Movie Palaces Let Everyday Americans Be Royalty

They were an important part of the studio system that flourished until the late 1940s

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914. See more images of the luxurious movie palaces at the Library of Congress website. Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1914, an American dream found a home: the movie palace.

The Mark Strand Theater was the first of the “dream palaces”—huge movie theaters with luxurious interiors, writes Before the Strand opened, people mostly watched movies in modest "nickelodeons" that seated a hundred or so people at a time, sometimes on folding chairs. The new theater changed all that: “The Strand seated around 3,000 people and boasted a second-floor viewing balcony and (in an architectural innovation at the time) a two-story rotunda where moviegoers could socialize before and after the presentation and during intermission,” the website records. 

By 1916, there were more than 21,000 movie palaces in America and a tradition was born.

The theater most Americans attended was “an architecturally ornate center of the community’s social life,” in the words of David Rosenberg for Slate. Movie palaces played an important part in creating and sustaining the “Golden Age of Hollywood," which many say had its apex in 1939 with Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz.

During the Depression of the 1930s, writes Pauz, many went to the cinema to escape their difficult lives. Sitting in those opulent surroundings, watching stars whose lives were shaped by the studio to appear incredibly glamorous, viewers must have felt like they were watching royalty—an impression the studios that ran Hollywood encouraged.

The movie-palace boom “marked the beginning of the rise of the studio system, which would dominate Hollywood from the 1920s into the 1950s,” writes. Under that system, a few large studios—known in their most modern iterations as Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount, RKO Pictures, MGM and 20th Century Fox—produced and distributed movies across the country. Those films were largely acted in by stars under contracts that essentially controlled their lives, which allowed the studios to control every aspect of movie production and distribution to create the star-studded image of the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

Movie palaces were the final step in the studios' near-total control of the American movie industry. Studios largely owned the opulent theaters where their films were shown. The studios maintained their control over movie theaters by making films too expensive, and too inconvenient, for independent movie theaters to get. But the studio system, and with it the movie palace, began to fall away after studios were forced to sell the movie palaces following a 1948 Supreme Court decision found them them to be violating antitrust law.

Another factor in the demise of the movie palace was the baby boom, writes Aaron West for Criterion Closeup. The nuclear family was front and center, and people wanted to raise their children in the suburbs. West writes:

It was not easy to bring movie theaters to the suburbs. The old movie palaces had been urban spectacles—vast buildings that were usually in the heart of downtown and could hold massive crowds. These theaters attracted people to the city and were the source of the studio profits. As people moved away, these large palaces eventually faltered.

These factors helped to shape a movie-watching culture that was more attuned to drive-throughs than sophisticated buildings. The demise of the studio system and the changes in how people lived left the country littered with beautiful, empty palaces. Many are gone, writes Rosenberg, but some remain or have been restored.

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