Atmospheric Theatres Described
An atmospheric theatre is a type of movie palace that was popular in the 1920s in America. "Rather than seating the theatre patrons in a boxlike formal setting as passive observers of stage entertainment, the atmospheric design transported them to an exotic European courtyard or garden. A plain cerulean sky replaced the ornate dome of traditional theatre design. Wispy floating clouds produced by a projector replaced crystal chandeliers and gilt. Trees, plants, vines and taxidermy birds replaced gold leaf. Arches, trellises, balconies and plaster statuary replaced marble, painted wood panels and crystal chandeliers. As the entertainment was about to begin, lighting effects created the illusion of a setting sun, as colors changed from yellow to red to mauve. Small lights, arranged in the ceiling in constellation patterns, twinkled to create a sense of infinite space. The atmospheric theatre design made the theatre patron an active, comfortable resident of an imaginary time and place, not a passive, aloof occupant of an oppressive formal space."
The style caught on quickly in the US and around the world, as it promised an escape from the often economically difficult times of the 1930s into a type of fantasy world, where not only the movie but also the building aided the transfer. The setting helped people forget reality for a time.
The Great Depression made the extravagantly designed theaters of the 1920s too expensive to build. The classically designed theaters required an elaborate auditorium ceiling, usually with one or more grand chandeliers. An atmospheric theater only required a simple, smooth dome with a sprinkle of low-wattage lights to simulate twinkling stars with some also featuring projected, or painted, clouds. This is not to say atmospheric theaters were always simple in design. The side walls of the theaters often featured very complex elements that created a fantasy outdoor setting like being in a village, garden, or on the grounds of a grand palace.
The main proponent of the style was John Eberson, who designed the first atmospheric prototype, The Indiana Theatre, in Terre Haute, IN. Before his death he designed around 500 in the U.S. and around the world, personally selecting the furnishings and art objects. While he had many competitors, none "had quite the same air of midsummer's night in dreamland as Eberson's originals".
Examples of John Eberson Atmospheric Theatres
John Eberson was the most successful promoter and designer of the atmospheric style. Sixteen of his atmospheric theatres in the United States are still in operation:
- Avalon (Chicago)
- Akron Civic Theatre (Akron, Ohio)
The theater was built in 1929 by Marcus Loew and designed by theater architect John Eberson. It opened as Loew's Theatre and seats 5,000 people. The auditorium is designed to resemble a night in a Moorish garden. Twinkling stars and drifting clouds travel across the domed ceiling. Located on Akron’s South Main Street, the theater’s entrance lobby extends over the Ohio and Erie Canal. The theater has a small multicolored terra cotta façade dominated by a large marquee. The interior of the entrance and lobby is designed to resemble a Moorish castle with Mediterranean decor, complete with medieval style carvings, authentic European antiques and Italian alabaster sculptures. A grand full-sized organ hidden beneath the stage rises to the stage level on a special elevator. The theater closed for comprehensive restoration and expansion in 2001 and reopened in 2002.
- Indiana Theatre (Terre Haute, Indiana)
The Indiana Theatre has a Spanish courtyard design and was the first Eberson theatre to exhibit atmospheric elements. While not fully atmospheric, the Indiana Theatre's original lighting system gave a blue hue to the auditorium ceiling and scattered light to simulate stars. The tile and terrazzo flooring, shapes of windows, prominence of Spanish coats of arms, Churrigueresque exterior, as well as numerous plaster designs that were seen first in the Indiana Theatre were copied exactly in his later atmospheric theatres. Eberson stated, "Into this Indiana Theatre I have put my very best efforts and endeavors in the art of designing a modern theatre such as I have often pictured as what I would do were I given a free hand."
- Majestic (Dallas, TX)
- Majestic (San Antonio, TX)
- Olympia (Miami, FL)
- Orpheum (Wichita, KS)
- Palace (Canton, OH)
- Palace (Marion, Ohio)
A John Eberson-designed theater, the Palace Theatre (Marion, Ohio) was built in 1928 and renovated in 1976. With a Spanish Revival courtyard design, the theatre features low voltage lighting in the ceiling to mimic stars and the original reconditioned cloud machine to simulate moving clouds. Alcoves in the theatre contain stuffed birds, including Eberson's signature parrot, and the original Pietro Caproni statues.
- Palace (Louisville, KY)
- Palace (Carpenter) (Richmond, VA)
- Paramount (Anderson, IN)
- Riviera (Rose Blumkin) (Omaha, NE)
- State (Kalamazoo, MI)
- Tampa Theatre (Tampa, Florida).
