Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 13
by Hilary Russell
When the Regent opened,
An architectural innovation which distinguished the Regent from pretentious vaudeville houses and legitimate theatres of the time was the replacement of the usual "double cliff hangers" by a single balcony with a gentle slope and "exemplary sight lines." Instead of being the usual obstructions in the orchestra. the supporting balcony columns were set behind the last row of seats. This solution established a first-class reputation for the Regent's young architect, Thomas W. Lamb.2
The Regent also differed in dedicating "its operahouse splendor, with its gilded stage boxes and fancy curtains" to motion pictures. Nevertheless, for the first ten months of its existence, the Regent was also distinguished by being a commercial failure. Its patrons were "embarrassed and baffled to find all this grandeur surrounding something as unimportant as movies."3 Then S. L. ("Roxy") Rothafel burst upon the scene and transformed the place into a success.
It was Roxy's touch as the theatre's manager that set the tone for its movie palace successors. He introduced rose-tinted lighting in the auditorium, a new ventilating system and a scored orchestral programme suited to the changing moods of the silent feature. The sound was provided by a 16-piece orchestra, a separate string ensemble and New York's first pipe organ in a theatre.4
In April 1914, Thomas Lamb's and Roxy's next theatre, the Mark Strand, opened on Broadway and 47th Street, New York, and earned the name of "Broadway's first genuine movie palace." Its decoration. entertainment and staff were far grander than those of the Regent. The Strand accommodated 3,000 in plush upholstered seats in an auditorium "done as a sort of neo-Corinthian temple topped by a vast cove-lit dome."5
The opening of the Strand's cosmetic suite was marked by a formal tea, Richard Barthelmess and Marion Coakley, stars of "The Enchanted Cottage," presiding. They were justified in celebrating "a lounging room...of satin and rosewood, with gold leaf on hand-carved decorations, and furnished in Louis XVI furniture and tapestries."6
The Strand's splendid opening night so impressed the New York Times drama critic in 1914 that he wrote,
A series of articles in Moving Picture World in 1910 had complained that the level of moving picture exhibition in New York City was much lower than that found in other locations. The principal cause of this disgrace was that the city's building laws prohibited the erection of a moving picture theatre seating more than 300. Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicagoin fact, "all the great cities of the Union"could boast of up-to-date deluxe picture theatres which provided for the creature comforts of their patrons. And this type of theatre, the editor had been told, found "its best expression" abroad, in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. But in 1914, after the openings of the Regent and the Mark Strand, the editor could assert that "this country leads the world by a safe margin in the number of modern. large and well-appointed moving picture theaters."8
Together the Regent and the Strand played a role similar to that of the 1905 Pittsburgh nickelodeon in influencing the evolution of movie theatre construction. The prerequisites for a movie palace were established, though theatre buildings and their seating capacities, stages, orchestras and theatre organs became bigger and more expensive, their decoration and ushers gaudier, and entertainment programmes more spectacular.
The main ingredients of a movie palace were a central location in a large urban area, immense seating capacity, huge grand foyer and lobby areas and extravagant, eye-popping decor. A movie palace was covered with gilded plaster shaped into all manner of embellishment, and often studded with classic columns, arcades of mirrors, and crystal chandeliers. It was also characterized by palatial lounges and restrooms and regiments of smartly uniformed ushers. Standard movie palace equipment included galleries of oil paintings, acres of broad loom and plush upholstered seats, damask and velvet draperies and a blazing marquee. The palace's hallmarks were comfort, cleanliness and opulence. It provided "super" stage shows and first-run film showings,9 accompanied by a mammoth theatre organ and a resident orchestra at the highest scale of admission for motion picture entertainment (Figs. 24-26).
Only a few hundred of these palaces were built, and exclusively in major metropolitan centres because of their cost and large patronage requirements. Far more numerous were the deluxe movie theatres that were built in small towns and in larger urban areas throughout the movie palace era. The scale, entertainment programme and decor of a movie palace distinguished it from a deluxe movie theatre. Movie palaces might entertain 6,000 patrons and deluxe houses usually accommodated under 2,000; compared to movie palaces, they had much smaller lobbies and foyers, and fewer, less flamboyant ushers. Their stage shows, if they offered any, were not as grandiose, and they were equipped with smaller theatre organs and orchestras.
