It’s Called “Showmanship”

Movies may not be better than ever, but today’s blockbusters are made on a scale that filmmakers of the past couldn’t have imagined. Yet, at the same time, presentation of those films has never been more careless. As recent articles have shown, digital projection and its promise of uniform quality has fallen short of that goal. Then there are the theaters themselves: although some of the newest multiplexes are huge, they

are often faceless, mall-like structures that have no personality, inside or out. I remember where I saw many of my favorite movies over the years, but I doubt future generations will have the same kind of nostalgia for the theaters of their youth.

It all comes down to showmanship, a word that used to be the highest form of praise for a theater owner or manager.

For one thing, ambitious exhibitors used to decorate their facades, marquees, inner and outer lobbies when a big new movie opened. This photo of a giant Elvis Presley atop the Paramount Theater marquee on Times Square—heralding the imminent arrival of his starring debut—shows that the idea was still viable in the 1950s. But the concept wasn’t—

—limited to Manhattan or other major cities; many main-street bijous did the same.

Even for this modest neighborhood theater in 1925, the idea was to make people want to come inside and see the show.

Some managers continued to operate in this fashion much later in the game than you might think. Several years ago the Cinema Sightlines site paid tribute to my old friend and Cinefest compatriot George Read, who used imagination and initiative to make his upstate New York theater stand out from the crowd right through the late 1960s. Whether it was creating original lettering for his marquee, engineering promotional giveaways, crafting lobby displays or having a Volkswagen Beetle sitting outside the theater when The Love Bug was playing, George didn’t miss a trick. Check out the wonderful photos and memories HERE.

My local theaters in New Jersey never expended much effort on displays when I was growing up, so it always amused me to see the suggestions put forward in movie pressbooks on how to promote their attractions. I longed to see some of their ideas for stunts and ballyhoo actually carried out.

Another pal, Gary Meyer, has owned and booked theaters all his life. When a projectionist friend posted a tutorial about the proper use of theater curtains, especially for roadshow attractions, he recalled one of many instances when presentation of a film made the evening special for his customers.

“When we used to open each new Landmark theater (well, reopen old theaters) we showed a double feature of the roadshow Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for All Seasons. I would introduce the show by saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us for the grand reopening of the Oriental Theater. Look around you at the splendor of this restored movie palace. And now we have a very special treat for you, the roadshow version of Lawrence of Arabia. This includes the complete overture. In a few minutes the lights will go down and you will be in the dark. As the wonderful musical score by Maurice Jarre plays, we want to you forget all the things that you dealt with today and prepare to escape in the magic of the movies that is…Lawrence of Arabia.’"

“The lights went down and the overture played. I had given the projectionist special instructions. At the end of the overture open the curtain to a 1:3:3 position on the Columbia lady. And then, as the opening shot of the motorcycle hits the screen, pull the curtains out to the full scope position. And every time the entire audience vocally gasped as it felt like the entire theater was expanding.”

It’s called showmanship, folks. It wouldn’t hurt today’s exhibitors to learn some of these lessons from the past.


  1. Alan Smithee says:

    I left a job at a Regal theater because they forced me to do the complete OPPOSITE of showmanship- Most of their screens were common-width, meaning the screen's full ratio was 1.85 and masking came down from the top when showing scope movies. Having this design was bad enough, but they wanted me to have the masking go up in between shows so their ugly advertising slides would be on "the biggest screen possible", then have the screen actually get SMALLER when the film started. I refused to do this, so I left.

  2. Tory says:

    My only personal experience of this was at the Paramount in Austin a year ago I saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This is the first and only time I have seen a film from before I was born on film and though I have seen it many times and loved it, it was better on that screen in that atmosphere. It was a great audience and there was a Marilyn impersonator. I wish I lived in a place such as Austin that has a theater like that. If I had the money, I’d build a grand old style cinema, I do not understand why such things do not seem to be done.

    I do miss my local bargain dollar theater of the 80s and 90s. It went out of business but they actually had an event with Dolemite shortly before they closed, he was there. I was, unfortunately too broke at the time to go to a dollar theater but I was rather glad that something like that was happening. This was the Broadmoor in Baton Rouge in Florida Blvd, I miss a lot of shops around there too.

