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[Detail] Coos Bay Bridge, North Bend, Oregon.

Historical Comprehension: Picture Palaces

The motion picture industry grew dramatically during the 1920s. Approximately 100 million people attended movie theaters each week -- almost double that of church attendance. In fact, some people argued that the movie theaters of the era had become the new places of worship.

Picture palaces offered a middle-class audience a sense of luxury for the price of admission. Ornate architecture, smoking lounges, powder rooms, and attentive staff created a fantasy world in the theaters long before the first reel of the motion picture began. A search on the phrase, movie theater, produces a number of examples. Loew's Theater was one of the first theaters in Jefferson County, Kentucky. Architect John Eberson, one of the three renowned theater architects of the 1920s, included detailed sconces and figurines in spacious lobbies and vestibules. He even included his own image as a bust among images of more famous men in the theater's vestibule ceiling (page 2).

The HABS collection includes images of the Fox Theater in Seattle, Washington, and a description of the area's theater designs:

Spacious lobbies with flowing staircases, glamorous lounges, smoking areas, and crying rooms were standard, while house and stage support functions were generally well-hidden from the patron in subterranean or backstage areas. Seattle's Coliseum featured a Turkish men's smoking room and a Mother Goose Nursery, and the Paramount its own "salon de musique." The Music Hall Theatre was notable for its small but elegant mezzanine lounge, and its generous suite of art-deco styled ladies' rooms.

The decorative style of the movie palace was always its chief character-defining feature. Often the degree of decorative elaboration progressed from exterior to lobby to inner auditorium, providing gradual immersion into the fantasy world within. Styles varied widely from expressions of traditional classicism to exotic idioms and eclectic mixes. (page 20)

Picture palaces were often a featured part of a larger commercial center but these palaces (whose numbers peaked between 1925 and 1930) were designed "to rival the fantasy of the motion picture itself. Theatres increased significantly in scale and plan, and seating capacities grew to well over 1000 patrons." (page 19).

  • How do you think that picture palaces reflected the values, concerns, and dreams of its audience?
  • Why do you think that architectural design plays such an important role in attracting an audience?
  • What other forms of entertainment did picture palaces compete with during the era?
  • What other forms of leisure use architectural design to attract business?
  • How do you think that modern amenities such as stereo surround-sound and stadium seating compare to the features of the picture palaces?
  • Do you think that movie theaters offer a different experience for an audience now? Why or why not?