Cinema Design

The French-inspired exterior of the Chicago Paradise (1928) betrays its commercial, working- and middle-class roots through its massive electrical marquee, a holdover from arcades, vaudeville houses, and amusement parks.

The exterior of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Movie historian Ben Hall wrote about this theater, constructed in Los Angeles in 1927 and still a popular landmark, "If the Roxy in New York was the Cathedral of the Motion Picture, the Chinese was its High Pagoda."

The Roxy Theater in New York City had floor plans that called for five floors of dressing rooms, an animal room below the stage, a ballet room, a costume department, a laundry, a dry cleaning establishment, a hairdressing salon, a barbershop, and a unicycle garage to facilitate its nightly stage shows. In addition, the Roxy housed a music library of over 10,000 vocal numbers and 50,000 orchestrations, staffed with three full-time librarians, which was billed at the time as the largest music library in the world.

Samuel Rothapfel stands beside the main Kimball organ console for the Roxy Theater, 1927. Altogether the theater housed five organ consoles. The organs originally accompanied silent films and often included sound effects to simulate birds, horses, whistles, autos, fire engines, planes, hurricanes, surf, rain, telephones, doorbells, trolley bells, and smashing crockery. The most grandiose organs featured stops reading "Love (Mother)," "Love (Passion)," "Love (Romantic)," "Quietude," "Jealousy," "Suspense," "Happiness," "Hate," "Mysterious," "Ruesome," "Pathetic," and "Riot," lest theatergoers be in doubt about the emotional states of those onscreen.(2) The organ in Denver's Isis Theater even included a lightning machine. In 1926 famed theater organist Jesse Crawford designed what was generally acknowledged to be the "Queen Mother of All Wurlitzers" for the Paramount Theater in Times Square. When John Philip Sousa's band played a week at the Paramount, theater managers stationed trained nurses in the aisles "to assist those overcome by the sheer magnitude of sound when the Sousa Band, the Paramount Grand Orchestra, and Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Crawford at the twin consoles of the Mighty Wurlitzer all joined together in their rendition of "The Stars and Stripes Forever."(3) Crawford's achievement was eclipsed by the triple console organ at the Roxy in 1927, the Moller De Luxe at the Atlanta Fox in 1929, and the massive Wurlitzer at Radio City Music Hall in 1932. By 1932, however, silent films were a thing of the past, and theater organs were chiefly instruments for congregational singing and for accompanying stage shows.

The curtain at the San Francisco Fox cost $8,900 when workers assembled it out of gold kid, padded lame, 2,500 glass reflectors, and silk rope fringe in 1929.

Movie palaces began in 1913 with The Regent in New York City. 


The designs of this era stemmed from legitimate Vaudeville theaters, themselves modeled on opera houses and european styling of the 18th & 19th century. Beginning with the ‘standard’ movie palace, with its eclectic and luxurious period-revival architecture;

The atmospheric interiors of the Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta Fox theaters (seen here and which seats 5,000) were decorated in a Persian style and were guarded by Turkish warriors armed with scimitars, who stood by the throne chairs in the lobbies. The atmospheric interior of Atlanta's Fox seats 5,000. The Fox continues operation today, mainly hosting rock concerts.

Grauman's Egyptian Theater, designed by Meyer & Holler, opened on Hollywood Boulevard in 1922. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in the early 1920s inspired a taste for Egyptian Revival architecture in America. It included a forecourt lined with mock tombstones and a robed Bedouin carrying a spear who paced the building's parapet all day long.

This would lead to the atmospheric theatre, the first of which was The Houston Majestic, constructed in 1923,  and designed by, John Eberson, featuring fantasy environments fashioned after ‘exotic’ cultures,


The interior of the Fox-Arlington in Santa Barbara, California, a typical atmospheric theater.

John Eberson, prolific designer of more than 100 atmospheric theaters in the U.S, would describe them as  "a magnificent amphitheater under a glorious moonlit Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio, or a mystic Egyptian temple yard."

The interior of Chicago's Paradise Theater. Designed by John Eberson and opened in 1928, it was considered by many to be the most beautiful movie palace constructed in America. Note the atmospheric clouds on the ceiling and the heavenly host above the proscenium.

During the 1930s, Art Deco replaced other styles of theater architecture to become the standard in palace design. The first Art Deco palace, designed in 1930 by Marcus Priteca, was the Hollywood Pantages at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles.

The Streamline Moderne exterior of the Academy Theater, designed by S. Charles Lee in 1939.

This style lasted until the mid-to late 1960's.

Architects and builders continued to construct some movie palaces during the Depression, despite a somewhat bleak financial picture. Radio City Music Hall, opened in 1932, was the most noteworthy of these structures as it was the largest theater in the U.S. at the time it opened, housing 5,960 moviegoers at a time. Its backers saw Radio City as a symbol of the motion picture industry's resiliency and of the ultimate invincibility of American consumer culture.