While the decor of most deluxe houses was mainly derived from that of 19th-century legitimate theatres, there were no limits to the sources of inspiration for the movie palace architect, and no decorative style or combination of styles was too excessive or outrageous to consider. (Because of this, Dorothy Parker termed the movie palaces' decorative style "early marzipan.")10 From 1914 to 1922 "Adam" and "Empire" decorations were applied on a scale hitherto unknown, but after 1922 nearly every decorative style known to man found its way into the movie palaces (Figs. 27-29). Not only were Baroque, Medieval, Moorish, Far Eastern, Persian, Hindu, Byzantine, Babylonian, Aztec and Egyptian decorative themes translated into plaster and paint, but new decorative styles were born (Figs. 30, 31). William Fox was offered a choice between "Rolls Royce" and "Hispano-Suiza" decorations for his two Detroit theatres by competing firms. He finally opted for "Eve Leo" style, named after the distinctive decorative style of his wife, Eve Leo Fox.11
In addition, ornamentations in legitimate and vaudeville theatres tended to be concentrated on the auditorium ceilings, proscenium arches, and balcony and box fronts. But the architects of these great "democratic" theatres the movie palaces tended to splash interior decorations from stem to stern.
The deluxe movie theatre was within the means of a small corporation, or perhaps even an individual businessman. Movie palace ownership, on the other hand, was virtually limited to vast multi-million-dollar theatre-owning chains such as Loew's, Fox and Paramount, which usually supplied motion picture and vaudeville entertainment to their theatres from their producing companies and booking offices.
Because of the circuit ownership, many movie palaces resembled one another, as a successful formula in one city would be applied elsewhere. But there were intense rivalries between these powerful corporations, and each tried to outdo the other in the largest urban areas in providing magnificent showplaces for more and more lavish entertainment programmes.
Of course, the grandiose theatres were primarily dedicated to showing motion pictures, and after about 1932 they did this exclusively. Numerous theatres of such size and magnificence would not have been built if there had been no movies to present in them: moving pictures were tremendously popular and were a cheap form of entertainment, both for the patron and the exhibitor. Also the theatre was no longer limited in its seating capacity by the necessity of seeing a performer's features on the stage. Still, the stage attractions were an integral part of the programme of a large urban theatre whose opulence in many cases effectively complemented its grand stage and orchestral presentations (Fig. 32).
The evolution of the movie palace was closely related to major developments in the motion picture industry. The impact of the feature-length film has already been discussed. Further, a film like D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" grossed millions, and was seen by more people than had attended any classic stage presentation in 50 years. It also had cost an unprecedented amount of money. This aspect of film production became related to movie palace architecture. Extravaganzas seemed to require extravagant surroundings.12 On the correspondence between film content and movie palace decor, a British author noted;
The palaces were monuments to the virility and permanence of a new industry which not two decades before had inhabited ramshackle studios and temporary theatres and had been considered by many to be a manifestation of a passing fancy.
At the same time, the construction of movie palaces was an excessive attempt by the industry to sweep its somewhat disreputable origins under the rug. More was needed than rat-free, clean, ventilated buildings to banish the middle-class prejudice against what had been considered lower-class entertainment.
On the other hand, some of the most sumptuous palaces were built in slum areas in large urban centres. Thomas Lamb declared that his palaces were designed to lift the "average patron" out of his "daily drudgery."14 George Rapp, another prominent movie palace architect, justified the flamboyance of his buildings.
He went on to say, "here is a shrine to democracy where there are no privileged patrons. The wealthy rub elbows with the poor and are better for this contact." Harold Rambusch, head of a major decorating firm, had another view. "In a sense, these theatres are social safety valves in that the public can partake of the same luxuries as the rich and use them to the same full extent."15
The palaces provided a good deal of the excitement of going to the movies. They could even be a consolation if the feature was disappointing. The gilded palaces were "just like in the movies," and were designed to put the patron in a mood receptive to the entertainment offered. According to the most renowned showman of the period, S. L. Rothafel, "theatre entertainment...takes place, not only on the stage, but in the box office, in the lobby, the foyer, the restrooms, and the auditorium itself....As a consequence, the architects' work has a direct bearing upon the commercial success of the theatre he designs."16
