The picture palaces which survived the Great Depression and the new theaters constructed following studio reorganization enjoyed a renaissance in the 1940s. During World War II, movie theaters hosted newsreels and war bond drives, attracting patriotic and news-hungry Americans by the millions--85 million each week. (Theater attendance was half that figure a decade later and in 1991 it was only 18.9 million per week.)(1) Americans packed in existing movie palaces during the war, as a building ban stateside stopped construction of new theaters during the first years of WWII; the Armed Forces and the Medical Corps commandeered all new projection equipment to show training films.

In 1943, however, a study commissioned by the Navy concluded that a lack of movie theaters stateside contributed to delinquency and high labor turnover; the Navy urged construction of new theaters and the industry obliged. During the '40s theater builders relied heavily on concrete and glass, which were the most abundant nonrestricted materials available to them: other building supplies were used first for the war, and then for housing following the soldiers' return. Cinema attendance reached its all-time American high in the years following V-J Day.

The revival was short lived, however: the tide of American consumerism which had propelled the movie palaces to prestige and profitability contributed to their decline in the late '40s and '50s. By then, 'a chicken in every pot' metamorphosed into 'a car in every driveway' and 'a television in every living room.' Americans' pursuit of the material Good Life led them to a suburban exodus. Suburbanization, facilitated by the federal government and auto makers in Detroit, and the lifestyle it called for spelled doom for downtown movie palaces.

The government contributed to the growth of the suburbs through subsidies for interstate construction, the GI Bill, and the FHA mortgage program. It addressed itself more directly to the movie palaces when the Supreme Court declared the movie industry's vertical integration unlawful in 1948. Studios were forced to divest their theaters, many of which could not survive as independents without Hollywood subsidy.

Television played a role as well. Between 1947 and 1957, 90% of American households acquired a television.(2) Newsreels were a thing of the past by the early '50s; TV news broadcasts meant people could get the same information without leaving home. Theater owners tried various gimmicks to entice customers away from their sets, including wide screen, Cinerama, and 3-D motion pictures, all of which meant the renovation of existing theaters to accomodate a wider screen and thus the destruction of many elaborate movie palace prosceniums and organ grilles.

Theater owners altered their buildings in other ways as well during this period, primarily to accomodate the growing number of patrons arriving by automobile. The demand for free parking required the expansion of existing lots and, for the convenience of drivers dropping off passengers for the show, a whole new 'drive through marquee' came into being. At theaters like the Arden in Lynnwood, California, drivers could drop off passengers at the lobby door and purchase tickets without leaving the car.

It was a short step from the drive-through marquee to the drive-in theater, although there were a number of drive-ins operating before the end of World War II. The first drive-in opened in June 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. By 1947 there were 548 in operation, a figure which mushroomed to over 4,000 by the mid-'50s.(3) Drive-ins continued many of the amenities offered by movie palaces and supplemented them with new ones geared to an automobile- and family-oriented society: playgrounds, miniature golf, swimming pools, pony rides, miniature trains, bottle warming, and automobile service stations were among the choices.

For those still wishing to sit down inside a theater, but reluctant to travel all the way to downtown movie palaces, architects and builders created the neighborhood movie house. The neighborhood theaters were scaled-down versions of the palaces. Although they featured many of the same architectural elements as the palaces, including the stand-alone box office and the highly visible marquee, neighborhood houses were typically limited to one story containing several hundred seats. They dramatically reduced the services and 'extras' palace patrons had been accustomed to, like stage shows, organ-accompanied sing-alongs, nursery service and restroom attendants, and expanded profit-producing operations like concessions stands.

In the wake of these developments, downtown movie palaces, like other downtown establishments including many department stores and luxury hotels, became a thing of the past. Countless theaters were razed. A few still stand, in partially denuded form, to serve as parking garages. Others were converted into performing arts centers or shopping centers. Ironically, some of these 'cathedrals of the motion picture' now house real congregations.

Few public spaces in America have been able able to rival the grandeur of the picture palaces in the decades following their demise. These palaces are, no doubt, in some way symbolic of an industry dedicated to spinning fantasies, but they are also symbols of a transformational age in American life, the creation of a culture of consumption.

Further Reading



1 Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater, Starring S. Charles Lee, 130

2 Valentine, 163.

3 Valentine, 159.