 "Clearly tastes had changed. No longer did moviegoers expect a royal welcome from doormen, ushers, and lounge attendants. The architectural treatments of movie palaces were now considered exuberant, if not downright wasteful."(4) However, Radio City Music Hall, one of the most impressive displays of Art Deco architecture, was christened with the belief that it would resurrect American consumerism: in its grand scale and at its core, it was an affirmation, not a rejection, of the culture of the 1920s.

Architects employing earlier styles, including the architects of early movie palaces, worked hard to keep machinery and mechanics 'behind the scenes.' Movie palace architecture of the '10s and '20s obscured anything commercial or technological and, like the advertising of the period, assured moviegoers that they could achieve equality through consumption. Their vision of what was eminently consumable encompassed Old World, aristocratic forms, originally dependent on hand-craftsmanship and feudalism but now made available through mass production and corporate forms of ownership.

During World War II, movie theaters hosted newsreels and war bond drives, attracting patriotic and news-hungry Americans by the millions--85 million each week. (Theater attendance was half that figure a decade later and in 1991 it was only 18.9 million per week.)(1) Americans packed in existing movie palaces during the war, as a building ban stateside stopped construction of new theaters during the first years of WWII; the Armed Forces and the Medical Corps commandeered all new projection equipment to show training films.

In 1943, however, a study commissioned by the Navy concluded that a lack of movie theaters stateside contributed to delinquency and high labor turnover; the Navy urged construction of new theaters and the industry obliged. During the '40s theater builders relied heavily on concrete and glass, which were the most abundant nonrestricted materials available to them: other building supplies were used first for the war, and then for housing following the soldiers' return. Cinema attendance reached its all-time American high in the years following V-J Day.

The Supreme Court declared the movie industry's vertical integration unlawful in 1948. Studios were forced to divest their theaters, many of which could not survive as independents without Hollywood subsidy.

Television played a role as well. Between 1947 and 1957, 90% of American households acquired a television.

Theater owners tried various gimmicks to entice customers away from their sets, including wide screen, Cinerama, and 3-D motion pictures, all of which meant the renovation of existing theaters to accommodate a wider screen and thus the destruction of many elaborate movie palace prosceniums and organ grilles.

Theater owners altered their buildings in other ways as well during this period, primarily to accommodate the growing number of patrons arriving by automobile. The demand for free parking required the expansion of existing lots and, for the convenience of drivers dropping off passengers for the show, a whole new 'drive through marquee' came into being. At theaters like the Arden in Lynnwood, California, drivers could drop off passengers at the lobby door and purchase tickets without leaving the car.

The Arden Theater in Lynnwood, California. Note the car parked under the drive through marquee.

The first drive-in opened in June 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. By 1947 there were 548 in operation, a figure which mushroomed to over 4,000 by the mid-'50s.(3) Drive-ins continued many of the amenities offered by movie palaces and supplemented them with new ones geared to an automobile- and family-oriented society: playgrounds, miniature golf, swimming pools, pony rides, miniature trains, bottle warming, and automobile service stations were among the choices.

Since the early 50's, cities across the country have seen their movie palaces close down. Most were demolished. Many cities were left without a single movie palace. The new invention in the late 40's called television or TV was mainly responsible for this.

Usher class at Radio City Music Hall


One of the golden pulpits which flanked the stage in New York's nearly 6,000 seat Roxy Theater in Brooklyn.

These were followed by commercial motion picture theaters (particularly CinemaScope (1952), Todd-AO (1956) and Cinerama (1962)) which have long established the principle design characteristics that make the movie going experience special. These include huge multi-story screens, sprawling stereophonic surround sound systems, comfy plush seating, exquisite sumptuous decor, refined clear acoustics, outstanding hand-tailored customer service, and architectural designs that carefully focus the presentation completely on the audience. The stadium design and size of the IMAX Theaters and their enormous 7 x 5 story screens (1968) typify a particularly well executed version of this design that produces a substantially larger and more involving presentation, very much reminiscent of the 70 mm "Road Shows" presentations of the great 70 mm era.

During the late 60's, movie theatre attendance declined to it's lowest levels ever. An independent theatre owner in New Jersey realized that it was getting quite expensive to heat the entire auditorium of his theatre for just a handful of patrons so he had a wall built down the middle of the auditorium turning his theatre into the world's first twin indoor movie theatre. During the winter when business was down he'd have one theatre auditorium open and comfortably heated while the other auditorium remained closed and unheated. This saved on heating bills. On busy weekends he would have both auditoriums open and run the same print on both screens. That idea caught on with other struggling independent theatre owners. Soon large theaters were being divided into two or even three smaller theaters with smaller screens to match. By the early 70s the major theatre chains led by United Artists joined in the multiplex frenzy by building multiplexes from the ground up. First they built twins in suburban mall parking lots then moved inside beginning with the four-plex, a cinema with four small auditoriums and screens. The auditoriums contained a tiny fraction of the seating that was found in movie palaces and the screens were nothing more than a joke. Eventually 4-plexes became 6 then 8 and so on.

Eventually, quality of picture and sound would suffer to where we are today - with IMAX being the only 70 mm playback system currently available . . . until now!


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