Movie Theaters and Cinema Through The Decades

Since the invention of cinema in the 19th century, motion pictures have transported people across the world into different times and places. As soon as the invention found its footing, people began to come together to see films. As movies started to get bigger with longer run times, the advent of sound and everything in between, modern day movie theaters were formed.

Small rooms that housed inventions like the vitascope became popular and eventually, nickelodeons, where folks could see movies for a nickel, were all the rage. With the advent of Hollywood and the studio system, lavish movie houses were constructed. By the 1930s you could get snacks and other concessions with your film, and by the 1950’s drive-ins were super popular. Now we have 4D flicks and dine-in experiences. Throughout the years, cinema and movie theaters have come quite a long way.

1. 1890: Magic latern shows

1890: The Praxinoscope Theatre
1890: The Praxinoscope Theatre | General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

The earliest movies were nothing like the ones that we go to now. In fact, they were first called magic lantern shows. People would flock into small rooms, pay a few cents and watch moving pictures through slides using machines like The Praxinoscope.  Now, we attend movies with our family and friends, but in the beginning, before there were any storylines and certainly before there was sound, this was how people first went to the movies.

Next: The first theater 

2. 1896: Edison’s Vitascope Theater

Vitascope | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1890’s the world had moved on from lantern shows. In France in 1884, Louis and Auguste Lumière shot their first film called, Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon. The brothers just filmed their employees leaving their factory and called it a movie. Obviously, it didn’t have the plot of The Lord of the Rings or anything, but for movie-goers, it was a marvel.

This was considered the first ever motion picture, and it sparked a frenzy across the globe which led to the creation of cinemas and silent films being shown in mass.  On Oct. 19, 1896, Edison’s Vitascope Theater was opened to the general public. It had 72-seats and was designed solely for seeing films.

Next: It only cost a nickel. 

3. 1905: The birth of nickelodeons

Garden Theater in Pittsburgh 1902
Garden Theater in Pittsburgh 1905 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

In cities across the United States, people in the movie business had to come up with a marketing tool to make sure that folks could actually afford to come to see motion pictures. In 1905 in Pittsburg, movie theater owners Harry Davis and John Harris established the nickelodeon. Patrons paid one nickel to go and see the latest film playing. It would become the model after which our modern day movie theaters were born.

By 1907, around 3,000 nickelodeon theaters had opened, and by 1914 an estimated 27 percent of Americans were going to the movies every week.

Next: The death of vaudeville.

4. 1910: Converting vaudeville theaters

The Orpheum Theater in 1910
The Orpheum Theater in 1910 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

While some movie theaters were constructed from the ground up, others like The Orpheum Theather which was located in Allentown, Pennsylvania were converted from vaudeville theaters. The Orpheum opened in 1906 for live acts like Fred and Adele Astaire, Jack Benny, and Bing Crosby. The theater played a mix of silent films when no acts were in town. However, by 1920, vaudevilles were a thing of the past, and theaters like The Orpheum began showing silent films only.

Next: Not exactly silent cinema. 

5. 1920: Pianists and organ players in the theater

The Tower Cinema in Edinburgh 1920
The Tower Cinema in Edinburgh 1920 | General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

There was no sound in films until the late 1920’s. However, movie theaters like The Tower Cinema in Edinburgh didn’t make folks sit in complete and utter silence. While they watched the visuals on the screens, moviegoers could also hear pianist or organists playing along with the moving pictures. In more lavish movie houses, sometimes small orchestras would even accompany the films.

At times this music was provided by the filmmakers and other times, musicians would improvise.

Next: Separate movie houses 

6. The 1920’s: Movies for minorities

The Royal Theater opened about 1920
The Royal Theater opened about 1920 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

By the 1920’s cinemas were popping up everywhere, even in the midst of the Jim Crow South. Since people of color couldn’t always go to theaters with white people, movie theaters like The Royal Theater in Raleigh, North Carolina began popping up in African American business districts across the South and in parts of the North. Though these theaters serviced the Black community, many like The Royal were actually white-owned.

Next: Enticing the rich into the theater 

7. 1925: Movie palaces

Pantages Movie Palace
Pantages Movie Palace | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

During the middle of the 1920’s movie palaces began popping up across the United States and the United Kingdom. These palaces were opulent, extravagant, and luxurious. Before movie palaces, going to the cinema was considered something that only the working and lower classes did. Therefore, theater owners tried to make their cinemas as plush as possible to entice the upper middle class, and it worked.

