Movie Theaters: A Brief History

Early movies (around 1900) were usually shown in storefront theaters in buildings that had been designed for other purposes.

Starting in about 1905, entrepreneurs built small neighborhood theaters (nickelodeons) for showing short (15-20 minute) silent movies for 5 cents.

With “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, the era of feature-length movies began. Moviegoing became more of an event, with increasingly large and elegant theaters – although many movies were shown in existing vaudeville theaters. As talking pictures came along in 1927 and radio came to the masses in the late ‘20s,  vaudeville’s traveling variety shows (dating from the 1880s) started to fade away.

Throughout the 1920s, larger and larger “movie palaces” (the most spectacular theaters) were built in American cities. They usually had a large stage, designed for live performances to accompany the movies. The theaters had one giant screen, luxurious lobbies, and air-conditioning – when most homes did not.

The big movie studios like Paramount, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox owned their own theater chains, and they competed to build the fanciest theaters. (These chains were broken in 1948 by the Supreme Court’s antitrust ruling in the case of United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.)

Some of the largest and most famous theaters were Radio City Music Hall (1932) and the Roxy (1927) in New York City, and the Fox theaters in Detroit (1928), St. Louis (1929), Atlanta (1929), and San Francisco (1929).

Soon, many theater owners eliminated their stage shows in order to save money on performers, musicians, stagehands, and lighting. The Great Depression of the 1930s eventually forced most theaters to go strictly with movies.

Movie attendance reached its peak in 1930, when an estimated 65 percent of the American population went to a movie every week. By 1944, this had only gone down to about 60 percent.

Then came television; the number of U.S. households with a TV went from about 4 million in 1950 to about 40 million in 1955. By the mid-‘50s, only about 30 percent of Americans were seeing a movie each week. By 1965, this had dropped to about 10 percent – where it’s been, more or less, ever since.

Movie palaces, both in downtowns and in the neighborhoods, began to lose money. They were too big and too expensive to operate. In the years after World War Two, many Americans moved out of the central cities and into the suburbs - too far from downtown movie theaters for convenient access.

Many theaters were demolished (including the Roxy in 1960 and the Fox San Francisco in 1963), and many others were converted into multi-screen theaters.



Chicago Theater, Chicago
 (Photo by Wally Gobetz)

By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, most single-screen theaters were closed. Almost every metropolitan area had new, multiple-screen theaters known as multiplexes (two screens, then four, then eight, and so on) in suburban shopping centers. These were more efficient than the big, old theaters - several different films could be shown, one projectionist could run all the films, and one snack bar could serve everyone.

By the late ‘90s, most of the suburban multiplexes (in very basic buildings with very small screens) had been replaced by “megaplexes,” with 20 or more screens, flashy lobbies, tiered seating, and soft seats.

What happened to the downtown movie palaces that avoided the wrecking ball? Some have remained empty for years. Some became churches. But, many were renovated and turned into performing arts centers - with the help of local governments, nonprofit groups, and the historical preservation movement that got going in the late ‘60s.

Today, in cities around the country, movie palaces from the 1920s serve as major venues for orchestras, opera companies, concerts, and touring Broadway shows. A few of them still show movies.