While Hollywood’s better-known Golden Age would come later, a hundred years ago “the movies” became “cinema” complete with their own gilded palaces
If you thought Taylor Swift’s Eras tours were a cultural frenzy, you should have been around a hundred years earlier when British archeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 set off a nationwide mania for all things Egyptian. Suddenly, palm trees, lotus blossoms, sphinxes, and ersatz hieroglyphics were everywhere, while dancing flappers wore headbands featuring cobras and snake bracelets that wound up their arms a la Cleopatra. From fashion to architecture to music — “Old King Tut “ was a hit fox-trot in 1923 — America had become “Egyptianized.”
In no category of culture was this phenomenon more pronounced than in the moving-picture business, which seemingly had been waiting for just such an event to happen, to give movies an even bigger push to the front of the national cultural conversation.
The Arrival Of The Palace
Movie houses up until then had been a mélange of architectural styles ranging from basic utilitarian storefronts to converted theaters. The former likely had a piano and the latter might have invested in an organ for musical accompaniment, and perhaps plusher seats. But urban movie houses in the early part of the century were often rowdy and boisterous places, with admission averaging just seven cents, which also got the ticket holder some live entertainment like a comedian or a vocalist.
Post Tut, movie houses began to accelerate a transformation to become destinations rather than waypoints, a trend that begun after WWI as service members returned home looking for entertainment. An upper tier of them would become true cinema palaces, embracing an exotic Egyptian motif to set them apart and above a visceral fashion statement for the most advanced visual medium in history. By the time Wall Street fell in 1929, there were over 100 Egyptian-themed theaters in the country. Of these only seven remain; most notably, the eponymously named Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood (site of the world’s very first movie premiere, in 1922 of Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks), while the others are scattered mostly across the western US. But in their heyday they created a new foundation for what was still a fledgling medium, stirring demand for better image quality (and within a few years sound, as well), and bringing a more sophisticated theatrical ambience that helped raise moviegoers’ expectations of the films themselves.
An Inflection Point For Film
The inflection point for film and film venues of a century ago — the BBC declared it likely the most influential decade in the history of film — came about for a number of serendipitous reasons. They include the arrival of foundational technological advances, not the least of which was synchronized sound. In addition, there was the growing sophistication of the movies themselves, with canonical classics such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, Abel Gance’s visual triptych Napoleon, and Fritz Lang’s haunting Metropolis all appearing in that same decade. The British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll placed four titles from the 1920s in its top 15 greatest films of all time – the most of any single decade. Furthermore, the emergence of comedy designed specifically for the medium, by visionaries like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, greatly helped advance the art of camera technique beyond the static, traditional theatrical POV and further establishing film as its own art and craft. It’s also worth noting that the first Academy Awards “Oscars” ceremony was held in 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
The Medium Got The Message
The film palaces themselves, deeply influenced by the Egyptian theme, also helped shaped the future of the industry. Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, opened in October, 1922 on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, set the pace. Originally envisioned in a Spanish style common to the region, the design hurriedly changed to a pharaonic tone with the discovery of Tut’s tomb two weeks before opening (though after years of newspapers chronicling Carter‘s Egypt archeological forays whetted appetites for it). It would inspire the construction of around four dozen similarly themed theaters in cities across the country by the end of the decade.
The Egyptian motíf conferred a palpable sense of royalty to movies, a medium that was widely considered to have been more attuned to the hoi polloi than the elite at the time and that had seen few milestones at that juncture other than The Great Train Robbery (memorable for the mayhem caused in some venues by an onscreen cowboy firing his six-gun directly at the camera) and DW Griffiths’ Klan-burnishing Birth of a Nation. As the next generation of directors and screenwriters came of age, the new palaces helped the medium go from the quotidian epithet ,“the movies”, to the meta, almost academic sobriquet, “film”, and ultimately become the sophisticated “cinema.”
King Tut’s touch was indeed magic, and Sid Grauman happily rolled out a very plush red carpet for it. When patrons arrived at the Egyptian they were greeted by a show-before-the-show in the forecourt featuring fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, jugglers, and other live entertainment, as well as symphony orchestras and popular vocalists, all before the screen lit up. It wasn’t just the movies anymore — it was an event Cleopatra herself would have approved of.
Meanwhile, On The Other Coast…
It wasn’t all pyramids and palms. New York, the film industry’s first home before Hollywood and initially anchored there by proximity to production capital and by New Jersey-based inventor Thomas Edison’s film-technology patents, fought back. Herbert Lubin’s 5,920-seat Roxy Theatre cost the movie producer $12 million before it was completed in 1927, the equivalent of over $2 billion today, nearly bankrupting him in the process. Known as the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture,” the Roxy's design featured a soaring auditorium in which crowds enjoyed not only film but also lavish stage productions, supported by the Roxy’s three floors of dressing rooms, its own costume department, staff dry-cleaning and laundry rooms, a barber shop and hairdresser, a fully equipped infirmary, and a menagerie for show animals.
The Roxy had plenty of competition locally, including the Capitol Theatre, which became the flagship of the Loew’s chain in 1924. Both theaters were built just before the 1920s as the city tried to reassert its prominence in the film business as it embraced Hollywood’s better weather and lower costs, and east-coast theaters tended to lean on the sophisticated urban Art Deco aesthetic versus Tut’s Egyptian ornamentation. While nearly all of New York’s movie palaces would fall to the city’s relentless renovation during the 20th century, some of that Art Deco splendor can still be experienced in the geometric designs of Radio City Music Hall’s wall coverings, carpet, light fixtures, and furniture, installed when it opened in 1932.
Figuring Out Where The Sound Goes
The technology that married sound to picture began with Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone sound-on-disk system, first used to add a completely synchronized score, recorded by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, for the 1926 film Don Juan. The Jazz Singer followed a year later with synched music and some dialog, creating a full soundscape. But the new “talkies” had to be integrated into theaters that had till then relied on their natural acoustics to project live sound, with the palatial echelon of venues being especially reverberant, to enhance the impact of their live orchestras. Talking pictures needed audio speakers to pour sound into the hall, and those same natural acoustics often worked against speech intelligibility, with characters’ dialog getting lost in a sea of reverberation.
The science of theatrical acoustics is as old as the classical Greek amphitheater, but it got a workout when sound came to the movies. Curtains and drapes that previously had stagecraft and aesthetic purposes were now strategically repositioned to mitigate speech-smearing echoes off of walls, and film screens would become carefully perforated to allow speakers to be placed behind them, to give viewers the sense that the sound and picture were a unified entity.
The Beginning Of The End
In fact, though, it was that very integration of sound and picture that would bring about the end of the movie-palace era. With picture and sound now connected, the movie was suddenly a complete package. Cinemas, which in the decade had become the world's largest employer of musicians, no longer needed live orchestras, and thousands of them along with vaudeville artists and other performers and stagehands were summarily out of work. The need for a luxurious entertainment palace quickly receded, pushed further by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The movie itself was now, finally, the main attraction. In a very real sense, this intersection of sound and light prefigured the current changing landscape of visual media, as next-generation venues such the Sphere create new experiential environments for visual and sound entertainment, and with holography poised to usher in a new level of audience immersion and interaction that will help make visual art forms an even more authentic level of entertainment experience.