The Tampa Theatre was built in 1926. Designed by John Eberson, the Tampa is a superior example of the atmospheric style featuring an auditorium that resembles a Mediterranean courtyard under a nighttime sky. Featured on the theater's opening night was the silent film The Ace of Cads starring Adolph Menjou.
- Uptown Theater (Kansas City, Missouri).
This John Eberson-designed Italian Renaissance atmospheric theater opened in 1928 and features an outdoor Mediterranean courtyard motif. It was built to seat 2,300, but the current configuration allows for 1,700.
Examples of Atmospheric Theatres Designed by Other Architects
Other architect's also designed atmospheric theatres. These include the following:
The 7th Street Theatre was built in 1928, seats over 950 people, and features an outdoor Spanish garden motif.
- Fox Theatre (Atlanta, Georgia)
The Fox Theatre was built in 1929 and is the city's only surviving movie palace. The original architecture and décor can be roughly divided into two architectural styles: Islamic architecture (building exterior, auditorium, Grand Salon, mezzanine Gentlemen’s Lounge and lower Ladies Lounge) and Egyptian architecture (Egyptian Ballroom, mezzanine Ladies Lounge and lower Gentlemen’s Lounge). The 4,678-seat auditorium replicates an Arabian courtyard complete with a night sky of 96 embedded crystal "stars" (a third of which flicker) and a projection of clouds that slowly drift across the "sky."
- Fox Theatre(Visalia, California)
- Gateway Theatre (Chicago, Illinois)
The Gateway Theatre was built in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood, the Gateway Theatre is an atmospheric theater designed by architect Mason Rapp of the prestigious firm of Rapp & Rapp in 1930. It was the city's first movie theater built exclusively for the talkies.
The Lido Theatre was built in 1930 and designed by Max Blankstein. The Lido is the world's longest continuously operating atmospheric theatre (82 years straight as of 2012). The interior features an outdoor Mediterranean courtyard motif. It was built to seat 600 people but the current configuration allows for 350. The Lido has avoided major renovations, remaining close to its original design. A rare survivor in its class, one of the few cinemas to stay in the same family for four generations; It remains owned by the Rivalin family. Other atmospheric theaters in Canada include the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, Ontario.
- Midwest Theatre (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
(1931). John Eberson's last atmospheric design, 17 N. Harvey Ave., Oklahoma City.
The Paradise Center for the Arts was Built in 1929 on the site of the former Faribault Opera House, the Paradise was recently renovated. The motif is one of a Moorish courtyard with Turkish caps over the doors, turrets and 'stonework' walls. Originally built to seat 915, the Paradise has been altered to seat 300.
- Saenger Theatre (New Orleans, Louisiana)
The Saenger Theatre (New Orleans, Louisiana) was built in 1927 for the Saenger Theatres chain by architect Emile Weil, Its interior evokes a baroque Florentine courtyard. Originally seating approximately 4,000, in 1980 its seating was reduced to approximately 2,736 and it began to function as a performing arts center with occasional film screenings.
Atmospheric Theatres Outside of the United States of America
The following are atmospheric theatres located outside of the United States:
The Auckland Civic Theatre is the largest surviving atmospheric cinema in Australasia, built in 1929 and featuring an India-inspired motif. Seating 2,750 viewers, in 2000 it was restored to near-original condition. Peter Jackson used the Civic in his remake of the film King Kong.
The Rialto Cinema originally seated 2,000. The cinema has been converted into a six-theater multiplex. Renovations in 1998 restored its Moorish-themed features and night sky.
Le Grand Rex is the largest cinema, theater and music venue in Paris, with 2,800 seats. Opened in 1932, the cinema features a starred "sky" overhead, as well as interior fountains, and resembles a Mediterranean courtyard at night. The cinema features one of the largest screen in Europe.
- Hoffman, Scott L. A Theatre History of Marion, Ohio: John Eberson's Palace and Beyond. Charlotte, NC: The History Press. 2015.
- Akron Civic Theatre (official theatre website)
- Hoffman, Scott L. A Theatre History of Marion, Ohio: John Eberson's Palace and Beyond. Charlotte, NC: The History Press, 2015.
- Lido Theatre (official theater website)
- "Civic Theatre Building". Register of Historic Places. Heritage New Zealand. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
- Earl, John. “Landscape in the Theatre: Historical Perspective.” Landscape Research 16, no. 1 (1991): 21–29.
- Mendiola, Sister Christine. "The Atmospheric Style of Theatre Design." Masters Thesis, U/ Akron. 1974.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Atmospheric theatres.|
- Marion Palace Theatre and May Pavilion
- Stanley Theater/Newark Gospel Tabernacle official website
- The Wichita Orpheum Theatre official website
- Walker Cinema Architects' "Rialto Cinema (Dunedin)" page showing many of the cinema's interior features