Before faceless multiplexes became the norm, one could always spot a movie theater in the distance, even if it was your first visit to that town. A large illuminated vertical sign announced the name of the cinema, and the triangular marquee below was lined with tiny blinking light bulbs. Even if the film being shown was a dud, that sign out front just lured you inside.
And that was just one of the trimmings that used to make “going to the movies” an event, a night out on the town. If you remember when an usher would scold you for speaking too loud, or had a grandma who had a full set of china only because she’d faithfully attended weeks of Dish Nights, these 11 artifacts might bring back some fond memories.
1. RED VELVET CURTAIN
As patrons entered the movie theater prior to showtime, they naturally lowered their voices and spoke in hushed tones as they found their seats. There was something about the lush, heavy red velvet curtain covering the screen that gave the auditorium an aura of majesty and demanded that people be on their best behavior. When folks were seated, they talked quietly among themselves, which was possible because the latest pop hits weren’t blaring out of oversized sub-woofers. If there was any soundtrack, it was atmospheric Muzak playing softly in the background. When the lights dimmed and the curtains parted with a flourish, the audience fell silent in anticipation.
Curtains haven’t covered movie screens since theater owners figured out how to turn those screens into temporary billboards. Today the screen is almost never blank; if the main feature isn’t showing, then a constant slideshow of advertisements and trivia questions is.
2. UNIFORMED USHERS
Those gallant men and women who escorted you to your seats at the cinema used to dress in more finery than a decorated soldier. But that was at a time when movie ushers did much more than tear tickets and sweep up spilled popcorn; they kept an eye out for miscreants attempting to sneak in without paying, offered a helpful elbow to steady women walking down the steeply inclined aisle in high-heeled shoes, and were quick to “Shhh!” folks who talked during the movie. Ushers carried small flashlights to guide patrons who arrived after the movie had started, and they were also the ones who maintained order when the film broke and the audience grew ornery. Of course, cell phones hadn’t yet been invented, so doctors or parents who’d left youngsters home with a babysitter often mentioned such to the usher as they were seated, so he’d be able to find them during the show if an emergency phone call was received for them at the box office.
3. DISH NIGHT
One gimmick that kept movie theaters operating during the very lean 1930s was Dish Night. Money was obviously very tight during the Great Depression, and families had to be extremely cautious when it came to any discretionary spending. A night out at the movies was an unnecessary luxury, and cinema audiences dwindled. Theater owners lowered their ticket prices as much as they could (sometimes as low as 10 cents for an evening feature), but what finally put bodies in seats was Dish Night.
Salem China and a few other manufacturers of finer dinnerware struck deals with theaters across the U.S., selling the theater owner their wares at wholesale and allowing their products to be given away as premiums with each ticket sold. Sure enough, soon housewives were demanding that their husbands take them out to the Bijou every week in order to get a coffee cup, saucer, gravy boat, or dinner plate to complete their place setting. One Seattle theater owner reported by distributing 1000 pieces of china costing him $110 on a Monday night, he took in $300—a whopping $250 more than he’d made the previous Monday.
Movie theater seats didn’t come equipped with cup holders until the late 1960s, and even then it was something of a novelty that only newer cinemas boasted. What every seat did have for many decades before then, however, was a built-in ashtray. You can probably guess why that particular convenience has gone the way of the dodo bird: fire regulations and second-hand smoke dangers and all that.
Before TV became ubiquitous, most Americans had to get their breaking news from the radio or the daily newspaper. But neither one of those sources came equipped with moving pictures. Hence, the newsreel, a brief “you are there” update on what was going on in the world, was invented. Newsreels were commonly shown prior to the main feature and was the only way most people first saw actual film footage of events like the Hindenburg explosion or the Olympic games.