The gaudy, giddy, glorious movie palaces occupied a brief era in American history which lasted less than two decades and spanned two international crises, the Great War and the Great Depression. In Canada the movie palace era was even more brief; it began in earnest after the First World War had ended. Its boom years were between 1919 and 1921. Comparatively few palaces were built in Canada after 1921, as by then there were enough of them to satisfy the requirements of most large urban populations in Canada. As well, the Canadian palaces do not bear comparison with such great circuit showpieces as the Capitol or Paramount in New York, the Avalon in Chicago, the Midland in Kansas City, or the San Francisco Fox. In Canada, however, numerous deluxe movie theatres and "combination" houses (which offered both vaudeville and movies) were built between 1912 and the end of World War I (Figs. 33, 34). Among these were Halifax's 1,160-seat Casino, opened early in 1917 with a green, gold and pearl interior and a "Thermo" system of ventilation, and the Imperial in Saint John, opened in 1913. Built by the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, the Imperial vaunted six boxes, a balcony, and 1,800 seats, 800 of which were leather-upholstered. In addition to a "women's parlour" and a "men's parlour", it offered "a rest room for children." A large chandelier in the auditorium illuminated a colour scheme of "old rose, old ivory and Moorish tints with gold."17
In Quebec, the most splendid deluxe houses were, not surprisingly, erected in Montreal. In this category were the Colonial, Family, Imperial, and Strand, built between 1912 and 1913, and the Regent and the St. Denis, opened in March 1916. Of this group, the St. Denis was the most remarkable and seems to have been Canada's first movie palace. It reportedly cost well over $1 million to build, seated over 2,500, and employed a 14-piece orchestra and a "$30,000" Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra (or theatre organ). Though stage shows were included in its programmes, the primary entertainment was moving pictures.18
Moving Picture World provided the following description of the theatre's interior in 1918;
The Gazette reviewer at the opening had characterized the decoration of the auditorium differently; to him it was "a free interpretation of the Adams [sic] style depending chiefly on color schemes to emphasize the decorative effects instead of using the familiar plaster figures."20
Despite these attractions, the first Canadian movie palace was a white elephant for at least the first two years of its existence. Its lack of patronage was explained as the result of a poor location, far from the theatrical centre. As well, a Moving Picture World correspondent surprisingly recorded, the bane of the St. Denis' existence was that it was smack in the middle of a French Canadian district, and "the French-Canadians are not theater going people, as years of statistics and experience have proved."21
The St. Denis' closest Montreal rival in size and decor was the Imperial which originally seated over 2,000 and was built by the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. Its foyer and lobby were decorated with "marble wainscoting," "fumed oak" woodwork and bronze chandeliers, and a "broad marble staircase" led patrons to the mezzanine. Ivory, gilt and old rose were prominent colours in the auditorium, which was graced by a "huge bronze chandelier," loge boxes, large plaster figures above the sidewall arches, and a Wurlitzer theatre organ, probably the first in Montreal.22
Though not in the same league as the St. Denis, the 850-seat Strand, the 650-seat Colonial (built in 1912-13) and the 1,000-seat Regent (opened on the same day as the St. Denis) were deluxe photoplay houses which catered to "fashionable" clientele. The Strand's exterior sported "green mosaic" decorations, the Colonial's lobby was domed and lined at floor level with "marble tile," and the Regent's wall panels were "finished in imported French silk tapestry."23
Among notable deluxe photoplay and combination theatres built in western Canada were the Dominion and Rex in Vancouver, opened in 1912 and 1913 respectively; the National and Pantages in Winnipeg, opened in 1913 and 1914; Pantages in Edmonton, opened in 1913, and the Allen in Calgary. Of these theatres, probably the most unusual decor belonged to Vancouver's Dominion. The dome in the auditorium was partly composed of ornamental art glass in amber, green and red. The effect produced was enhanced by judiciously placed mirrors24 (Fig. 35).
The Calgary Allen was built in 1913 and was the Allen chain's first deluxe theatre. It accommodated 840, had a "commodious" balcony, and offered organ accompaniment for its movies (Figs. 36-37). This theatre received considerable attention in sources consulted. In 1919 it was called "the first really modern house in Canada," and in 1925 "the first [in Canada] of the large and impressive exclusive picture palaces."25 In 1913 the Allen may have had the most comfortable seats, the best projection and the largest balcony of any Canadian movie theatre, but its designation as a "palace" is probably unjustified. Compared to other exclusive movie theatres of the time, its interior was elaborately decorated but, unlike subsequent movie palaces, the decorations used neither rivaled nor surpassed those of a legitimate or vaudeville theatre.
Like the Calgary Allen, Toronto's Regent theatre, opened in August 1916, figured prominently in sources consulted. It was the first house of what became the biggest Canadian theatre chain Famous Players Canadian Corporation and was Toronto's first super-deluxe theatre dedicated chiefly to movies (Figs. 38. 39).