    Oh for the record, the old theater in the small city I grew up in Denham Springs, still stands today and is an antique store. In the old theater room, hanging from the ceiling is a rather unique and odd giant sculpture of Superman.

  3. mplo says:

    Great, golden oldie but keeper classics, such as West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia and many, many others deserve to be shown the way they’re really meant to be viewed; on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre palace, with the lights down low!

  4. mplo says:

    I agree that the dearth of these venerable old movie palaces here in the United States is beyond unfortunate, especially because the vast majority of them have been replaced by the huge, antiseptic-looking multiplexes that dot the byways and highways of the United States. It’s unfortunate that there was such an unwillingness to renovate a lot of these venerable old movie palaces, and present movies the way they should be, on a great big, wide screen, in a real movie theatre with the lights down low, and to make them attractive from the outside, as well.

    Some of these venerable old movie palaces, , unfortunately, were structurally unsound and/or unsafe, or so damaged by fire or other disasters, however, that renovation of them was virtually, if not downright impossible, so there was no choice for some of them but to go under the wrecking ball. Many others, however, were torn down due to profits before people, and were converted to banks, parking lots, arcades and any other thing that would turn a good profit, which is really too bad. Even some of the movie palaces and independent theatres that are left have had to cut their theatres up into 4 screens from single screened theatres in order to survive.

    Commercialism is the order of the day, unfortunately.

  5. Gary Meyer says:

    I wish I had time to remember or expand on my memories but did want to mention inadvertent showmanship experiences under my watch.

    When I was twelve I was given the hayloft of our barn in Napa. We made a monster movie and decided to show it on the set. As monsters appeared on screen, a vampire seemed to fly right off the screen into the audience. Our nocturnal screening upset the house bat and it started flying in and out of the projection beam. Over the next eight years we showed nearly 200 films but the bats only reappeared during our midnight horror film series each summer.

    In 1976 one of the first Landmark Theatres was the U.C. Theatre where we staged many fun events with filmmakers, authors, William Castle gimmick nights, Golden Turkey Awards (The Medveds and real turkeys in the audience), etc. but that winter brought our first storm and we learned there were major leaks in the roof of this 1917 theater. What luck! It was the night we were showing SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. People crowded in the wet areas for the chance to sit in the rain, umbrellas open with a smile on their faces.

  6. Gary Meyer says:

    I am honored that Leonard has included me in his piece on showmanship. Growing up I thought that all theaters with kiddie matinees gave away a new Schwinn bicycle every week as the Uptown Theatre in Napa did. Once we couldn’t wait any longer to win a bike we insisted that our parents take us to Bentoncourt’s, the donor of the weekly prizes, to buy one. This showmanship brought customer loyalty for both the theater and the dealer.

    My first real job in exhibition was as a booker for United Artists Theatre Circuit in 1972. I got excited about planning kid’s matinees and midnight shows in off hours. It was easy enough to book the films but we needed more to bring the audiences in. The managers got a commission on the profits and concession sales for these shows so they were inspired to go all out. Inspired by the spook shows I had enjoyed as a kid, I suggested that monsters run amok in the aisles and local magician do a stage show. We advertised that someone would win a real dead body! We just didn’t say it was a frozen turkey courtesy of a local butcher. Or if we showed ONE MILLION B.C. or THE LOST WORLD type films, we promoted that a lucky audience member would take home a real live dinosaur. The local pet store provided us with lizards.

    No doubt inspired by the success of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW audience participation showings , a local musical theater troupe approached us in the late 1970s about doing a sing-along for THE WIZARD OF OZ and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. They would create 35mm slides to be projected (this was before PowerPoint folk). The U.C. Theatre in Berkeley was packed as 1300 people sang along. Carrying on the tradition has been the wonderfully successful THE SOUND OF MUSIC sing-alongs (make sure it is an official one with all the goodies handed out to add to the fun) and numerous recent variations like GREASE and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. I applaud those who keep coming up with these ideas. Showmanship does not have to be dead. Most of the major studios have established “Exhibitor Relations Departments.” They are supposed to encourage showmanship and provide ideas and materials to encourage local managers to promote their films. Occasionally there is a spark of creativity but sadly it is mostly a place to order large lobby displays and some small posters to giveaway with a few tired promotional ideas on the website.

