Movie palace

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The Uptown Theatre in Chicago.

A movie palace (or picture palace in the UK) is a term used to refer to the large, elaborately decorated movie theaters built between the 1910s and the 1940s. The late 1920s saw the peak of the movie palace, with hundreds opened every year between 1925 and 1930.

There are three building types in particular which can be subsumed under the label movie palace. First, the classical style movie palace, with its eclectic and luxurious period-revival architecture; second, the atmospheric theatre which has an auditorium ceiling that resembles an open sky as its defining feature and finally, the Art Deco theaters that became popular in the 1930s.



Movie palaces were the followup to the Nickelodeon, small theaters which catered to the busy work lives and limited budgets of the lower and middle classes. Motion pictures were generally only thought to be for the lower classes at that time as they were simple, short, and cost only five cents to attend. While the middle class regularly began to attend the Nickelodeons by the early 1910s the upperclass continued to attend stage theater performances such as the opera and big-time vaudeville.[1] However, as more sophisticated, complex, and longer films featuring prominent stage actors were developed the upperclass desires to attend the movies began to increase and a demand for higher class theaters began to develop.[2] Nickelodeons could not meet this demand as the upperclass feared the moral repercussions of intermingling between women and children with immigrants. There were also real concerns over the physical safety of the Nickelodeon theaters themselves as they were often cramped with little ventilation and the nitrate film stock used at the time was extremely flammable.[3]

The demand for an upscale film theater, suitable to exhibit films to the upperclass, was first met when the Regent Theater, designed by Thomas Lamb, was opened in the February of 1913, becoming the first ever movie palace.[1] However the theater's location in Harlem prompted many to suggest that the theater be moved to Broadway alongside the stage theaters.[2] These desires were satisfied when Lamb built the Strand Theatre on Broadway, which was opened in 1914 by Mitchel H. Mark at the cost of one-million dollars.[1] This opening was the first example of a success in drawing the upper middle class to the movies and it spurred others to follow suit. As their name implies movie palaces were advertised to, "make the average citizen feel like royalty."[1] To accomplish this these theaters were outfitted with a plethora amenities such as larger sitting areas, air conditioning, and even childcare services.[4]

Golden Era[edit]

Between 1914 and 1922 over 4,000 movie palaces were opened. Notable pioneers of movies palaces include the Chicago firm of Rapp and Rapp, which designed the Chicago, the Uptown, and the Oriental Theatres. S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel, originated the deluxe presentation of films with themed stage shows. Sid Grauman, built the first movie palace on the West Coast, Los Angeles' Million Dollar Theater, in 1918.


Following World War II movie ticket sales began to rapidly decline due to the widespread adoption of television and mass migration of the population from the cities, where all the movie palaces had been built, and into the suburbs.[5] The closing of most movie palaces occurred after the passing of the Paramount Decision in 1948, which ordered all of the major film studios to sell their theaters. Most of the newly independent theaters could not continue to operate on the low admissions sales of the time without the financial support of the major studios and were forced to close.[6] Many were able to stay in business by converting to operate as race or pornography theaters.[7]


Eberson specialized in the subgenre of "atmospheric" theatres. His first, of the five hundred in his career, was the 1923 Majestic in Houston, Texas. The atmospherics usually conveyed the impression of sitting in an outdoor courtyard, surrounded by highly ornamented asymmetrical facades and exotic flora and fauna, underneath a dark blue canopy; when the lights went out, a specially designed projector, the Brenograph, was used to project clouds, and special celestial effects on the ceiling.

Lamb's style was initially based on the more traditional, "hardtop" form patterned on opera houses, but was no less ornate. His theaters evolved from relatively restrained neo-classic designs in the 1910s to those with elaborate baroque and Asian motifs in the late 1920s.

The movie palace's signature look was one of extravagant ornamentation. The theaters were often designed with an eclectic exoticism where a variety of referenced visual styles collided wildly with one another. French Baroque, High Gothic, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Spanish Gothic, Hindu, Babylonian, Aztec, Mayan, Orientalist, Italian Renaissance, and (after the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922) Egyptian Revival, were all variously mixed and matched. This wealth of ornament was not merely for aesthetic effect. It was meant to create a fantasy environment to attract moviegoers and involved a type of social engineering, distraction, and traffic management, meant to work on human bodies and minds in a specific way. Today, most of the surviving movie palaces operate as regular theaters, showcasing concerts, plays and operas.

Image gallery[edit]

List of movie palaces[edit]

This is a list of selected movie palaces, with location and year of construction.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Halnon, Mary (January 1998). "Some Enchanted Evenings: American Picture Palaces". Some Enchanted Evenings: American Picture Palaces. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 
  2. ^ a b Slowinska, Maria (2005). "Consuming Illusion, Illusions of Consumability: American Movie Palaces of the 1920s". Amerikastudien. 
  3. ^ Van Der Velden, André (2010). "Spectacles of Conspicuous Consumption: Picture Palaces, War Profiteers and the Social Dynamics of Moviegoing in the Netherlands, 1914-1922". Film History. 
  4. ^ Melnick, Ross (April 25, 2014). "When Movie Palaces Reigned". Hollywood Reporter. 
  5. ^ Bushnell, George (1977). "Chicago’s Magnificent Movie Palaces". Chicago History. 
  6. ^ Gomery, Douglas (1978). "THE PICTURE PALACE: ECONOMIC SENSE OR HOLLYWOOD NONSENSE?". Quarterly Review of Film Studies. 
  7. ^ Alley-Young, Gordon (2005). "The Southern Movie Palace: Rise, Fall, and Resurrection". Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South. 
  8. ^ Cinema Treasures

External links[edit]