Issue 4

The Rise of Movie Palaces During the Silent Era

Following the rise of the film industry in the early twentieth century, the Movie Palace became the primary manner in which motion pictures were showcased. Several factors, most notably America’s booming economy and heavy investments in the film industry, led to the rise of the Movie Palace. These were more than just buildings that presented films; they were designed in ways to attract large audiences who could enjoy a night of elegance away from their realities and could make going to the movies a remarkable event.

The Movie Palace era is thought to have started with the opening of the Regent in New York in 1913, and lasted until around 1930, with its peak being in 1920.[1] However, before the introduction of the Movie Palace, the very first type of film exhibition was the Nickelodeon, which was a small viewing house that showed short films for only a nickel per admission. Nickelodeons were an extremely popular form of entertainment from 1905 to around 1912,[2] and attracted nearly twenty percent of the nation’s population at its height. Nickelodeons were more popular with the working-class population in the beginning, until exhibiters wanted to boost profits by drawing in the middle-class as well.[3]

The American economy was also growing during and after World War I, especially within the film industry. Wall Street began taking interest in the expanding film business, with investments jumping from $78 million to $850 million between 1922 and 1930. These investments, along with the popular tactic of owning movie theaters, allowed for more expensive, and longer, movie productions; owning theaters also provided the guarantee that a producer’s film would be shown and therefore seen in their own theaters. Big studios became vertically integrated with the purchases of theater chains, combining production, distribution, and exhibition all within the same company. In 1917, local theater chains tried to form their own production company in the hopes of competing against the larger firms; they named their company First National Exhibitors’ Circuit. Ultimately the production company wasn’t successful, however, its formation grabbed the attention of some of the most powerful firms in Hollywood: Fox, Famous Players-Lasky, and Universal. Facing this new competition, they began to vertically integrate their companies by purchasing theaters and expanding into the exhibition business. Famous Players-Lasky merged with the successful theater chain Balaban & Katz in 1925. With Balaban & Katz managing the largest theaters in the Midwest, the merger created the very first firm encompassing all three wings of the industry (production, distribution, and exhibition) on a national level. The new firm was named Paramount-Publix, and the chain of theaters was named Publix Theaters. The other big players at the time were the newly vertically integrated Loew’s (MGM) and First National. Their theater chains were fairly small in number overall, however, they dominated the industry by being first-run theaters that held thousands of guests, who paid a higher admission rate than those at smaller and rural theaters.[4] All of these factors set the stage for the creation and rise of the Movie Palace as the go-to place for film entertainment at the time.

The Movie Palace “standard” encompassed period-revival architecture and design, and just going to one was meant to be its own unique experience, aside from viewing the film itself. Decor inspiration came from Vaudeville and the early Nickelodeons, taking the luxury feel from Vaudeville theaters and the signs and marquees from Nickelodeons.[5] The larger theaters controlled by the Big Three vertically integrated companies needed to create an aesthetic that would attract crowds. Their goal was to ensure that a night out to the movies was exciting and luxurious. These movie palaces hired ushers (in uniforms) to assist customers, built elegant lobbies, provided live orchestras to play along with the silent films, and showed comic shorts and newsreels along with the featured film. Balaban & Katz was the first company to attract patrons by incorporating air-conditioning into their theaters; air-conditioning was not used in homes yet and could draw in crowds during the summer when attendance was traditionally low for theaters. Features such as these gave audiences a night of luxury that they may not normally experience, especially for the working and middle-class customers.[6]

Many movie palaces were designed to emulate royalty, specifically European Palaces and French Opera Houses. Rococo, Renaissance, and Baroque themes were also used in their designs, combined with American influences, such as religion, government, and commerce.[7] Glass and an abundance of light and color were used to emulate the “commercial aesthetic…[using] the visual materials of desire.”[8] Overall, the most popular movie palaces encapsulated both a sense of nostalgia and newness, with each theater styling themselves in the newest and most stylish trend, which would often be period-revival.[9] Movie Palaces took their atmosphere so seriously that they became the very first theater type to professionally construct their interior decoration and architecture to be its own spectacle and not just a building to showcase films. This attention to detail and design not only helped bring in customers but also made going to a Movie Palace a special event for audience members.[10]

The Movie Palace was the main type of film theater for nearly two decades in the early twentieth century, when silent film was at its height.[11] Lavish decor and enticing amenities such as air-conditioning and live musical accompaniment created an atmosphere of elegance and excitement for audiences. Three companies, Paramount-Public, Loew’s (MGM), and First National, ruled the biggest theater chains in the country, and became officially vertically integrated with their move into the exhibition side of the business.[12] The success of the Movie Palace, however, eventually declined. The Great Depression, as well as the introduction of sound in motion pictures (both of which occurred within several years of each other), contributed to the end of the Movie Palace’s reign. Sound gave way to the removal of live music during film exhibition, and the Depression brought about budget cuts that targeted the elegant features of movie palaces. The characteristics that made movie palaces special, like ushers and live entertainment, were replaced with the addition of cheap B films attached to features and concessions to help offset costs. This more casual way of presenting films essentially marked the end of the Movie Palace era.[13]

[1]1. Maria A. Slowinska, “Consuming Illusion, Illusions of Consumability: American Movie Palaces of the 1920s,” Amerikastudien / American Studies 50, no. 4 (2005): 576. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41158182.

[2]2. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 26.

[3]3. Slowinska, “Consuming Illusion, Illusions of Consumability: American Movie Palaces of the 1920s,” 578.

[4]4. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 128-129.

[5]5. Slowinska, “Consuming Illusion, Illusions of Consumability: American Movie Palaces of the 1920s,” 577-8.

[6]6. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 130.

[7]7. Slowinska, “Consuming Illusion, Illusions of Consumability: American Movie Palaces of the 1920s,” 581-2.

[8]8. Ibid., 582.

[9]9. Ibid.

[10]10. Ibid., 585.

[11]11. Ibid., 576-7.

[12]12. Thompson and Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 130.

[13]13. Ibid., 200.

Filed under: Issue 4

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Kristina Cunningham recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Oakland University, with a Major in Cinemas Studies and a Minor in Communications. She currently works at Vera Bradley, and is planning to pursue a career in film and television production. Kristina enjoys traveling and hopes to explore Europe and Australia in the coming years. She also loves animals, and if she spots a dog she will drop everything to run and pet it.