Old Movie Theaters


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This blog is a continuation of a blog series. The first blog was about TV. This blog is about movie theaters. A movie theater is also called a cinema.

In my good old days (circa 1960), only a small number of movies were made every year. Because of this, movies would return to the theaters every few years. So if you missed “Dr. No”, a James Bond movie, this year, you might be able to see it again in 2 or 3 years because it would come back to the movie theaters again if you waited long enough. Remember that we had no DVDs back then, so you couldn’t buy a movie DVD to watch at home. You had to wait for a movie to return to the movie theaters in a few years if you wanted to see it again (or see it for the first time if you missed it the first time it showed). Like TV, movies came out in black and whiteinitially, but eventually began coming out in color. Yay!

Movies back then were recorded on a plastic medium called film. A film is made of a series of small still images. Each square containing a single image is called a frame. By moving the film quickly in front of the lens, for example, at a speed of 30 frames per second, the still images appear to be “moving”. The film is then stored on a reel.

Movies were shown using a machine called a movie projector, a device with two reels, a bright light, and a lens. The reel with the movie film was loaded onto the projector and the end of the film was manually threaded in front of the lens and attached to the empty reel. When the projector was turned on, the motorized empty reel would turn, rolling the film from the full reel to the empty reel while allowing the film to pass in front of the lens so the bright light behind the lens can project the film images (i.e., the movie frames) outward onto the large screen.

The movie projector operator worked in a small room called the movie projection booth at the top rear part of the movie theater. The movie projector would project the movie through a hole in the front wall of the movie projection booth. The picture below is looking backwards from the seating area and up towards the front wall of the movie projection booth, where you can see the movie projector operator and the movie projectors through the holes in the front wall of the booth.

Movie Projection Booth (Front Wall facing the movie screen)

Movie Projector and Movie Projector Operator

On rare occasions, the film would break (it’s plastic, after all), the movie would stop, and the audience would be left looking at a brightly lit white screen. The audience would express their dissatisfaction with this state of affairs by yelling “Boo!” up towards the movie projection booth. This would motivate the movie projector operator in the booth to wake up (in case he fell asleep) and fix the problem, quickly if you please.

Since the movie was stored on film, you may sometimes hear people refer to a movieas a film. These words are often used interchangeably, but to be most accurate, the film is the medium and the movie is the data stored on that medium.

Two Types of Movie Theaters

Back then, we had two kinds of movie theaters — what I’ll characterize as inside (walk-in) and outside (drive-in). They differed in setting (environment), type of seating, ticketprice,amenities, and location of the concession stand, restrooms, and ticket counter (or ticket window).

Inside Movie Theaters

Inside movie theaters are still in common use today. They are ubiquitous, so you are undoubtedly familiar with them. Inside movie theaters can show movies anytime, in the daytimeor at night. You buy your ticket at a ticket counter (or ticket window), enter the movie theater (go inside a building), and find a seat among many rows of seats. An aisle (walkway) between seat sections allows you to quickly walk to any row you wish to sit in.

There is a built-in, surround-sound audio system for sound and a large screen in the front for the video part of the movie. Typically, there are large curtains that can close to hide the screen until “show time”! This hides the boring-looking, blank movie screen until there is something to show on it.

Sometimes the theater has stadium-style seating, which means the seats in the back are higher than the seats in the front so short people sitting in the back can see over the heads of tall people sitting in the front.

An inside movie theater has restrooms and a concession stand all inside the same building. The concession stand is the area of the movie theater that sells concessions, a fancy name for things sold for the customer’s convenience, which usually means food, drinks, and candy.

Inside movie theaters often had a glitzy type of outside sign called a marqueethat advertised what movies were playing that day.

This marquee is advertising three movies playing simultaneously at this theater on three different screens. This is possible because a movie theater (aka a cinema) may have many screens, 20 screens, for example,where each screen is basically a “mini-theater” within the main theater (i.e., in the same building). Each screen or mini-theater can show a different movie than the other screens. These other screens can also be called cinemas. This marquee indicates that this theater has three screens, so it can show three different movies at the same time in different sections of the theater (i.e., in the mini-theaters).

Someone had to climb up to the marquee with a ladder to hang the individual letters on the marquee. The horizontal lines you see are what the letters were attached to. This marquee is a “triangular” one, that is, it has three sides for advertising purposes.

Outside Movie Theaters (aka Drive-Ins)

The outside movie theater was called a “drive-in” (theater). A drive-in consisted of a large movie screen located outside with a parking lot in front of it.

Any two parking spaces would have a small speaker post between them. The post would have two speakers, one for each car on either side of it. The speakers had long wires attaching them to the post.

With two speakers on a speaker post, both the driver and the front seatpassenger would hang a speaker on the “top inside” of their windows. People sitting in the back seat had to listen to the front seat speakers.

Drive-ins were only open at night because you couldn’t see the movie on the screen in the daytime. Drive-in movie tickets were generally cheaper than inside movie theaters.

You would drive up to a ticket window (like the drive-through at McDonald’s), buy your tickets (one per person in the car), drive your car onto the parking lot, find a good parking space near the center, park you car, lower your front window, grab the speaker box and hang it on the inside of your car window, and raise your window if desired. You were then ready to watch the movie. Hungry? The concession stand in a drive-in was a small building at the back (rear) or center of the parking lot. You had to get out of your car, walk to the concession stand, buy your drinks and popcorn, and carry them back to your car. Some drive-ins also had a playground between the movie screen and the parking lot for the kids to play in before the movie and during the intermission.

