The architects and operators of America's picture palaces inscribed their buildings with democratic, national purpose in an attempt to bolster the industry's image and to attract customers. This display began with the buildings' exteriors and lobbies.

A statue of a sphinx bearing the head of George Washington sat in the lobby of Grauman's Metropolitan Theater, built in 1923 in Los Angeles. The inscription on the statue read: "You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask Him to make us good American citizens."(1) Cleveland's Loew's State lobby drew attention for a mural by James Daugherty titled "The Spirit of Cinema." A local paper described it as follows: "The spirit of cinema appears in the American tableau. Here the modern vamp supplants Helen of Troy; jazz drowns the pipes of Pan; an auto supercedes the chariot; a flying machine outruns Pegasus; towering skyscrapers overtop the temple-crowned Acropolis;...the Boy Scout takes the place of the shepherd boy...the composition is rush hour."(2) Daugherty and others were making claims about American motion pictures reminiscent of Emerson and Whitman nearly a century earlier: namely, that America required a truly indigenous art form and that in that art, she could surpass anything Europe had ever produced.

Daugherty's claims are odd, however, when one considers the architecture of the movie palaces. Most palaces, particularly in their exteriors and lobbies, made express reference to European architectural forms and European aristocracy. Although theater architect George Rapp called the movie palace a "shrine to democracy, where wealthy rub elbows with the poor," his was a vision of democracy which prized aristocracy.(3) Thus, 'homegrown' notions about native architectural and artistic forms did battle with claims to legitimacy and dazzling displays of wealth rooted in Old World conceptions of abundance and legitimacy. This confusion is perfectly embodied in Chicago's Southtown Theater. Rapp and Rapp designed the theater in 1931 as an enclosed Italian garden; the lobby, however, features murals and dioramas of significant moments in Chicago history, including the fire of 1871, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, and the stockyards.

San Francisco's Fox Theater, built in 1929, housed a lobby that was a temple to European high culture and aristocracy. In a practice reminiscent of America's robber barons furnishing their homes, William Fox's wife Eve Leo toured Europe and shipped home various objets d'art, furniture, and architectural embellishments to be displayed in the theater lobby. Built and decorated by European craftsmen, the lobby featured throne chairs, statuary, and a pair of vases once owned by the royal family of Russia. Thomas Lamb designed the lobby's picture gallery to be an exact duplicate of a chapel in Versailles.

Many theater exteriors and interiors were designed as replicas of Old World churches, monuments, and palaces. La Salle de Spectacle, the opera house at Versailles, served as the model for the Ringling Theater, constructed in Baraboo, Wisconsin in 1915. The frieze in the theater lobby is a copy, at 1/3 scale, of the frieze decorating the choir gallery in the cathedral in Florence.

Theater designers mixed European styles to create an overall lavish display of wealth. They were joined in this practice by the designers and decorators of department stores, hotels, and other 'people's palaces' of the period. The connection between these public spaces and the theaters was closer than most histories of the theaters suggest: sometimes, theater ornamentation came secondhand from the other 'people's palaces,' as when the decorators of the Capitol Theater bought three crystal chandeliers from Sherry's, a tony restaurant on 5th Avenue undergoing renovation. Miles Orvell described how private homes of that era employed the same blending of architectural styles in the service of conspicuous consumption: "Looking for status, middle class Americans tried to reproduce in their homes the trappings of a generic aristocracy, objects rich in narrative signs suggesting allegorical fantasy and far-off places."(4)

Theater lobbies promised admission not only to a motion picture, but also to the same 'generic aristocracy' Orvell described. At the Roxy Theater in New York, up to 4,000 patrons at a time could comfortably fill the lobby and foyers to marvel at the five story marble columns and the largest oval rug in the world. Samuel "Roxy" Rothapfel christened this room the "Grand Rotunda" and fired any usher who referred to it as a mere 'lobby.' Since the box office was a separate unit housed under the marquee on the street, customers could easily forget the commercial function of the theater upon entering the lobby and believe themselves members of a class comfortably at home in palatial surroundings. Commercialization of the lobby didn't occur until the Depression, when concessions stands, accounting for 45% of theater profits, became necessary fixtures in movie palaces.

Palace Tour: The Royal Treatment

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Notes

1 qtd. in David Naylor, American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy, 83.

2 qtd. in Naylor, 13.

3 qtd. in Naylor, 31.

4 Miles Orvell, The Real Thing, 48.