Among the countless movie theaters built in the early and mid-1910s, a few metropolitan venues, like the 3,000-seat Strand Theatre in New York City (opened in 1914), set a new standard for opulence and size, initiating what would become the age of the picture palace. The term itself is difficult to define, though "picture palace" is generally taken to mean a multileveled venue with at least fifteen hundred seats; a fan-shaped auditorium; a complete stage and orchestra pit; a Mighty Wurlitzer or some other theater organ; state-of the-art projection and lighting equipment; luxurious décor; ornate architectural features; and a massive, brightly lit facade that gave the theater an inescapable presence when viewed from the street. (The largest picture palaces, containing more than two thousand seats and located in a metropolitan downtown area, were also referred to as "deluxe" theaters.) A virtual army of well-trained, uniformed service employees staffed the well-appointed restrooms of the picture palace and guided patrons through a grand lobby, up a sweeping staircase, down wide promenades, and into the multi-tiered auditorium. Through the initiative of theater owners like Balaban and Katz (operating in Chicago), air conditioning became another selling point of the picture palace by the late 1920s. All these elements collectively made the picture palace not only an architectural showpiece that
Thomas W. Lamb was the most important of several notable architects who had a significant effect on the design, prestige, and cultural role of the American movie theater during the age of the picture palace. Lamb (and his firm) designed more than three hundred theaters, primarily in the United States but also in Canada, England, Australia, and South Africa.
Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1871, Lamb moved to the United States in 1899 and soon thereafter graduated from Cooper Union Institute with a degree in architecture. After working as a city building inspector, Lamb was hired by William Fox (future head of Fox studios) in 1909 to design his first major project, the City Theatre, in New York City. When called on three years later to design the Regent Theatre, which was promoted as the first high-class theater built expressly to screen motion pictures, Lamb devised a facade borrowing from Italian renaissance architecture and an auditorium that featured clear sightlines for all seats.
Then followed a series of major theaters designed by Lamb, primarily in midtown Manhattan, including the Strand (1914), the Rialto (1916), and the Rivoli (1917), with its facade of white-glazed terra-cotta columns resembling the Parthenon. Lamb's position as the preeminent theater architect in the United States was sealed when he designed what was to be the world's largest theater, the Capitol, which opened in October 1919. For the 5,300-seat Capitol, Lamb relied on huge fluted columns, heavy damask curtains, a grand dome, and extensive silver leaf decoration. Like the Capitol, Lamb's other theaters in this period (including venues in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati) reflected his indebtedness to eighteenth-century British architect Robert Adam, whose neoclassical buildings were influenced by ancient Roman architecture.
In the mid-1920s Lamb's theaters became much more ornate, drawing, for example, on the flamboyance of the Italian baroque. In picture palaces like Loew's Midland Theater in Kansas City and the Fox in San Francisco, Lamb offered what he called "something more gay, more flashy" that would captivate audiences with its splendor. By the late-1920s Lamb's theaters became even more exotic, borrowing freely and combining elements from so-called "Oriental" designs (Persian, Hindu, and Byzantine) as well as European motifs. Lamb even borrowed from fellow theater architect John Eberson, and created a series of "atmospheric" theaters, where the traditional domed ceiling was replaced by a facsimile of the sky and the auditorium walls were decorated to resemble the interior of a garden or elegant patio. Lamb's work continued in a much different direction in the 1930s with designs for the art-deco styled Trans-Lux newsreel theaters.
Hall, Ben M. The Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace . New York: Potter, 1961.
Naylor, David. American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy . New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
Gregory A. Waller
stood out in the busy shopping district but also an experience quite distinct from the mundane.
Architects like Thomas W. Lamb (1871–1942) and John Eberson (1875–1965) were key figures in developing the opulent style of the American picture palace, which could vary quite dramatically from theater to theater, while always being an exercise in extravagance and ostentatious grandeur. Such theaters might be organized around a single theme—for example, a Spanish, Persian, and Chinese motif, which would be evident in the interior wall treatment, lighting, stage design, carpeting, fixtures, and furniture. The goal was to create an environment where the movies were only one part of a larger entertainment experience.
Eberson specialized in what were known as "atmospheric" picture palaces, beginning with the Majestic in Houston, Texas, which was built in 1922. The auditorium in an Eberson theater was constructed to resemble a magnificent courtyard or exotic garden, overflowing with decorative detail and covered with a plaster ceiling built to resemble an open sky filled with moving clouds or twinkling stars. Other architectural firms also had a significant influence on the design of the American picture palace, most notably Rapp and Rapp, which designed theaters in Chicago, St. Louis, and a number of other cities for Balaban and Katz and for Paramount studio's Publix Theater chain.
Theaters like Manhattan's 6,200-seat Roxy (opened in 1927), designed by Walter Ahlschlager and billed as the "cathedral of the movies," came to symbolize the excess and grandiose ambitions of the 1920s picture palace. As might be expected, the most deluxe theaters were found in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, though a host of smaller cities, including Minneapolis, Minnesota, Portland, Oregon, and Jersey City, New Jersey, could boast of having world-class picture palaces, often built as part of the Loew's or Fox first-run theater circuits. Fewer than seventy-five deluxe theaters were operating at the end of the silent film era, yet these metropolitan venues provided a disproportionately large share of the box-office revenues for the major Hollywood studios.
At the same time, the studios also depended on the distribution of their continuous stream of features, shorts, and newsreels to the twenty thousand other movie theaters in the United States. Even with the construction of deluxe palaces, the average size of the movie theater in the late silent era remained around five hundred seats, approximately the same as it had been in the mid-1910s. In other words, most spectators experienced the movies not in a magnificent picture palace but in a much more modest and less spectacular venue, probably located in the same business district where they bought groceries, got haircuts, and shopped for dry goods. However, the elaborate design, luxurious interior decoration, and commanding street presence of the picture palace did constitute an ideal toward which smaller theaters might aspire as they were periodically remodeled or updated.
The picture palace quickly came to occupy a privileged symbolic position in writing about the "golden age" of the movies. If the picture palace has had a long life as an icon signifying a spectacular and glamorous Hollywood, as a building it was very costly to operate and maintain. The picture palace was also linked to the economic fortunes of the downtown area where it almost always was located. By the 1950s, these once-grand theaters began to be razed or transformed for other uses. Restoration work at the end of the twentieth century rescued a small number of America's picture palaces. An object of nostalgia and community pride, the preserved picture palace (like the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, California) was usually not reopened as a movie theater; instead, it was restored to serve primarily as a multi-use community theater and venue for high-culture performances.