Each week from the 1910s through the 1940s, Americans "went to the show" in record numbers. "The show" drew peak crowds three to four times daily with an extra screening on weekends and it began, as architect S. Charles Lee noted, "on the sidewalk" with the extravagant architecture of America's motion picture palaces. (1) Palaces seated between 2500 and 6000 patrons at a time; "de luxe" palaces boasted stage shows, permanent orchestras, organs, first run films, and an array of customer services unknown to today's cinemagoers. Studio head Marcus Loew recognized, "We sell tickets to theaters, not movies." (2) Movie historian Ben Hall described the movie palace as "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams."(3)

Most studies of America's movie palaces have been nostalgic, preservation-oriented efforts which have tended to isolate movie palaces in time and space from other public architecture and from the larger current of consumerism in the U.S. In his study of San Francisco's Fox Theater, Preston Kaufmann asserts that "the world portrayed by the motion picture theater was in truth a carbon copy of the era which gave it birth. This could only be achieved in such an unforgettable decade as the Twenties."(4) Although the Twenties spawned some of the most fanciful and elaborate theater architecture, the movie palaces are understood more fully when they are read as part of a larger story--the rise of a pervasive culture of consumerism which dramatically altered the way Americans worked, played, and thought about their relationships to other citizens. When theater architect John Eberson called movie palaces "the most palatial homes of princes and crowned kings for and on behalf of His Excellency--the American Citizen," Eberson was speaking a language perfected by advertisers, retailers, religious leaders, government officials, and heads of industry during the fifty years prior.(5) Movie palaces perfectly demonstrate the anxieties, exhilirations, and pitfalls of the culture of consumerism which has become synonymous with the 'American Way.'

The Rise of Consumer Culture

From Nickelodeon to Palace

Palace Tour: Exteriors and Lobbies

Palace Tour: The Royal Treatment

Palace Tour: Auditoriums and Atmospherics

Palace Tour: Stage Shows and the Mighty Wurlitzer

The Thirties: Depression and Art Deco

The Forties: Boom and Bust

Further Reading



1 Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater Starring S. Charles Lee, 9.

2 John Margolies and Emily Gwathmey, Ticket to Paradise: American Movie Theaters and How We Had Fun, 14.

3 qtd. in Margolies and Gwathmey, 10.

4 Preston Kaufmann, Fox: Story of the World's Finest Theater, 2.

5 Valentine, 34.

American Studies at the University of Virginia