. Wright argued that in America this architecture was "not a means of elevating popular American taste, particularly, but a way of confirming it; designed goods become part of a larger set of things...eliding the differences between engineering and architecture, between vernacular and high culture."(11) Since its earliest days as a commercial entertainment, film (and its near relative, vaudeville) struggled to elide the gap between upper-class and working-class notions about cultured entertainment, so perhaps Art Deco was somehow symbolically appropriate as an architectural style, but this should not be confused with the idea that Art Deco somehow emanated from film.
Art Deco (also sometimes called Moderne, or Streamline Moderne) counted among its earliest fans celebrated American architect Louis Mumford. Mumford eschewed the various Old World revival styles and the elaborate ornamentation of early movie houses and looked forward instead to "the promise of a stripped, athletic, classical style" characterized by "precision, cleanliness, hard illumination" and free from "all barnacles of association," a promise which was to be fulfilled in Art Deco and later in the International style through the influence of industrial design.(12)
In the late 1920s, according to Miles Orvell, design achieved a "fetishism of the machine that transformed the look of everything from skyscrapers to toasters, evident in a vocabulary of electric angularities and zigzag designs." By the 1930s, this gave way to "smooth curves and the aura of precision and exactitudes of the streamlined style with its signification of the power of the machinery." Orvell argued that 1930s architecture and design can be seen "as a celebration of technological force and a representation of the fiction of man's mastery over technology and over nature."(13)
Speakers like Miles Orvell and Russel Wright mention the influence of machinery and technology repeatedly in their comments on the new architectural styles of this period. Architects employing earlier styles, including the architects of early movie palaces, worked hard to keep machinery and mechanics 'behind the scenes.' Allen Trachtenberg wrote that while "engineers designed inner space in response to the new functional needs, architects took as their problem the design of appropriate 'fronts' out of the standard vocabulary of styles and motifs...as buildings stretched upward...their inner work...receded from view, from intelligibility, and from criticism...mystified the larger organization of life."(14) Although some critics saw the early movie palaces as "gaudy horrors" that "stink with class," the majority sided with the journalist reporting on the opening of the San Francisco Fox when we wrote, "it was a spectacle of such beauty and magnitude that it seemed a fancy of one's mind rather than the inaugural night of another commercial enterprise."(15) Movie palace architecture of the '10s and '20s obscured anything commercial or technological and, like the advertising of the period, assured moviegoers that they could achieve equality through consumption. Their vision of what was eminently consumable encompassed Old World, aristocratic forms, originally dependent on handcraftsmanship and feudalism but now made available through mass production and corporate forms of ownership.
By the heyday of Art Deco in the 1930s, to paraphrase Leo Marx, 'the machine in the garden' could no longer be the elephant in the living room everyone pretended not to see. Through Art Deco, people on both sides of the Atlantic - but perhaps especially Americans, in light of the Great Depression - acknowledged the presence of and their growing dependence on 'machines' in the widest sense of the word. In the U.S., this included machines that were political and bureaucratic as well as technological: witness the phenomenal growth of the Federal Government, even before World War II. Despite the Great Depression and what it implied about American corporate and financial practices, or perhaps because of the widespread devastation the stock market crash created, Americans had to own that consumer culture was firmly engrained in Americans' work, play, ethics, and relationships with one another.
The Forties and Fifties: Boom and Bust
The picture palaces which survived the Great Depression and the new theaters constructed following studio reorganization enjoyed a renaissance in the 1940s. During World War II, movie theaters hosted newsreels and war bond drives, attracting patriotic and news-hungry Americans by the millions - 85 million each week. (Theater attendance was half that figure a decade later, and in 1991 it was only 18.9 million per week.)(16) Americans packed in existing movie palaces during the war, as a building ban stateside stopped construction of new theaters during the first years of WWII; the Armed Forces and the Medical Corps commandeered all new projection equipment to show training films.
In 1943, however, a study commissioned by the Navy concluded that a lack of movie theaters stateside contributed to delinquency and high labor turnover; the Navy urged construction of new theaters and the industry obliged. During the '40s theater builders relied heavily on concrete and glass, which were the most abundant non-restricted materials available to them: other building supplies were used first for the war, and then for housing following the soldiers' return. Cinema attendance reached its all-time American high in the years following V-J Day.
