One of the first articles I wrote for context on this blog was a discussion of Nickelodeon audiences, and I followed that last year with a discussion of the transition to “movie palaces” that began in the mid-teens. This year, I’d like to explore a bit further what movie venues looked like a century ago. We can’t ever hope to re-create the conditions under which audiences saw these movies on our flat-screens or hand-held devices today, or even really at film festivals, but it helps to think about the surroundings people found themselves in when they went to the movies back then. It helps us to understand how different the experience was from going to a multiplex or just clicking on a link to see movie, and it also gives us a sense of how the movie industry was trying to convince itself and the world that it really was a legitimate art form, worthy of respect and high ticket prices.
For this year’s article, I’m going to look at an article from the January 1, 1916 issue of Moving Picture World, called “Among the Picture Theaters.” This was a regular feature in the weekly magazine, which displayed some of the newest and most fashionable movie theaters across America. It’s important to realize that not all theater owners could aspire to this level of elegance, nor did all audiences necessarily enjoy it. But Moving Picture World was an industry magazine for exhibitors, and the owners did read and drool over what they saw here, probably picking up a few hints for their next renovations as they went along. These were some of the best places to go to the movies in 1916, and also probably some of the most profitable.
First up, we pay a visit to my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and the Sunset Theater, which was situated at Washington and Broadway in the downtown area, apparently on the most heavily taxed lot in the city at that time. With a rent of $900 per month, they had to pull in a lot from each screening just to cover the overhead. The corner was and remains one of the busiest intersections in the city. With seating for 500 people and four loges or theater boxes that could accommodate 34 people each, they certainly had the capacity when filled to show a tidy income. There was an organ in addition to a small orchestra space in the front of the house. The two entrances were finished in onyx and the lobbies set in Grecian marble. The restrooms included tapestries and furniture “in the Marie Antoinette” style. Surely a regal setting to watch the latest antics of Charlie Chaplin or adventures of Douglas Fairbanks!
Moving East to Newark, New Jersey, we get a glimpse of one of the styled walls and several balconies of the Proctor’s Palace. This true movie palace was designed to seat 2800, and is called by the Moving Picture World writer “the latest word in theatrical construction.” Located at 118 Market Street, it would have been close to the center of this suburb’s downtown, a place frequented by wealthy New Yorkers on weekends as well. The building was ten stories high, with offices available for rent above the theater level, making it one of the tallest in the vicinity, and with a series of “brightly lit hanging lights from the third to the tenth stories” making it visible from a distance at night. The floors of the lobbies were done in mosaic tile and the walls in white marble, while the ceilings were forty feet high, and there were smoking and lounging rooms available on each floor of the theater. One almost imagines buying a ticket just to hang out in these lounges socializing, and forgetting to head back in time to see Mary Pickford or Pearl White on the screen.
We don’t get any attractive pictures of the interior of the Grand Theater in Wallace Idaho, but the imposing outside of the structure suggests that it was one of the major institutions of that small mountain community (current population estimate = 780). Built at the economy rate of only $30,000, it held 700 patrons, many of whom might be stopping over at the railroad station on a trip West. Following a somewhat older model of entertainment, its shows combined vaudeville and live music with movie screenings, giving two “shows” per day of mixed entertainment. This is a more rustic concept of a theater, sturdy and functional, but not gaudy or decorative. I bet more than one Broncho Billy Anderson fan discovered his hero right in this theater!
We return to a more exotic conception with the Strand Theater of Denver, Colorado, whose striking exterior is shown fully lit with “58,000 candlepower” electric lights. On Curtis Street, in the midst of other theaters, these lights made the theater “one of the most conspicuous” and the writer says that the entrance is “simply a blaze of white light.” The capacity was 1250, with wide, comfortable seats in rows spaced 30 inches apart. The price was only ten cents, and the house was restricted to screening features, apart from twice-weekly newsreels. A smoking room was also provided, although with those comfortable seats, I suppose more people stuck around to watch Theda Bara or Henry B Walthall purvey their art.
For Indianapolis’s Regent Theater, we get a very different impression from viewing the exterior. This 800-capacity house looks sort of like a giant Nickelodeon, with minimal decoration and simple posters advertising its wares, rather than fancy lights. We are told, however, that its opening day drew 8000 patrons to what we must assume were ten separate screenings, surely a profitable day for the owners! This theater included the “innovation” of aisle lights to help patrons find their seats in the dark. The “retiring rooms” were located in the basement, and the women’s room was attended by a maid and included free telephones and writing desks! Surely, that made it easy for female movie reviewers to phone in their thoughts on the latest Cecil B. DeMille drama.
The Ditmas Theater in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, looks more like a major train station than a movie theater from the outside to my eye. Situated on State Street, “the center of the city’s activity,” it catered to “the best and most exclusive playgoers” of the community. The “spacious and artistic” lobby was decorated with photos of “well-known” film stars – wouldn’t you love to know which ones made the cut? This was another 800-seat house with no balcony or boxes, but with “comfortable and roomy” chairs. The Ditmas showed Paramount and Universal pictures exclusively, with serials on Friday night and new features on every Saturday. Unlike the larger theaters with full orchestra pits, only a piano was provided for the music. Fans of Blanche Sweet and Owen Moore probably found it more than adequate.
Finally, we have an impressive interior view of the Lyric Theater in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a sizable metropolis near the border with New York and part of the Niagara Peninsula. The picture reminds me of the theater frequented by Charlie Chaplin in “A Night in the Show.” With a capacity of 2200, it was originally opened as a vaudeville house, which converted to movies when they proved more profitable. They screened 13 reels to a show, apparently avoiding features which “mean an interruption to the system of programs in vogue,” so mainly a series of shorts, perhaps with live performances interspersed. At a rate of 10 cents for adults and 5 for children, this must have been the place that many a Canadian discovered the joys of Keystone comedies!