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Gone But Not Forgotten: Things We No Longer See in Movie Theatres

This blog post was originally posted by the Theatre Historical Society of America here.


Before the sprawling multiplex came the movie palace. Even from a distance, one recognized that it was a special place. Large vertical signs showed the name of the theatre in lights and the glittering marquee made just about any movie look appealing. Inside, the magic continued. Going to such a special place was treated as a special event. Ladies and gentlemen dressed in their smartest clothes, complete with requisite hats of the era. From velvet curtains and uniformed ushers to spaces reserved just for nursing crying babies, everything about the movie theatre was designed to help take your cares away…even for just a couple of hours.


Today’s sprawling multiplex has a completely different vibe. Maybe it’s because of these things you’ll no longer see in a modern movie theatre:


Velvet Curtains


In stark contrast to the loud music, ads, and trivia questions we see on the screen in today’s multiplex cinema, lush velvet curtains once covered the screen, creating an atmosphere of elegance. The heavy curtains helped to create an aura of elegance and majesty. When the lights dimmed, the curtains were opened with a flourish, signaling to the audience that the show was about to begin.


Uniformed Ushers


It’s hard to imagine being escorted to your seat in today’s movie theatre by an usher dressed as fine as a decorated soldier. But in the heyday of the movie palace, the usher was a vital part of the elaborate experience. Ushers did more than take tickets and clean up popcorn. They guided patrons to their seats carrying their trademark flashlights, and they were responsible for maintaining order when a film broke or patrons became rowdy. It was also their job to find any guest who might have an emergency phone call during a film—since there certainly weren’t cell phones.


Ashtrays


Today’s cup holder is yesterday’s ashtray. Built-in ashtrays were everywhere, not just in movie theatres. Fire regulations, second-hand smoke and many other factors brought about the elimination of the built-in theatre seat ashtray. Keep an eye out for the next issue of Marquee magazine where you’ll read much more on the topic of smoking in the movie theatre. The Q1 issue is “Smokin’!”


“Remove Your Hats” Reminders


Decades ago going to the movies was a special occasion and ladies and gentlemen dressed accordingly. Men wore suits and ties, ladies wore smart suits, and nobody left home without a hat to complete their outfit. Fashions evolved and ladies hats went from big to huge to ridiculously elaborate. Men wore the standard derby or fedora. But oftentimes, these hats blocked the vision of those sitting behind. Men would remove their hats and hold them on their laps during the movie, but women were usually more reluctant to take off part of their fashion statement. (Plus, ladies hats were often intricately pinned into place.) Signs gave them the gentle reminder that they needed to take them off.


Intermission


Intermission was simply a necessity. The projectionist needed time to change reels, which took five to ten minutes. Theatres put that dead air time to good use by rolling promotional reels that encouraged patrons to grab a snack at the concession stand. As technology developed, this downtime was no longer needed.


Double Features


Moviegoers today certainly don’t get as much bang for their buck as they used to. Back in the day, it was very rare for a cinema to show a single movie. Patrons expected to see a newsreel followed by a cartoon or two and then a double feature. Two movies for the price of one was the norm. The second film typically wasn’t new or as highly touted as the main attraction, but it was for sure a bargain compared to today’s formula.


Movie House Dishware


As theatre attendance dropped off during the Great Depression, theatres came up with various gimmicks to lure patrons and keep movie theatres operating. One idea that kept theatres operating during these lean times was Dish Night. Since money was tight, a night out at the movies was an unnecessary luxury. Salem China and a few other manufacturers of finer dinnerware struck deals with theatres across the U.S. They sold the theatre owner their wares at wholesale, allowing their products to be given away as premiums with each ticket sold. Sure enough, housewives began demanding that their husbands take them to the theatre every week in order to get a cup, saucer, or gravy boat to complete their set. At the time, it was just “free dishes for the ladies.” Today, we call these colored glass pieces Depression Glass and they are valuable collectors’ pieces.


Cry Rooms


Among the impressive amenities that elaborate movie palaces offered was the “cry room.” This soundproof, elevated room in the back of the theatre featured a large glass window so that mothers could still watch the movie while trying to calm down a fussy baby. Many of these rooms were equipped with luxurious like electric bottle warmers, complimentary formula, and an on-duty nurse.


If you find this story fascinating, we have a treasure trove of information about the history of your favorite theatres. Sign up for an account on historictheatres.org and enter through the STAGE DOOR!


For nearly fifty years Theatre Historical Society of America has been celebrating, documenting, and promoting the architectural, cultural, and social relevance of America’s historic theaters. However, we can’t do it alone. Support from cinema lovers, architects, historians and people like you are paramount to our success. Become a member today, and help us preserve the rich history of America’s greatest theatres.




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