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Did you know that large theaters in big cities in the 1920s and 1930s almost never used the studio issued posters on their theater fronts (or in their lobbies)?

Return to Did You Know Archive
Added: 04/02/2018

When I (Bruce) purchased my first movie posters and lobby cards WAY back in 1969 (from Tannar Miles, a legendary early Texas dealer of movie memorabilia, who is still alive and well!), I naturally assumed that those movie posters and lobby cards could have been displayed in ANY movie theater in the U.S., since it seemed only logical that they all used the same posters (after all, why set up a huge nationwide distribution system if all the theaters didn't use it?).

Of course, once I started to think about it, I remembered that the two movie theaters in my home town of Great Neck, New York only seemed to display one-sheets when I went there from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, but that might have only meant that some theaters only used some of the posters available, but that they all worked with the same group of posters made by the nationwide poster exchanges.

It wasn't until the very early 1980s, when I started collecting "exhibitor magazines" (special magazines only sent to theater owners) that I began to realize this just wasn't true! The leading exhibitor magazine was MOVING PICTURE WORLD and  almost every issue from the late 1910s to the early 1930s (at least) has a great section called "Selling the Picture to the Public", which shows lots of images of theater fronts and theater lobbies (almost all from big theaters in big cities), and I quickly saw that they all only had displays they made themselves!

Now in some cases those home made displays incorporated studio issued posters into those displays, but usually they were mostly cut up and used in pieces. And LOTS of those home made displays were INCREDIBLY elaborate! For example, when it was a jungle picture, they might have lots of real plants and vines all over to create a 3D faux jungle, and they also made "deserts", "tropical islands", "jail cells", etc.

And they would often have mannequins incorporated in their displays, and sometimes the outdoor displays would be positively MASSIVE, sometimes covering the entire side of a multi-story building! But let me stress that I only saw this on good sized theaters, usually in big cities. When I would see images of smaller theaters (or ones that did not show movies on their first run), then those WOULD almost always have the studio issued posters and lobby cards on display.

What likely accounted for this? I have been lucky enough to have had several consignors who ran movie theaters in the 1940s, and they told me that labor (and materials) was incredibly cheap in the 1930s (especially during the Great Depression), and that movie theaters were very profitable at that time (just about everyone went to theaters almost every day, in those pre-TV days, especially because most theaters were air conditioned and most homes were not!).

So a theater owner could well afford the extra expense of really going the extra mile to make their theater front look super cool, and there was lots of reason to do so, since there was usually other theaters within a few block in a big city, and that great advertising might make people choose your theater over another one.

In the past few months we were lucky enough to have auctioned hundreds of candid photos of theater fronts and theater lobbies from the late 1930s and early 1940s. These came from an amazing scrapbook that was discovered, and sadly they are just about all sold now. But you can see these candid theater front photos (and a few others we had previously auctioned) by going to http://www.emovieposter.com/agallery/search/theater%2520front/tag/xtype%253A8x10%2520still/archive.html

And if anyone reading this has ANY candid photos showing theater fronts or theater lobbies, we would love to auction them (and as you can see from the above link, some have auctioned for over $100 each!). Go HERE to learn about consigning.


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