The revival was short lived, however: the tide of American consumerism which had propelled the movie palaces to prestige and profitability contributed to their decline in the late '40s and '50s. By then, 'a chicken in every pot' metamorphosed into 'a car in every driveway' and 'a television in every living room.' Americans' pursuit of the material Good Life led them to a suburban exodus. Suburbanization, facilitated by the federal government and auto makers in Detroit, and the lifestyle it called for spelled doom for downtown movie palaces.
The government contributed to the growth of the suburbs through subsidies for interstate construction, the GI Bill, and the FHA mortgage program. It addressed itself more directly to the movie palaces when the Supreme Court declared the movie industry's vertical integration unlawful in 1948. Studios were forced to divest their theaters, many of which could not survive as independents without Hollywood subsidy.
Television played a role as well. Between 1947 and 1957, 90% of American households acquired a television.(17) Newsreels were a thing of the past by the early '50s; TV news broadcasts meant people could get the same information without leaving home. Theater owners tried various gimmicks to entice customers away from their sets, including wide screen, Cinerama, and 3-D motion pictures, 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.
Theater owners altered their buildings in other ways as well during this period, primarily to accommodate the growing number of patrons arriving by automobile. The demand for free parking required the expansion of existing lots and, for the convenience of drivers dropping off passengers for the show, a whole new 'drive through marquee' came into being. At theaters like the Arden in Lynnwood, California, drivers could drop off passengers at the lobby door and purchase tickets without leaving the car.
It was a short step from the drive-through marquee to the drive-in theater, although there were a number of drive-ins operating before the end of World War II. The first drive-in opened in June 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. By 1947 there were 548 in operation, a figure which mushroomed to over 4,000 by the mid-'50s.(18) Drive-ins continued many of the amenities offered by movie palaces and supplemented them with new ones geared to an automobile- and family-oriented society: playgrounds, miniature golf, swimming pools, pony rides, miniature trains, bottle warming, and automobile service stations were among the choices.
For those still wishing to sit down inside a theater, but reluctant to travel all the way to downtown movie palaces, architects and builders created the neighborhood movie house. The neighborhood theaters were scaled-down versions of the palaces. Although they featured many of the same architectural elements as the palaces, including the stand-alone box office and the highly visible marquee, neighborhood houses were typically limited to one story containing several hundred seats. They dramatically reduced the services and 'extras' palace patrons had been accustomed to, like stage shows, organ-accompanied sing-alongs, nursery service and restroom attendants, and expanded profit-producing operations like concessions stands.
Few public spaces in America have been able to rival the grandeur of the picture palaces in the decades following their demise. These palaces are, no doubt, in some way symbolic of an industry dedicated to spinning fantasies, but they are also symbols of a transformational age in American life, the creation of a culture of consumption.
The entirety of this article, as well as many other fascinating references to the films, print, and radio of the early twentieth century, is available at America in the 1930s. This site is a collaborative effort of graduate and undergraduate students and professors working over a 12-year period in the American Studies program at the University of Virginia.
1 Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater Starring S. Charles Lee, 9.
2 John Margolies and Emily Gwathmey, Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun, 14.
3 qtd. in Margolies and Gwathmey, 10.
4 Preston Kaufmann, Fox: Story of the World's Finest Theater, 2.
5 Valentine, 34.
6 Valentine, 90.
7 qtd. in Valentine, 88.
8 Valentine, 78.
9 David Naylor, American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy, 174.
10 Valentine, 91.
11 qtd. in Miles Orvell, The Real Thing, 190.
12 qtd. in Orvell, 169-170.
13 qtd. in Orvell, 185.
14 Allen Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America, 117, 119.
15 qtd. in Valentine, 41, and qtd. in Kaufmann, 119.
16 Valentine, 130.
17 Valentine, 163.
18 Valentine, 159.
Maggie Valentine's book, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater, Starring S. Charles Lee explores the evolution of the American motion picture theater through the work of architect S. Charles Lee, who designed approximately 250 theaters between 1920 and 1950. It's a fun peek at the philosophy behind some of the most opulent architecture ever built in America.