These upscale theaters sometimes included larger sitting areas, air conditioning, and even childcare services

Next: Bringing in popcorn 

8. 1925: Popcorn comes to the theater

1913 A vehicle equipped with Candy Kiss and popcorn making machinery to sell around the streets
1913 A vehicle equipped with Candy Kiss and popcorn making machinery to sell around the streets | Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Before 1925, popcorn was a snack relegated to circuses and street vendors. In 1925, Charles Manley, a man from Butte Iowa invented the first electric popcorn machine. Manley was smart enough to market his new invention to movie theater owners. The idea obviously took on like wildfire, and what happened next is for the history books.

Next: Finally getting some audio

9. 1927: Along came sound

December 1930: A queue outside the Brixton Astoria, south London
December 1930: A queue outside the Brixton Astoria, south London | Fox Photos/Getty Images

In 1927 the film, The Jazz Singer ushered in an entirely new era for movies. It as the first feature film to have a synchronized recorded music score and lip-synchronous singing and speech in several sections of the movie. The film changed everything, making some silent film stars obsolete and give Hollywood a new avenue for what that they could do with movies. By 1930, silent films were referred to as, “the old medium.”

Next: A standard movie-going experience. 

10. The modern movie theater

The Art Deco auditorium of the Casino Theatre in 1930
The Art Deco auditorium of the Casino Theatre in 1930 | Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

The Art Deco auditorium in the Casino Theatre on Catalina Island was one of the first of it’s kind to be constructed. The stadium seating had sharply raked rows of seats extending from in front of the screen back towards the ceiling. The screens were also purposely massive so that all of the movie-goers could have a clear view of what was in front of them despite anyone who was seated in a chair in the row ahead.

Next: Figuring out the seats 

11. 1931: The movie theater chair

Hollywood Theater Seat
Hollywood Theater Seat | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

In 1931, movie theaters got a little fancier with the advent of the types of chairs used in the cinemas. Now instead of regular theater seats, chairs were designed so that the person seated could move back when someone else needed to get up to use the restroom. These days this specific seat design is in movie theaters across the United States.

Next: All about the candy  

12. The 1930’s: Movie concessions

Director Eddie Cantor with Norman Taurog in 1934
Director Eddie Cantor with Norman Taurog in 1934 | Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though popcorn had come to the movies a decade earlier, it took a bit more time for other concessions like candy and soda to be invited into the fold. Before concessions were actually sold in movies, snack bars and candy stands were located near cinemas. Initially, theater owners wanted to keep their movie palaces posh. However, during and after the Great Depression, they knew they had to make a buck wherever they could so they quickly welcomed in newer candies like Jujubes and Jujyfruits, Baby Ruths, Raisinets and Milk Duds.

Next: Then there was color 

13. 1937: Making things colorful

Original Trailer from 'Snow White' in 1937
Original Trailer from ‘Snow White’ in 1937 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Getting color in movies was a hard thing to nail down. At first, it was literally hand-painting on to film because filmmakers didn’t know yet hot to capture it in their camera. Then came the Technicolor process in 1932. First used in cartoons and short live-action films, the process gradually spread to live-action features.

In 1937, despite the daunting cost and time associated with it, Walt Disney delivered the first animated full-length color film, Snow White. The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind would follow in 1939. When Hollywood saw that the box office draw could justify the cost, more and more color films were made.

Next: Movies for some, but not for all.

14. 1939: Restricted access

Segregated Movie Theater 1939
Segregated Movie Theater 1939 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Though movie theaters were standard across the country by the 1930’s, it wasn’t a pleasant viewing experience for all American citizens. If there was no cinema specifically for people of color in the South they were forced to skip the “white only” box office and head up the stairs to the balcony for the designated colored section. Of course, the ticket prices were still the same.

This wasn’t the only restriction for Black and brown people who wanted to enjoy movies. They were often only allowed to go to enter a white theater on late Friday nights after the last showing for white audiences.

Next: Flocking to the cinema.

15. The 1940’s: A place to escape

Paramount 25 Year Club party in 1946
Paramount 25 Year Club party in 1946 | George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images

Just before, during, and after the United States entered World War II, Americans used the movie theater as a place to escape from not only their everyday lives but from the horrors of the world. The government also found a way to get involved in the movies. There were tons of propaganda films about the war, rationing, and everything in between included in film previews. Movies like Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life premiered during this time which were huge hits at the box office.

Next: When movies were king

16. Hollywood’s Golden era

'Rock Around The Clock', billboard outside a cinema in London
‘Rock Around The Clock’, billboard outside a cinema in London | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From the 1920’s to the 1960’s, the studio system was pushing out gem after gem in Hollywood. Though there were massive genres like the westerns and gangster films, it was musicals that reigned supreme. Movies like 1956’s Rock Around the Clock were massively successful, so much so that the cinema used everything at its disposal to lure in audiences who were getting tired of seeing black and white movies, especially since television was starting to be more common.

