A movie palace (or picture palace in the United Kingdom) is any of the large, elaborately decorated movie theaters built between the 1910s and the 1940s. The late 1920s saw the peak of the movie palace, with hundreds opened every year between 1925 and 1930. With the advent of television, movie attendance dropped and many movie palaces were razed or converted into multiple screen venues or performing arts centers.
There are three architectural design types of movie palaces. First, the classical style movie palace, with its opulent, luxurious architecture; second, the atmospheric theatre which has an auditorium ceiling that resembles an open sky as a defining feature; and finally, the Art Deco theaters that became popular in the 1930s.
Paid exhibition of motion pictures began on April 14, 1894, at Andrew M. Holland's phonograph store, located at 1155 Broadway in New York City, with the Kinetoscope. Dropping a nickel in a machine allowed a viewer to see a short motion picture, devoid of plot. The machines were installed in Kinetoscope parlors, hotels, department stores, bars and drugstores in large American cities. The machines were popular from 1894 to 1896, but by the turn of the century had almost disappeared as Americans rejected the solitary viewing experience and boring entertainment.
Around 1900, motion pictures became a small part of vaudeville theatres. The competitive vaudeville theatre market caused owners to constantly look for new entertainment, and the motion picture helped create demand, although the new form of entertainment was not the main draw for patrons. It was often used as a "chaser"—shown as the end of the performance to chase the audience from the theatre. These theatres were designed much like legitimate theatres. The Beaux-Arts architecture of these theatres was formal and ornate. They were not designed for motion pictures, but rather live stage performances.
In 1902, the storefront theatre was born at Thomas Lincoln Tally's Electric Theatre in Los Angeles. These soon spread throughout the country as empty storefronts were equipped with chairs, a Vitascope projector, a muslin sheet on which the motion picture was exhibited, darkened windows, and a box by the door to service as a ticket office (literally, the "box office".) Storefront theatres, supplied with motion pictures made in Chicago and New York, spread throughout America. These theatres exhibited a motion picture at a specific time during the day.
Air domes also became popular in warm climates and in the summertime in northern climates. With no roof and only side walls or fences, the air domes allowed patrons to view motion pictures in a venue that was cooler than the stifling atmosphere of the storefront theatre.
In 1905, the Nickelodeon was born. Rather than exhibiting one program a night, the Nickelodeon offered continuous motion picture entertainment for five cents. They were widely popular. By 1910, Nickelodeons grossed $91 million in the United States. The Nickelodeons were like simple storefront theatres, but differed in the continuous showings and the marketing to women and families.
The movie house, in a building designed specifically for motion picture exhibition, was the last step before the movie palace. Comfort was paramount, with upholstered seating and climate controls. One of the first movie houses was Tally's Broadway Theater in Los Angeles.
The movie palace was developed as the step beyond the small theaters of the 1900s and 1910s. As motion pictures developed as an art form, theatre infrastructure needed to change. Storefront theatres and Nickelodeons catered to the busy work lives and limited budgets of the lower and middle classes. Motion pictures were generally only thought to be for the lower classes at that time as they were simple, short, and cost only five cents to attend. While the middle class regularly began to attend the Nickelodeons by the early 1910s the upperclass continued to attend stage theater performances such as the opera and big-time vaudeville. However, as more sophisticated, complex, and longer films featuring prominent stage actors were developed, the upperclass desires to attend the movies began to increase and a demand for higher class theaters began to develop. Nickelodeons could not meet this demand as the upperclass feared the moral repercussions of intermingling between women and children with immigrants. There were also real concerns over the physical safety of the Nickelodeon theaters themselves as they were often cramped with little ventilation and the nitrate film stock used at the time was extremely flammable.
The demand for an upscale film theater, suitable to exhibit films to the upperclass, was first met when the Regent Theater, designed by Thomas Lamb, was opened in February 1913, becoming the first ever movie palace. However the theater's location in Harlem prompted many to suggest that the theater be moved to Broadway alongside the stage theaters. These desires were satisfied when Lamb built the Strand Theatre on Broadway, which was opened in 1914 by Mitchel H. Mark at the cost of one-million dollars. This opening was the first example of a success in drawing the upper middle class to the movies and it spurred others to follow suit. As their name implies movie palaces were advertised to, "make the average citizen feel like royalty." To accomplish this these theaters were outfitted with a plethora amenities such as larger sitting areas, air conditioning, and even childcare services.
Between 1914 and 1922 over 4,000 movie palaces were opened. Notable pioneers of movies palaces include the Chicago firm of Rapp and Rapp, which designed the Chicago, the Uptown, and the Oriental Theatres. S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel, originated the deluxe presentation of films with themed stage shows. Sid Grauman, built the first movie palace on the West Coast, Los Angeles' Million Dollar Theater, in 1918.
Following World War II movie ticket sales began to rapidly decline due to the widespread adoption of television and mass migration of the population from the cities, where all the movie palaces had been built, and into the suburbs. The closing of most movie palaces occurred after United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. in 1948, which ordered all of the major film studios to sell their theaters. Most of the newly independent theaters could not continue to operate on the low admissions sales of the time without the financial support of the major studios and were forced to close. Many were able to stay in business by converting to operate as race or pornography theaters.
Eberson specialized in the subgenre of "atmospheric" theatres. His first, of the five hundred in his career, was the 1923 Majestic in Houston, Texas. The atmospherics usually conveyed the impression of sitting in an outdoor courtyard, surrounded by highly ornamented asymmetrical facades and exotic flora and fauna, underneath a dark blue canopy; when the lights went out, a specially designed projector, the Brenograph, was used to project clouds, and special celestial effects on the ceiling.
Lamb's style was initially based on the more traditional, "hardtop" form patterned on opera houses, but was no less ornate. His theaters evolved from relatively restrained neo-classic designs in the 1910s to those with elaborate baroque and Asian motifs in the late 1920s.
The movie palace's signature look was one of extravagant ornamentation. The theaters were often designed with an eclectic exoticism where a variety of referenced visual styles collided wildly with one another. French Baroque, High Gothic, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Spanish Gothic, Hindu, Babylonian, Aztec, Mayan, Orientalist, Italian Renaissance, and (after the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922) Egyptian Revival, were all variously mixed and matched. This wealth of ornament was not merely for aesthetic effect. It was meant to create a fantasy environment to attract moviegoers and involved a type of social engineering, distraction, and traffic management, meant to work on human bodies and minds in a specific way. Today, most of the surviving movie palaces operate as regular theaters, showcasing concerts, plays and operas.
List of movie palaces
This is a list of selected movie palaces, with location and year of construction.