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Movie Theaters

Fox Watson Theater in SalinaIt is believed that a touring opera company brought the first moving pictures to Kansas. On the evening of January 28, 1897, Rosabel Morrison sang a performance of Carmen at the Topeka Grand Opera House. In the final act when Carmen confronted Don Jose outside the bullring, footage of an “authentic Spanish bull fight” was projected onto a canvas stretched across the stage, giving the Kansas capital not only its first movie, but its first mixed media presentation as well. Presentation of motion pictures in theaters that also hosted the vaudeville circuit made them part of mass entertainment. After the turn of the 20th century practically every vaudeville performance in the Great Plains incorporated moving pictures; soon venues exclusively showing motion pictures were common.

Moving picture theaters enjoyed a remarkable rise in popularity. Almost unknown in 1903, there were between 5,000 and 10,000 moving picture theaters in the United States by 1910, with annual receipts that reached into the millions of dollars. A strong national economy and a rapidly growing population supported the popular entertainment business. By 1908 small makeshift theaters served as the primary outlet for motion pictures, while vaudeville performances, traveling exhibitors, and amusement parks also showed movies as part of their regular entertainment. Many small-town entrepreneurs entered the moving picture exhibition business so that nearly all American communities of any size had a permanent schedule of movie shows by 1910.

The earliest movie theaters, often known as nickelodeons or conversion theaters, occupied storefronts in the main street commercial district roughly between 1900 and 1915. These venues adapted existing buildings to suit the specific needs of movie viewing. An open interior room with movable seats and a screen attached to one wall formed the auditorium. Other than exterior signage, there was little about the outside of the building to distinguish it from any other commercial building space. Usually the first movie theater in a community was set up by an itinerant film exhibitor equipped with a portable projector. Traveling through small towns and the rural hinterland, these itinerants rented vacant stores and set up folding chairs, hung a sheet on the back wall, and sold tickets from a box out front. Like the early community halls, these conversion theaters were very utilitarian spaces with standard finishes, such as plaster walls, plaster or pressed metal ceilings, and wood floors.

By 1915 enterprising business people began constructing buildings specifically to house movie theaters. Like the conversion theaters, the first true movie theaters usually occupied a lot in the downtown commercial district or along a streetcar line between the downtown and growing residential suburbs. The movie theater adapted the facade of a standard main street two-part commercial block. To facilitate the movement of patrons through the building, the enframed wall or vault commercial block forms were often adapted to the movie theater building. To protect against the dangers of fire that were common to early movie projection systems, advances in fireproof building technology were quickly adopted by builders. These advances included steel trusses, concrete structural systems, and masonry facades, all of which were fireproof.

As with earlier generations of theaters and opera houses, the primary facades of movie theaters expressed the popular architecture of their day. Augmenting the brick commercial block facade were terra cotta, stone, or cast stone architectural elements reflecting one or more of the styles popular at the time, including Classical Revival and Spanish/Mission Revival. The use of subtly patterned and textured brick known as Tapestry Brick was also common.

By the 1930s and 1940s geometric Art Deco and streamlined Moderne motifs were popular for movie theater designs. To enhance the effect of these designs, new materials were incorporated into theater facades, including pastelcolored structural glass and ceramic tiles, glass block, chrome, and neon.

Through the entrance doors patrons entered a small lobby. Another set of doors at the rear of the lobby led to the auditorium. Stairs on either end of the lobby provided access to the balcony, if there was one. The elevated projection booth was at the rear of the auditorium. In some early movie theaters, the projection booth was built outside the auditorium walls to provide additional protection from fire.

The auditorium was a large open space featuring a raked floor, rows of permanent seats affixed to the floor, and a screen above the stage. Because theaters constructed before the age of talking pictures sometimes featured vaudeville acts and other live performances as well as movies, the stages often were equipped with an orchestra pit, curtains, and rigging for scenery. Even after 1927, it was not uncommon to find a small stage in a movie theater’s auditorium.

As the motion picture industry prospered and competition increased, movie theater owners updated their theaters to stay current with design trends. After the advent of talking pictures in 1927 and again in the 1940s, there was a pattern of renovation among Kansas movie theaters. Common changes included adding a partition wall below the balcony to create a secondary foyer at the rear of the auditorium; adding a concession stand to the lobby; redecorating the interior of the auditorium and/or lobby; installing a new marquee on the front elevation; enclosing the recessed entry; and redesigning the theater entrance.

As the success of movies continued to grow, entrepreneurs looked for ways to turn even greater profits. The effort to build increasingly extravagant theaters led to the development of the movie palace in about 1915. The movie palace represented the apex of movie theater design. It was a unique building type, strongly influenced by the design of the opera houses and music halls built in Europe and the United States during the late nineteenth century; yet no building type was more representative of twentieth-century American architecture and culture.

Just as architects had applied highstyle Classical motifs and Victorian themes to nineteenth-century opera houses, movie palaces appeared in a wide array of highstyle architectural idioms that frequently focused on the modern, the exotic, and the whimsical. In the 1920s as the number of movie palaces exploded and competition between the movie chains intensified, theater design became increasingly fanciful. Archeological discoveries in Egypt in 1922 spurred a trend toward more exotic designs. Soon motifs ranging from Spanish Colonial to Mayan, Egyptian, Chinese, and Art Deco joined the more traditional French Second Empire and Italian Baroque movie palaces.

Investors erected a number of fanciful, architect-designed movie theaters in Kansas. While few of these are fullfledged movie palaces, they embody the exotic thematic imagery that distinguishes movie palaces from ordinary main street movie theaters. The largest and most whimsical theaters are found in the larger Kansas cities. Early examples include the Boller Brothers designs for the Barron Theater in Pratt (1915), the Stella Theater in Council Grove (1918), and the Sunflower Theater in Peabody (1919). Southwest and Spanish Revival motifs were common. The Fox Watson Theater in Salina and Kansas City’s Granada Theater are notable Art Deco movie palaces in Kansas. Movie palaces often were physically linked with adjoining commercial structures. John Eberson’s Orpheum Theater (1922) in Wichita connected to an office building. The Jayhawk Theater (1926) in Topeka, designed by Thomas Williamson, adjoined a hotel.

"Historic Theaters and Opera Houses of Kansas," Kansas Preservation, March/April 2005, page 7

Entry: Movie Theaters

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: February 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.