Big blockbusters often used massive stars like Elvis Presley or James Dean along with mega soundtracks to keep audiences interested.

Next: Another way to watch movies 

17. Drive-ins

550 cars watch a film on the opening night in July 1961
550 cars watch a film on the opening night in July 1961 | Keystone/Getty Images

If you’ve ever seen Grease, then you certainly know what a drive-in looks like. By the 1950s and certainly into the ’60s television was killing the movie industry, and cinemas had to continue to get creative when it came to bringing in patrons. The drive-in was just one of the ways they could offer a new movie-going experience.

Drive-ins begin popping up in the U.S. as early as the 1930’s, but they came alive in the ’50s and ’60s. Essentially drive-ins are an outdoor parking area with a massive movie screen set up at one end that projects the image out to people sitting in or atop their vehicles. The audio is either broadcast through the radio or on loudspeakers. Though there used to be a slew of drive-ins in the states, only about 400 remain today. Multiplexes have been built on top of old drive-in sites.

Next: Every movie in one place.

18. Multiplexes

A frontal view of Dominion Cinema theatre on Tottenham Court Road hosting the European premiere of 'Cleopatra' in 1963
A frontal view of Dominion Cinema theatre on Tottenham Court Road hosting the European premiere of ‘Cleopatra’ in 1963 | Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

America might be known for Hollywood, but Canada was actually the first country in the world to have a two-screen theater. In 1957, the Elgin Theatre in Ottawa, Ontario became the first venue in the world to offer two films on different screens. By the 1960’s the multiplex had come to America. Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema (now AMC Theatres) is credited as pioneering the multiplex in 1963.

Seeing how profitable multiplexes were, many existing venues were retrofitted to accommodate more than one film at a time. Old movie palaces were also converted into multiplexes. However, this move sent cinemas that only had one screen out of business.

Next: A maximum size image  

19. Widescreens

Staff holding hands in front of the screen at the Odeon cinema at Marble Arch, London, 28th January 1967
Staff holding hands in front of the screen at the Odeon cinema at Marble Arch, London, 28th January 1967 | William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Massive widescreens in movie theaters might seem like a fairly new technology, but they had actually become pretty popular in the 1920’s. Essentially any film image with a width-to-height aspect ratio greater than the standard 1.37:1 is considered widescreen.

Just as more studios were beginning to experiment with wide-screen films on wide screens, the Great Depression hit, and they had to focus their resources elsewhere. However, by the 1950’s they began popping up again.

Next: Pumping up the volume 

20. Surround sound

Galaxy Studios
Galaxy Studios | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Screens weren’t the only things getting an update in movie theaters by the ’50s and ’60s. Theater owners were also outfitting their cinemas with surround sound. First used in Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia, surround sound, enriches the sound reproduction quality of an audio source with additional audio channels from speakers that surround the listeners.

Prior to surround sound, movie theaters had three channels of audio, but after the advent of surround sound, audio was placed everywhere. Surround sound led to stereo sound which was first used in 1978’s Superman and then again in 1979’s Apocolypse Now and 1982’s Blade Runner.

Next: Getting inside of the movies 

21. CinemaScope

CinemaScope 1954
CinemaScope 1954 | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

If wide screens and surround sound weren’t enough, for a while, studios took it to the next level with CinemaScope. Used from 1953 to 1967 for widescreen movies that were displayed on a curved screen, CinemaScope gave audiences the illusion that they were actually in the film itself. It created an image of up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, almost twice as wide as the previously common Academy format of 1.37:1 ratio.

Unfortunately, the process had limitations and was soon rendered obsolete with the birth of Panavision.

Next: The worst movie invention of all time.  

22. Smell-O-Vision

Aroma Scope
Aroma Scope | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

There were a ton of new bells and whistles that came out of Hollywood in the 1960’s as the studios were trying to regain the audience that they had lost to television. Smell-O-Vision made its only appearance in 1960, in the film, Scent of Mystery. 30 different scents were injected into movie theater seats, and they were trigged to release in the air by the movie’s soundtrack. It wasn’t exactly successful.  According to Variety,

Aromas were released with a distracting hissing noise and audience members in the balcony complained that the scents reached them several seconds after the action was shown on the screen. In other parts of the theater, the odors were too faint, causing audience members to sniff loudly in an attempt to catch the scent. These technical problems were mostly corrected after the first few showings, but the poor word of mouth, in conjunction with generally negative reviews of the film itself, signaled the end of Smell-O-Vision.

