Picture This, A Moving Picture Show

By | February 12, 2018

As the profitability of theaters grew after World War I, the nature of dramatic productions changed. Business was centralized and theater operators became increasingly more focused on theater management and less on production. This type of operation dominated the early twentieth century. The public increasingly demanded celebrities instead of locals in the leading roles. This led to the development of touring shows in which a play was rehearsed by a single company and toured around the country. The system was dominated by a few booking agencies in New York that monopolized nearly all shows produced in the United States.

Wisconsin has a unique link to the world of theater. The “first couple” of American Theater, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, toured extensively on a national circuit early in their careers, visiting Opera Houses and theaters across the country. Despite their fame, the couple maintained a summer home at Ten Chimneys, where they escaped the pressures of their profession.

In the teens and twenties, other forms of entertainment began to vie with theatrical productions, most notably radio and the emerging film industry. The working class was the first to leave, because movies were cheaper than live entertainment. Radio effected attendance as more the affluent theatergoers were initially those who could afford radios. By the 1910s theater owners were having trouble filling up the gallery seats.

As film began to take over as the primary entertainment choice, opera houses were adapted as motion picture theaters. The Fox Theater in Stevens Point received a major remodeling in the 1930s to facilitate its role as a movie theater. Many continued to show “opera house” fare as they made the transition. Early movie theaters that were constructed to show films, also featured full stages to allow live vaudeville and theater acts.

The film industry came to play a dominant role in theater design. The vertical integration of these companies allowed them to produce movies, distribute the films, and own and operate the theaters in which they were exhibited. This model tightly controlled the way that films were distributed by ranking theaters as first-run, second-run, third-run and so forth. The system was designed to ensure maximum profitability for the film producers, and allowed the infusion of corporate capital into theater construction. The architectural legacy of that integration was the “movie palace,” like the Sheboygan Theater, an expensive and elaborate construction that was designed to make theater going as much a part of the movie experience as the film itself.

Theater design became an architectural specialty. The leading firm in the United States was the Chicago firm of Rapp and Rapp. Their stunning showplace for circus magnate Al Ringling, both established their careers and became a model for the modern movie place. Movie palaces were costly to build and operate. In larger cities like Madison, such theaters soon cost in excess of a million dollars. Shortly after their introduction, movie palaces began to be developed around themes drawn primarily from foreign lands or historical periods. Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater was constructed by the Saxe Brothers as part of a citywide chain of theaters. It was built in 1927 during which the city of Milwaukee received 16 new theaters with a total of 18,200 seats. The Oriental was the “crown jewel” in the Saxe chain. Seating 2,310 people, the interior was elaborately ornamented with a mix of East Indian, Moorish, Islamic, and Byzantine architecture, including 102 elephants in the plasterwork and scenes of the Taj Majal.

Theater attendance continued to soar despite the depression of the 1930s. As competition grew, theater owners resorted to contests and giveaways to lure more and more people. The number of films swelled, as “B” movies were produced cheaply for second attractions and for debut at third-run and lower cinemas.

Second and third run cinemas had an architecture all of their own, and since the emphasis was on economy, they lacked the amenities of the movie palaces. Simple and austere, the imagery was derived from modernism, like the Pix Theater in Waukesha. They lacked the accoutrements of theater performance, as even vaudeville performance began to be displaced by the popularity of film.

In 1939 the Supreme Court ruled that film distribution was a monopoly and forced the studios to sell off their theaters. The ruling was timely for independent theater owners, because after the peak of 1946, theater attendance started a decline that has only recently leveled off.

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