Movies: Today the 3-D Experience is a Draw; Yesterday's Audiences Also Came for an "Experience"

06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Kate Kelly Author, 'Election Day: An American Holiday, an American History'

Hollywood is enjoying a resurgence in movie audiences. Box offices receipts for 2009, partly led by the allure of the 3-D experience, hit an all-time high.

This is not the first time movies were "hot," so I took a look back to one of the grand eras of film-going, the years from 1915-30. Crowds came then for a different type of experience.

Starting in 1914, developers began building the first theaters created specifically for showing films, and by 1922, 4,000 new theaters were built in the United States. These ranged from small theaters in working class neighborhoods to much grander buildings, reminiscent of the large vaudeville theaters. These early movie theaters held audiences ranging from 4500-6000 people, and they came to be referred to as "palaces." The description was fitting.

Customers were treated like royalty. The lobbies were luxurious and featured crystal chandeliers, marble mirrors, and plush seating. The men's and ladies' lounges were beautifully appointed; some of the women's lounges had screens so the ladies could keep up with the film's plot while fixing their hair or make-up. Some theaters had children's playrooms with attendants so parents could enjoy the show.

While waiting for the movie to start, patrons could listen to music played on a Wurlitzer organ, watch a ballet or listen to a performance of a live orchestra. Some theaters had art galleries for people to stroll through until it was time for the show.

Though the general architecture of these showplaces ranged from resembling a European cathedral to a Mayan temple, the interiors generally celebrated America. One theater in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan built by Sid Grauman, featured a sphinx in the lobby. The sphinx had the head of George Washington, and the inscription near the statue read: "You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask Him to make us good American citizens.."

One of the design features conceived for these palaces is still part of our theaters today. The box office was intentionally set out by the street, often existing as a separate structure. The intent was to welcome patrons into a plush lobby where there were no signs of commercialism. (At that time there were no concession stands in palace lobbies.)

Because of the size of the audiences and the fact that there were several shows each day, ushers were vital to the process. The Roxy, built in 1927 under the supervision of Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel (1882-1936), in New York City, hired a retired military officer to oversee the tuxedo-clad ushers. Their impeccable appearance was immortalized by Cole Porter's 1932 song, "You're the Top." ("...You're the pants on a Roxy usher....") And yes, Roxy moved on to run Radio City Music Hall where the Roxyettes eventually became the Rockettes.

These theaters were also major employers for the day. It was not unusual for a single theater to employ more than a hundred people. Many had 30-40 orchestral musicians providing live music, several dozen ushers, and many people working backstage; some had a nurse and firemen as well. Animal handlers were necessary at theaters where the shows before the film featured acts with live animals.

At grand theaters like the Roxy, there were amenities specifically for the employees. For the performers, there were dressing and rehearsal rooms as well as services such as dry cleaning and laundry. The staff could also take advantage of a cafeteria, gym, billiard room, nap room, library, infirmary, showers, and a barbershop and hairdresser.

A Showman Whose Theaters Live On
Showman Sid Grauman (1879-1950) built several of the most famous movie palaces of the 1920s. His first was the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway in Los Angeles, followed by the Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard. The Egyptian was intended to be Spanish in look, but English archaeologist Howard Carter's search for the tomb of King Tut was making news in the early 1920s, so Grauman decided to capitalize on it. He had the builder switch to Egyptian styling. To both men's great good luck, Carter found Tut's tomb two weeks after the Egyptian opened.

Grauman built other theaters in the area that still stand, including El Capitan and the Chinese Theatre. Grauman's Chinese Theatre quickly became famous for a gimmick that started in the late 1920s. Film stars signed their names and left their footprints (or whatever they wanted; Groucho Marx left his cigar print; Jimmy Durante, his nose, skater Sonja Henie, her skate blades) in the squares of cement in the courtyard. (Film buffs: Please refer to the end of this post to help solve a Chinese Theatre mystery.)

The End of an Era

The Depression brought an end to these grand movie palaces, and Radio City Music Hall, completed in 1932, was the last to be constructed. Audiences declined precipitously, dropping by one-third in just a couple of years (from 90 million per week in 1930 to 60 million).

Many theaters closed, and those managers who kept their theaters open developed "value-added" sales methods that would be familiar to marketers today: discounted prices, raffles, and product give-aways.

Ladies' nights and children's matinees were used to maintain audiences. Some theater owners raffled off prizes regularly; and to build regular attendance, many began the practice of product give-aways. One of the more popular items was what we know as Depression-era glassware. Audience members who attended regularly could pay just a nickel for the "dish of the night," and eventually they could amass a complete set of dishes.

For more on the movie-going experiences of the past (music for films, the beginning of popcorn sales, and a traveling film experience that can only be described as a forerunner of a Disney-type creation), send me an e-mail with "movies" in the subject line. I'll send you my free, short e-letter.

Film buff mystery: Grauman's partners in building the Chinese Theatre are identified as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and "Howard Schenck." I was unable to find any information about Schenck. A Google search revealed nothing, and he is not mentioned in the film dictionaries or film history books I have consulted.

I found that there were two Schenck brothers who came to this country and went into show business: Joseph Michael Schenck and his brother Nicholas. Joseph moved to Los Angeles, married silent film start Norma Talmadge, and eventually ran United Artists, which of course, connected him to Fairbanks and Pickford. While Talmadge was a huge star in the 1920s, the fact that she was the third cement "signature," after Pickford and Fairbanks, leads me to wonder if Grauman's other investor was actually Joseph Schenck.

However, Joseph and Nicholas may have had another brother who came to this country. Does anyone know the answer?

It would be good to straighten this out as cyberspace is going to continue to list "Howard Schenck" with no identifying information. This is unjust anonymity considering the fame of those who were his partners. Post below, or write me at the e-mail address above.