When technological advances permitted group screenings of motion pictures, the earliest audiences watched movies in small-time vaudeville houses, in town halls, churches, lodges, schools, playhouses, county fairs, amusement parks, circuses, and arcades. Traveling exhibitors like Hale's Tours circulated early films around the country. To the earliest audiences, films were technological curiosities or optical illusions; thus, the earliest films were billed by their projection machinery, not by title, stars, or subjects.
Tally's Electric Theater in Los Angeles was the first permanent structure devoted entirely to movies. Built in 1902, it preceded filmmakers' relocation to the West Coast from New York and New Jersey and the establishment of Hollywood. Still, the movies' popularity proved lucrative enough that soon storefront theaters and "nickelodeons"--named by a Pennsylvania theater operator for the admission price--sprang up across America. Furnishing these theaters was an easy matter; often a sheet for the screen, ten or twelve rows of benches, a box for collecting admission (hence the term "box office") and a curtain separating the "lobby" from the screening room sufficed. Entrepreneurs reasoned that if motion pictures turned out to be a passing fancy, these makeshift theaters could easily be converted back into retail space. Nickelodeons sometimes featured ornamentation fabricated from pressed tin or sheet metal. Advancements in the use of plaster and terra cotta around 1910 allowed more permanent decoration that more exactly copied the ornamentation of "legitimate" theaters.
The lower and middle classes bought the majority of tickets to nickelodeons, storefront theaters and traveling exhibitions. Upper class citizens lobbied for censorship and increased supervision of women and minors in movie houses. Respectable theater--opera and plays--had, by this time, expanded to include "big-time" vaudeville. These 'respectable' vaudeville houses catered to the upper middle class and, unlike their "small-time" counterparts, featured reserved seating and advance ticket sales. Architecturally, big-time vaudeville houses relied on classical facades to increase legitimacy and respectability, but their gaudy electrical displays on the sidewalk and the marquee often contradicted this image. These theaters attempted a fusion of high and popular cultures--the White City and the Midway of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition rolled into one structure. The vaudeville houses attracted customers not only through the program, but through the amenities offered to patrons. The Colonial Theater, built in Boston in 1894, impressed the public with marble, mirrored foyers, plush seats, oil paintings, and personal lounge attendants. New York's Proctor's Pleasure Palace followed suit in 1895 with a roof garden restaurant, library, barbershop, and turkish bath all housed in an imposing Romanesque facade. By 1900, 67 big-time vaudeville theaters were in operation across America.
Motion pictures made their mark on the upper classes when big-time vaudeville operators began including films as half the program in the theaters. Adolph Zukor exhibited Queen Elizabeth at the Lyceum Theater in New York in 1912; upper class audiences were impressed by the dramatic, stately subject matter and the appearance of Sarah Bernhardt, a respected stage actress, in the feature role. Filmmakers during this period produced a rash of movies which were little more than "staged theater" in an attempt to improve the industry's image with upper class audiences and government officials. During this time the first feature-length films were produced, which allowed film to become a narrative, instead of merely technological, device. Film historian Maggie Valentine contended that it was the development of feature film, like D.W. Griffith's twelve reel Birth of a Nation in 1915, which promoted the development of "feature" motion picture houses.
The Regent was America's first motion picture palace and it opened in New York City in 1913. The Regent was located in a working class neighborhood uptown from the 'legitimate' theater district; however, a reporter for the Motion Picture News declared that the opening night audience "was the kind to be found at the best playhouses. Judged by their decorum and sincere appreciation, they might have been at the opera."(2) The reporter recommended higher admission prices and a move to Broadway. Before long, his wish was granted: in rapid succession the Strand, Rialto, and Rivoli picture palaces opened, finally taking their place alongside 'legitimate' theater.
Samuel L. Rothapfel was the man responsible for the appeal of these movie houses. Rothapfel presided over all of them in succession and instituted the practices of low admission (lower than legitimate theaters and big-time vaudeville) and unreserved seating. Rothapfel, or "Roxy" as he became known to Americans in subsequent years, spoke thus on the secret of his success: "Giving the people what they want is fundamentally and disastrously wrong. The peole don't know what they want. They want to be entertained, that's all. Don't give the people what they want--give 'em something better."(3) Like advertisers of the age, Roxy excelled in creating demand for environments and amenities customers didn't know they wanted. Each theater he opened had to be more lavish than the last; advertisements lured patrons with promises of "the biggest," "the grandest," "most expensive."
Everything about the movie palace was designed, like other products and advertisements of the age, to make the average citizen feel like royalty. When the San Francisco Fox opened in 1920, newspaper and magazine advertisements lured the public with the promise,
"No palace of Prince or Princess, no mansion of millionaire could offer the same pleasure, delight, and relaxation to those who seek surcease from the work-a-day world, than this, the Arcady where delicate dreams of youth are spun...Here in this Fox dreamcastle, dedicated to the entertainment of all California, is the Utopian Symphony of the Beautiful, attuned to the Cultural and Practical...No King...No Queen...had ever such luxury, such varied array of singing, dancing, talking magic, such complete fulfillment of joy. The power of this Purple we give to you...for your entertainment. You are the monarch while the play is on!"(4)
The picture palaces were a commercial success. Between 1914 and 1922, 4,000 new theaters opened in the U.S. The first midwest palace was the Central Park theater in Chicago, a 2,400 seat house designed in 1917 by Rapp and Rapp for the Balaban & Katz film company. Sid Grauman's Million Dollar Theater opened the same year in Los Angeles as the first west coast picture palace. Older vaudeville circuits like the Keith-Albee became absorbed into motion picture corporations like RKO and Loew's. A handful of film companies rapidly achieved vertical integration of the industry, controlling movie production, distribution, and exhibition in the U.S. The "Big Five" were Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), Warner Brothers, Loew's, Fox, and RKO. By 1929 Paramount operated 1200 theaters with Fox close behind at 1100. In 1930, the Big Five took in 70% of national box office receipts.(5)
Many of the studio heads, architects, and picture palace managers were first generation Americans: among them William Fox, a Hungarian; Samual Rothapfel, son of German and Polish immigrants and resident of New York's Lower East Side; John Eberson, Austrian architect; and Thomas Lamb, Scottish architect responsible for over 300 picture palaces, primarily for Loew's. Their experiences as first generation Americans might have given them a different perspective on American consumer culture, but instead they became some of its most ardent champions, and their theaters became some of its most unforgettable monuments.
Palace Tour: Exteriors and Lobbies
2 qtd. in Ben Hall, The Best Remaining Seats, 35.
3 qtd. in Hall, 37.
4 qtd. in Preston Kaufmann, Fox...Story of the World's Finest Theater, 83-84.
5 Kaufmann, 6.