Theaters



THEATERS BUILT FOR THE MOVIES

The nickelodeon boom echoed throughout North America between 1906 and 1910, and in some regions, this type of low-overhead, barebones moving picture theater remained a viable business venture well into the 1910s, especially in villages and small towns. But the competition for the commercial amusement market and the desire to reach a broader—and likely more middle-class—audience meant that the simple storefront nickelodeon increasingly gave way to larger, more pretentious, and more permanent venues. Theaters originally built for stage productions and vaudeville were refitted to house moving picture shows, as were other retail spaces. Fenced-in, open-air theaters, called airdomes, made moviegoing an appealing activity on summertime evenings, especially in St. Louis, Missouri, and other larges cities, as well as small towns, across the American Midwest. Most important, buildings, like the Regent Theatre in New York City (built in 1912), began to be specifically designed for moving picture presentation. Since these buildings frequently had balconies, full-size stages, and even dressing rooms, they differed little in design from legitimate theaters of the period. Nonetheless, the construction of buildings designated as moving picture theaters signaled the growing prominence of film in the field of commercial amusement, as well as the increasing visibility of the movies in daily life.

Sometimes with considerably more than five hundred seats, these new moving picture theaters promised a blend of comfort and elegance to rival established urban theaters and the all-purpose, small-town venues, generically referred to as "opera houses." Such movie theaters typically featured electrically illuminated marquees, inviting foyers, decorative terra cotta facades, wood-paneled walls, marble or carpeted floors, and plushly upholstered chairs. They boasted of their modern air circulation and heating systems, in addition to fireproof projection booths and up-to-date safety precautions. Advertising often fore grounded these design features in an attempt to expand the social class makeup of the audience and to waylay public concern about the potential hazards of the movie theater, especially for children.

At the same time, since many of these theaters had one or two balcony sections, exhibitors could strictly segregate their patrons, sometimes by age or social class, but most often by race, with the less desirable balcony being "reserved" for African Americans. Even in the nickelodeon era, so-called "colored theaters" had begun to appear that catered specifically to African American audiences. With racial segregation a fact of everyday life well into the 1950s and 1960s, "colored" theaters—in a few cases owned as well as operated by African Americans—were a prominent feature of African American communities across the United States, especially in the sound era. More than four hundred such theaters were in operation in the early 1940s and even more in the immediate post-World War II period.

The movie theaters that began to appear in early 1910s were often equipped with well-appointed washrooms and lounges, whose attendants joined an increasingly large corps of movie theater employees: uniformed ushers and doormen, ticket-takers, projectionists, and musicians. The presence of these workers helped to link the theater to the community or neighborhood where it was located, a connection that was underscored when the theater was made available for charity events, amateur shows, and even public school outings.

In addition to their increasingly long and ambitious film programs, the new wave of movie theaters continued to feature musical entertainment, long after the illustrated song had ceased to be a regular part of the bill. Mechanical instruments like the Wurlitzer Photoplayer provided both musical accompaniment and sound effects. Even smaller theaters began to employ live "orchestras"—which, in practice, could mean anything from a drum-piano duo to an eight-piece ensemble performing in the pit in front of the stage.



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