In the picture below, you can see a playground immediately in front of the movie screen and a building in the centerof the parking lot that houses (contains) the concession stand, restrooms, and movie projection booth. If you came early, your car could get a good “seat” in the front. If you came late, your car would end up way in the rear. Why these people are sitting here in the daytime is a mystery to me. Perhaps this was the first showing of the original Star Wars movie back in 1977, and everyone wanted to “line up” early to get a good “seat”.

Intermission, Teacher Lee? What’s that? Well, in the old days, drive-in movies would often be stopped about half-way through the movie for about 10 minutes (the screen would go dark). This gave the viewers (the audience) a chance to get out of their cars to stretch their legs, visit the concession stand, go to the restrooms (in the concession stand building), and buy some food. It also gave the kids a chance to run to the playground and use up some of their energy before the movie resumed. After this intermission break, the movie would resume (begin again) and run until it was finished. Another benefit of drive-ins is that they would sometimes show TWO different movies for the price of ONE! We called this a double feature. Sometimes a drive-in would show a triple feature! You could expect to get home very late on these nights. There was always an intermission between movies.

We were so poor back then that there was a Saturday “special deal” where you could pay for admission to the movie with a can of food instead of money. In the case of drive-ins, teenagers would sometime try to hide someone in the trunk of the car to avoid having to buy an extra ticket. Sometimes the drive-in ticket seller would ask you to open your car trunk before letting you in, to stop this kind of cheating. If you went to the movie theater on a Saturday, you could get an extra treat: a cartoon or a serial episode or both. A serial, as defined back then, was basically a long action thriller, a mini-movie, broken into 10-minute segments (pieces). Each segment would end with the hero about to be killed! Yikes! This kind of ending is called a cliff-hanger. “What’s going to happen? Tell me!” Ah, that’s the catch (the trick, the gimmick, the kicker, the hooker). You must come back next Saturday (and pay for another movie!) to see the conclusion of this cliff-hanger. Two serials I remember watching were Batman and Captain Video. I’ve forgotten most of the serials but there were more.

Today’s Movie Theaters

Today, new movies come out so often that it is difficult to see them all! There are no cartoons or serials anymore. Movies are often digitally recorded on disk instead of on plastic film. Once a movie finishes playing in a movie theater, it willnever again appear in the theaters. It will appear on DVD or be shown on Cable TV instead. Drive-in theaters are almost obsolete. Theater sound systems today are super-whamodyne systems with features like Dolby, surround-sound, etc. In the USA at least, ticket prices are quite expensive, and theater food is extremely, unbelievably, ridiculously expensive because the poor consumer is a captive audience. The movie theaters make most of their profit from the concession stand (i.e., not from ticket sales) by selling food and drinks at scalper prices. You can easily spend more money on food than on the movie ticket itself. The movie theater philosophy of making a profit says to the consumer: “You cannot bring in your own food and drinks. You must buy our outrageously expensive food and drinks or else go hungry and thirsty. We rip you off like this because we can. Ha ha ha.” Personally, I hate being ripped off like this. Buying two drinks and a large popcorn can easily exceed US $20.

Today’s version of a “drive-in” movie has changed slightly. We just call it an outside movie.

Self-Assessment (or What Did You Learn?)

(T/F = True/False)

  1. A drive-in is a nice place to go when it is raining outside. (T/F)
  2. A movie can also be called a film in everyday speech. (T/F)
  3. Which of these is not a medium — pen, paper, film, audio tape, computer hard disk?
  4. Which of these could be considered a concession? (a secret, beverages, paper, film)
  5. If I opened my mailbox and saw a snake, I would say, “____!” (yay, boo, yikes)
  6. If I need to stretch my legs, they are ____.
    (too short, in intense pain, feeling numb from lack of movement)
  7. A movie projector has a lens, a bright light, and two _____ to hold the film.
  8. A euphemism (polite term) for a public bathroom is a _____.
  9. A slang expression that means to cheat someone is to ____ someone ____.
  10. Which of the following might describe an intermission? (red, loud, 15 minutes)
  11. A theater marquee is a(n) _____. (ticket counter, outside sign, concession stand)
  12. In the USA today, movie theater concessions are considered to be _____.
    (cheap, reasonably priced, outrageously expensive)
  13. In Lee’s good old days, a movie might replay (play again) at movie theaters every few years. (T/F)
  14. What does simultaneously mean? (hot, strange, at the same time, with shock and anger)
  15. A captive audience can have both good and bad meanings. In this blog, it has a ____ meaning. (good, bad, neutral)
  16. A cliff-hanger is a _____. (piece of rope, mystery, suspenseful ending, boring movie)
  17. A scalper rips people off. (T/F)
  18. Do women like glitzy things? (Yes/No) (Be honest now.)
  19. Stadium-style seating means that all seats are the same height above the floor. (T/F)
  20. A movie is suspended when an intermission begins, and the movie _____ when the intermission is over. (picks up, starts again, resumes) (Pick the word that goes best with “suspended”.)

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