Next: X-rated 

23. Cinemas of The Deuce

Cinema signs advertising adult and martial arts films on 42nd Street, New York, circa 1977
Cinema signs advertising adult and martial arts films on 42nd Street, New York, circa 1977 | George Freston/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the ’70s film had gotten a lot more risque and so did the former movie palaces around the country. In New York City, in particular, there was “the Deuce,” which was called “cinema’s most notorious block in the world.” Before it was cleaned up for the sake of tourism, 42nd Street at Times Square was home to numerous pornographic theaters.

Before porn was legal, people from all walks of life could slip into the theaters for a few dollars and get their fill of all types of adult films (and acts) within the theaters. For those who owed the buildings which once played Hollywood’s great classics, it was an easy way to make a massive amount of money.

Next: Making movies affordable again.

24. Dollar theaters

Cinema 6 Theatre
Cinema 6 Theatre | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Some movie theaters stopped trying to compete with television or even first-rate movie houses. Dollar theaters also began to pop up around the country by the 1970’s. After films were shown in megaplexes, they were sent to dollar theaters for patrons who paid just a buck or two to see them. However, with the advent of VHS and cable, dollar theaters began to fade away in the ’90s.

Next: Seeing films in every dimension 

25. 3D

Cinema-goers wearing 3D glasses at a special Festival of Britain three dimensional film screening
Cinema-goers wearing 3D glasses at a special Festival of Britain three dimensional film screening | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though it was initially originated in the 1920’s and had a “golden era” phase in the 1950’s, 3D films only recently returned as a standard option in megaplexes. As usual, movie theaters are always looking for ways to compete with home cinemas and streaming services. The RealD 3D system works by using a single digital projector that swaps back and forth between the images for eyes. A filter is placed in front of the projector that changes the polarization of the light coming from the projector.

Unfortunately, the tickets for 3D flicks are even more expensive than the already overpriced standard fare, and since 3D movies no longer seem like a novelty, people aren’t particularly interested in them anymore.

Next: Two for the price of one. 

26. Double features

AMC 20 in France circa 1999
AMC 20 in France circa 1999 | Denis Charlet AFP/Getty Images

In the 1930’s movie theaters would show two films for the price of one, usually with a B-film playing ahead of the main feature. That practice declined after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “block booking” unconstitutional.

However, double features are slowly popping up again. Filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released their individual films Planet Terror and Death Proof as a double feature under the title Grindhouse in 2007. Also when Toy Story 3, debuted in 2010, Disney re-released the first two films as a double feature for audiences to see.  Disney films also still show a short ahead of their feature films, and since going to the movies is so expensive, we think it’s only fair.

Next: Letting the cinema surround you

27. IMAX

IMAX | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

If CinemaScope was all the rage in the 1960’s it’s all about IMAX today. These days, patrons can watch movies more than ten times their display in a standard theater. The increased resolution lets the audience get much closer to the screen. Typically all rows are within one screen height—conventional theatre seating runs 8 to 12-screen heights.

If massive size and sound aren’t enough for you, some IMAX theaters offer a 3D option while others are beginning to dive into the realm of virtual reality.

Next: A step up from 3D

28. 4D

4D Movie
4D Movie | Wikimedia Commons

We are living in the 21st century, so 3D movies are very much expected these days. Therefore, some theaters have taken it to the next level with 4D presentations. In these films, spraying of water, movement of seats, and other effects are used to simulate actions seen on the screen.

Typically these are elements that can be found at amusement parks on various rides, but some megaplexes have at least one theater that can also accommodate these kinds of movies.  The rise of the superhero genre has seen a spike in 4D offerings.

Next: A lush movie-going experience.

29. Luxury cinemas

iPic | Instagram

Everything new is old, and the same can be said of luxury cinemas. Like the movie palaces of a past time, luxury cinema experiences are now the thing to do, especially when you want to take your date night up a notch. Some venues offer lazy boy-stye seating with blankets and pillows included. They also include full dinner and drink menus which are served to patrons during the film.

These venues are typically pricier than standard theaters, but they offer a different type of cinematic experience.

Next: Beyond the theater

30. New competition

Netflix list | Netflix

These days Hollywood and movie theaters are using every gimmick the can think of to entice people back into the theaters. However, with options like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, cable, apps and everything in between it’s been a fight to the death. Though studios are releasing fewer films, it’s clear that movie theaters and Hollywood in general, are going to keep trying out new things in order to keep up with people in the 21st century.

Follow Aramide Tinubu on Twitter @midnightrami.

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