This is not to say that no grand Toronto theatre exhibited movies before 1916. Between the Theatorium opening in 1906 and the opening of the Regent, four large and luxurious combination houses had been built in the city; Shea's Victoria opened in 1910, Loew's Yonge Street theatre in December 1913 and its bizarre roof-top Wintergarden two months later, and Shea's Hippodrome in 1914.26
Unlike the other deluxe movie theatres that have been mentioned, the Regent was a rebuilt legitimate theatre. It had opened as the Toronto Opera House in about 1880 on Adelaide near Bay. Its programme had deteriorated to "lurid melodramas" by the time it became the Majestic in 1902. By about 1910. it had been turned into a combination theatre.27
In 1916, N. L. Nathanson, E. L. Ruddy, J. P. Bickell, W. J. Sheppard, and James Tudhope formed the Regent Theatre Company and converted the Majestic into the Regent which they advertised as "Toronto's beautiful picture playhouse the finest theatre of its kind in Canada."28 Thomas W. Lamb was the architect of this transformation. He arranged for the theatre's two balconies to be replaced by one with a "long, easy gradient," and for the construction of a mezzanine floor and lounge rooms. "The seating arrangement, interior decoration and street front were entirely changed;" little remained but the walls of the original theatre. The final product seated 1,475, and also accommodated a 14-piece orchestra and a theatre organ.29
Like the New York Times critic at the opening of the Mark Strand, the Mail and Empire reviewer at the Regent's opening was inspired to recall the bad old days of the movie theatre,
At least one person in the opening night audience was slightly disappointed. Bill Gladish reported in Moving Picture World.
In 1917, the 1,700-seat Allen theatre (later named the Tivoli) was built at Richmond and Victoria, apparently to "outdeluxe the Regent."33 These two theatres were the first shots fired, so's to speak, in a theatre-building war between the Allens and the Nathanson circuit later Famous Players Canadian Corporation during which most of the Canadian movie palaces were built, as these circuits vied for patrons "with the energy of peacocks in a mating dance."34
The Toronto Allen was the circuit's first luxury theatre in eastern Canada, and "the first large house [in Toronto] to be constructed from excavations to roof for the picture projection."35 The interior was decorated in the by then familiar Adam style, predominant colours being old rose, gold and grey. But it also contained some features unusual for a large Toronto theatre. No stage as such was provided, and the organ were installed in an area immediately under the screen. As well, access stairways were replaced with inclined ramps, and instead of a balcony or gallery. tiers of seats were built up in Roman amphitheatre style (Figs. 40-42).36
Following the opening of this theatre, the Allens quickly won the first campaigns of the circuit war. By 1919 the Allen circuit was predominant in Canada, controlling 45 theatres in many major metropolitan centres (see Fig. 119). In 1920 it was operating nine showy theatres in Toronto (all with capacities under 2,000) the Danforth, Parkdale, Beach, Beaver, St. Clair, Bloor, College and Royal as well as the original Allen.37 Two of these the Royal and the Beaver were bought ready-made. The rest were designed for the Allens by C. Howard Crane of Detroit, a noted movie-palace architect who was responsible for nearly every Allen theatre built in the circuit's golden years.
Among Crane's other Canadian designs were the Allen (later the Capitol) in London, opened in 1918; the Allen (renamed the Metropolitan) in Winnipeg, opened in 1919; the Allen (later the Strand) in Vancouver; the Allen (later the Capitol) in St. Catharines; the Allen in Windsor and the Walkerville in Walkerville (whose names were changed to Palace and Tivoli respectively), all opened in 1920; the Allen (renamed the Palace) in Calgary opened in 1921; and Allen's Palace in Montreal, opened the same year (Figs. 43-45). The Montreal theatre was the only house that Crane and the Allens built in Canada with a seating capacity of over 2,500; naturally, it was their most spectacular Canadian effort.38 The opening programme was in keeping with the extravagance of the theatre (Fig. 46).
C. Howard Crane adhered to the "standard" or "hard top" school of movie-palace design. More or less following the Beaux Arts tradition of opera and vaudeville houses, the movie-palace architects in this "school" employed conventional neoclassical motifs and designs for their "basilica-like emporiums."39
The dean of the standard school, Thomas White Lamb of New York, was responsible for creating the largest and grandest Canadian movie palaces (Fig. 47)40 He designed about 16 Canadian theatres between 1913 and 1921. Nine of these had seating capacities exceeding 2,000, and the Imperial (formerly Pantages) in Toronto with its capacity of 3,626 was the largest movie palace built in Canada. (New York's Roxy, by comparison, had a capacity of over 6,000.) To put Lamb's achievement in perspective, it should be noted that only about 17 Canadian theatres with capacities exceeding 2,000 were built before 1930 with moving picture exhibition firmly in mind.
Besides Toronto's Regent and Imperial theatres, Lamb's other Canadian commissions were four western houses for Famous Players Canadian Corporation all named the Capitol in Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria. He was the consulting architect in the 1927 rebuilding of what became the Capitol in Quebec City.
He designed the Capitol (formerly the Temple) in Brantford (his only Canadian theatre not commissioned by one of the big circuits), the Capitol in Montreal, and all the vaudeville-and-movie theatres built for the Loew circuit. These included Loew's Yonge Street theatre and roof-top Wintergarden, opened in 1913 and 1914, and, between 1917 and 1921, Loew's Uptown in Toronto, Loew theatres in Montreal, London, Windsor, Hamilton, and Loew's Ottawa theatre.