From Kinetoscope to Nickelodeon to Motion Picture Palace
Thomas Edison’s laboratories demonstrated its Kinetoscope (a device that could play a short film inside a large viewing box) at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A decade later future Paramount mogul, Adolph Zukor,opened a penny-arcade in New York City that generated $100,000 in pennies in the first year of operation. Early films were short movies of actual events from around the world. In 1905, Lumiere brothers’ projection device, the cinematograph, made it possible to show longer films in a Nickelodeon, called that to reflect the increased price. The first movie palace, replacing the smaller Nickelodeons, was New York’s 1,845-seat Regent Theater built in1913, designed by Thomas Lamb and modeled after the Doge’s Palace inVenice. Simple storefront theaters gave way to works of fancy. Architects experimented with French Renaissance, Greek Revival, Spanish Baroque, Italian Rococo, Egyptian, Gothic, and Mayan styles. Beginning in 1918, film studios and private exhibitors commissioned hundreds of new palaces and by 1930, attendance rose to 90 million weekly. Cinema became the most successful form of mass-cultural entertainment America had ever seen.
1954 - A Final Curtain Call for Magnificent Movie Theaters
By 1954, the peak of the large city movie palace had passed. The magnificent theaters were a generation old and the audience declining. But movie-goers could still experience the magic of a major first-run film downtown on a huge cinemascope screen before it appeared in a neighborhood theater. The show started on the sidewalk, the ticket booth was a jewel, the marquee formed a canopy, the lobby was impressive, and the auditorium awesome. Since the 1920s, movie studios owned the theaters where their films played. In 1954, a 20th Century Fox film, Three Coins in a Fountain, could play at a Fox theater, Warner Brothers’ Dial ‘M’ for Murder at a Warner theater, MGM’s 7 Brides for 7 Brothers at a Loew’s, or Paramount’s White Christmas at a Paramount.
The Decline of the Movie Palaces after 1954
Movie studios and theater chains were overly optimistic in their construction plans and they overbuilt. The heady era of building elaborate movie palaces of extraordinary size ended with the depression in 1929. Suburban attractions, along with economic forces, and the proliferation of television, took a toll on downtown attendance. But, while the flight to the suburbs in 1954 did reduce the audience, major studio films still premiered in the large city movie palaces and still attracted excitement and an occasional crowd.
During the 1950s, American’s began to favor sleek, modern architecture over the ornate classical styling of the movie palaces. The grandeur was seen as gaudy with the fraying decor of a bygone age. Cineplexes, where several auditoriums share a lobby, were built in the suburbs. The new auditoriums were entirely neutral, designed to immerse the patron in the film without the distraction of decor. Isolation is complete and consolidated refreshment services provided important income.
The movie palaces never recovered from the gradual decline of audiences that began during the depression. The few survivors, built before 1930, have been repurposed for live performances. By the 1960s, the grandiose theaters began to deteriorate and by the 1980s, most were gone.