Atmospheric theatre

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The Gateway Theatre in Jefferson Park, Chicago. The theater's Baroque spire is a replica of one on the Royal Castle in Warsaw.
The front of the Auckland Civic Theatre, with its Indian Moghul palace motifs

An atmospheric theatre is a (mostly historical) type of movie palace (cinema) which has an auditorium ceiling that is intended to give the illusion of an open sky as its defining feature. The decorative and architectural elements often convey an impression of being seated in a fantastic foreign setting, which might be anything from a palace or village square to a garden or an outdoor amphitheatre at night[1][2] Opening on January 28, 1922, the Indiana Theatre in Terre Haute, Indiana started the atmospheric theatre revolution as it is the first theatre to include atmospheric elements.[3] These elements were then incorporated into subsequent atmospheric theaters. Although the Indiana Theatre was the first prototype, The Houston Majestic was the first "fully" atmospheric theater in the United States [1]. Another cinema considered to fully feature the new style was the Majestic Theatre, built in 1929 in San Antonio, Texas in the USA.[1][2] One of the first in Canada, and likely the longest running in the world is the Lido Theatre in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada. The Lido Theatre was built to represent a Spanish courtyard at night. The Lido is one of the very few atmospherics still running to this day, and has been in the same family for four generations.

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.[1] 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. 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".[1]


  • Indiana Theatre, 683 Ohio Street, Terre Haute, Indiana. John Eberson's first atmospheric prototype, the Indiana Theatre was constructed eight months before the Orpheum Theatre. Completed January 28, 1922.
  • The Orpheum Theatre in Wichita, Kansas, designed by John Eberson, constructed by a group of local investors and operated by theater mogul Carl Hobitzelle,opened on September 4, 1922.
  • 7th Street Theatre in Hoquiam, Washington, USA. It was built in 1928, seats over 950 people, and features an outdoor Spanish garden motif.
  • Akron Civic Theatre, 182 South Main Street, 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.[4] The theater closed for comprehensive restoration and expansion in 2001 and reopened in 2002.
  • Auckland Civic Theatre in Auckland, New Zealand. 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.[2] Peter Jackson used the Civic in his remake of the film King Kong.
  • The Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, 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."
  • The Fox Theatre in Visalia, California, built 1929-30, was designed to evoke the garden of a South Asian temple.[5]
  • The Gateway Theatre in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood 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.
  • Lido Theatre in The Pas, Manitoba, CAN. 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.[6] Other atmospheric theaters in Canada include the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, Ontario.
  • The Midwest Theatre (1931) was John Eberson's last atmospheric design, 17 N. Harvey Ave., Oklahoma City
  • The Palace Theatre in Marion, Ohio. A John Eberson-designed theater built in 1928 and renovated in 1976. With a Moorish courtyard motif, 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.[7]
  • Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault, Minnesota, USA. 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.
  • Rialto Cinema, in Dunedin, New Zealand. Originally seating 2,000, the cinema has been converted into a six-theater multiplex. Renovations in 1998 restored its Moorish-themed features and night sky.
  • Saenger Theatre (New Orleans, Louisiana). 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.
  • The Tampa Theatre in Tampa, Florida 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 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. 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.
  • Le Grand Rex in Paris, France. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d The Atmospheric Style of Theatre Design - Mendiola, Sister Christine; Master's Thesis, University of Akron, 1974
  2. ^ a b c "Civic Theatre Building". Register of Historic Places. New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Retrieved 2009-12-21. 
  3. ^ "Indiana Theatre Event Center". (official theatre website). 
  4. ^ Akron Civic Theatre (official theatre website)
  5. ^
  6. ^ Lido Theatre (official theater website)
  7. ^ Palace Theatre (official theatre website)

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