The auditorium's most noteworthy aspect, however, was its fusion of religious and commercial purpose in forming a new American identity based on consumerism. At no place was this more blatant than at the Roxy, billed as America's "Cathedral of the Motion Picture." Workers used plaster and gold leaf to create embellishments on the pulpits which flanked the stage. Moviegoers attending opening night ceremonies also marvelled at the frankincense issuing from air ducts throughout the nearly 6,000-seat auditorium. On opening night, ushers directed patrons to their seats in near-darkness; the opening ceremony began with the appearance of a spotlit, robed monk reading from a scroll, "Ye portals bright, high and majestic, open to our gaze the path to Wonderland, and show us the realm where fantasy reigns, where romance, where adventure flourish. Let ev'ry day's toil be forgotten under they sheltering roof--O Glorious, mighty hall--thy magic and thy charm unite us all to worship at beauty's throne." When the monk intoned "Let there be light," a switch was thrown to reveal the auditorium decoration and the orchestra rising out of the pit.(1) The monk's prayer--addressed to the buiding and its custodians, not to God--became a standard feature at every theater Roxy opened.
Theater designers and decorators borrowed freely from non-Christian religions as well: the chandelier in San Antonio's Aztec, built in 1926, was a replica of an Aztec sacrificial calendar stone, complete with painted blookstains. Replicas of Indian farewell canoes served as chandeliers in the KiMo Theater in Albequerque, New Mexico.
But the Gothic cathedral was by far the most popular religiously inspired theater design. Department store owners of the same generation secularized Gothic elements in Christmas displays. In the 1910s in Wanamaker's these displays featured replicas of medieval rose windows as well as entire facades of the cathedrals at Rheims and Chartres. In 1898 Wanamaker built a complete church--with its own organ and choir-- in the rotunda of his New York store.
Wanamaker's drew customers with other European replicas and museum displays outside the Christmas season as well. In 1906 the Philadelphia store exhibited artifacts from the French Revolution, including "exact" replicas of the guillotined heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette wearing their "genuine" coronation crowns.(2) Companies selling fake artifacts to urban retailers became profitable enterprises in the early 1900s.
Designers of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition shared this aesthetic of replication; as Miles Orvell noted, the Exposition included "not only the imitation palaces made out of ephemeral staff, but also replicas of home-grown structures: a replica of St. Augustine's Fort Marion offered by the state of Florida...meanwhile moored at the Lake Front were replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria...as for the Midway, it featured replicas of German and Turkish villages, a street in Cairo, a Moorish palace, a Viennese cafe, villages from Algeria, Tunisia, Austria, and Dahomey."(3) Disneyworld, Epcot, and Colonial Williamsburg, among others, are the modern-day heirs of turn-of-the-century Expositions and department store displays. William Leach asserted that by 1915, it was "de rigeur" for retailers to design "adult fantasy environments."(4)
Theater architects responded to this craze with the creation of atmospheric theaters. The Houston Majestic, constructed in 1923, was the first of these theaters and its designer, John Eberson, went on to design more than 100 atmospheric theaters across the U.S. Eberson called his theaters "a magnificent amphitheater under a glorious moonlit sky...an Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio, or a mystic Egyptian temple yard."(5) Besides satisfying a public craving for exotic escapism, atmospheric theaters cost about 1/4 the amount of standard picture palaces.
Atmospheric theaters usually attempted to create the feeling of watching a film in an open-air courtyard under a starry sky. Theater architects like Eberson achieved this effect by painting the ceiling midnight blue and using a Brenograph magic lantern machine to project clouds and constellations on this 'night sky.' Brenographs also created special effects like Aurora Borealis, Babbling Brooks, Blizzards, Descending Clouds, Flying Angels, Birds, Butterflies, Fire and Smoke, Lightning, Storm Clouds, Fleecy Clouds, Ocean Waves, Rain, Sand Storms, Snow, Falling Roses, Rainbows, and Volcanoes in Eruption. The walls of the atmospherics were decorated to look like courtyards, complete with indigenous flora and fauna, in various exotic locales. The firm of Rapp and Rapp was more famous for its conventional theater designs, but it produced a few atmospherics as well, declaring in a manner reminiscent of landscape architects like Frederic Law Olmstead, "Theatergoers in the big cities need foliage, water displays, etc. to counteract urban congestion."(6) Visitors to the Garden Theater in Greenfield, Massachusetts could pretend they were in the town square in a New England village, while customers of the Waikiki Theater in Honolulu found themselves in a simulated indoor tropical paradise.
The discovery of King Tut's tomb in the early 1920s inspired a taste for Egyptian Revival architecture in America. Grauman's Egyptian, built in 1922, included a forecourt lined with mock tombstones and a robed Bedouin carrying a spear who paced the building's parapet all day long. The Detroit and St. Louis Fox theaters were decorated in a Persian style and were guarded by Turkish warriors armed with scimitars, who stood by the throne chairs in the lobbies.
During a time when immigration from Asia was severely restricted, Americans' fascination with the Orient was growing. Theater designers felt the influence of Orientalism and responded with buildings like Grauman's Chinese Theater. Movie historian Ben Hall wrote about this theater, constructed in Los Angeles in 1927 and still a popular landmark, "If the Roxy in New York was the Cathedral of the Motion Picture, the Chinese was its High Pagoda."(7) Before its redecoration in the 1960s, Seattle's Fifth Avenue theater was a near-perfect duplicate of the throne room of the Imperial Palace in Peking's Forbidden City.
Literary critic Edward Said believed Americans' fascination with the the Orient was ultimately self-aggrandizing; he argued that the view of Asians as primitive, passionate beings inflated Westerners' sense of superiority. In a much later work, William Leach dismissed Said's theory and contended that Orientalism in the early decades of the century gave Westerners permission to indulge themselves and affirmed their consumer, material pursuits. Leach noted the popularity of L. Frank Baum's novels The Last Egyptian: A Romance of the Nile and Daughters of Destiny, both of which contrasted the "free and wild" Orientals to the "stiff Americans." Using language similar to that in mind-cure tracts and advertising campaigns, Baum rejoiced in his observation that Asians obeyed "only the dictates of their hearts spontaneously."(8) Theater design encouraged the development of a new American ethic based on material gratification where all that was demanded was spectatorship and consumption.
Palace Tour: Stage Shows and the Mighty Wurlitzer
2 William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, 101.
3 Miles Orvell, The Real Thing, 34-35.
4 Leach, 82.
5 qtd. in Hall, 96.
6 qtd. in David Naylor, American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy, 138.
7 Hall, 212.
8 qtd. in Leach, 106.