    I operate the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco now. We love coming up with creative ways to attract audiences and make their experiences fun and hopefully memorable.
    Each year we celebrate the cinema’s birthday by recreating a night at the movies in 1926 with silent films (newsreel, cartoon, comedy, sing-along and a feature) a vaudeville show, movie-themed birthday cake and champagne. Many members arrive in art deco clothing and vintage cars are parked in front. Everybody goes home with great birthday presents. Our Oscar party has a live host and during commercial breaks become time for interactive Oscar-related games, costume contests and lots of laughs…and nobody missed a second of the actual show with the help of a TIVO,. THE KING OF PASTRY engagement included chocolate tasting nights and a spectacular cake night when 13 local bakers offered cake tastings.
    This year several staff members wanted to do a Halloween special. Concerned that San Francisco has too many fun things to do in late October, we decided to delay it a few weeks and call it “Halloween Isn’t Over Until The Fattest Zombie Dies.” Stuart Gordon brought his own print of RE-ANIMATOR, did a great Q&A and then, the audience toured the “Haunted Alley” created by he theater’s staff ( ).
    We regularly have authors, poets, musicians and others present live performances that relate to the films. Some of our past events are covered here.

    In late July we will show MAKE BELIEVE, the terrific doc about teen magicians. Local young wizards will perform in the lobby and on stage before screenings.

  7. Kevin Jones says:

    Sometimes, I’d just like to see a film in an _adequate_ venue.

    My finance and I watched the last X-men film in a run-down theater: half the seats were roped off due to apparent water damage, the walls were peeling, boxes were stored in the halls, there was dirt on the screen. It took five minutes for the ticket person to bother to show up.

    No, this wasn’t midnight at a grindhouse. It was an afternoon showing at my local mall!

    To be fair, we managed an enjoyable experience, and apart from the unacceptable wait, the staff were reasonably professional (that day); but atmosphere matters!

  8. DBenson says:

    Have you checked out Greenbriar Picture Shows? Tons of stuff about old-fashioned “bally.”

  9. Jon says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Maltin’s article. I am only 25 years old, and I (obviously) didn’t grow up during the Goldenage era, but I do a lot of research on different small/large town and small city movie theaters, and the stories I’ve heard about going to the movies during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s are absolutely amazing and intriguing. Some of the gimmicks I have heard about and some of the old newspaper advertisements I have seen on microfilm (i.e. a Kiddy Matinee which gives out free bicycles or a set of encyclopedias), are absolutely fascinating!

    Honestly when I look back at the movies I attended at a multiplex, despite having enjoyed 75% of the movies, 100% of the time the actual movie experience was nothing memorable nor special; just very blaw, as the audience never gets into the movie and the only added attractions were obnoxious television commercials. The only time I recall having a memborable experience of seeing a new modern movie was when I saw it at the local drive-in, (where it was presented in the double feature format with an old cartoon, intermission clock, etc. )
    I have had the privilege of watching a classic old movie, or a Looney Tunes festival at a old pre-1950’s theater, and those experiences are amazing and memorable. The audience always gets into the movie/films, there is always some showmanship present (opening/closing curtains, introduction by the manager/owner or subject expert, entrance/exit music etc.), and actually being able to see a movie in an ornate auditorium (as oppose to a Wal-Mart looking thing) always leaves me speechless.

    I can honestly say that I prefer to spend my money at the old revival house (whether it be rundown or fully restored) than the modern new-release movieplex, because I know I will get my money’s worth with the presentation and the showmanship.

  10. Glory-June Greiff says:

    Wonderful article, Mr. Maltin! I, too, miss the ballyhoo of my youth (not to mention the beautiful theaters of South Bend, Indiana, and Chicago). You may be heartened to learn that ballyhoo was not dead as late as the 1990s, when we happened on the Devon Theater in tiny Attica, Indiana, which was showing the remake of “Godzilla.” The theater owner had painted huge “dinosaur” tracks all over the sidewalk and onto a crushed car he had placed in front of the theater. Great stuff!

  11. Eric Grayson says:

    Bravo, Leonard. I’d like to add that in the old days we had showmanship that included ushers who would make sure that patrons acted politely towards others. I fear we’re in danger of losing the community experience of watching great films, and it’s due to the facts that other people are rude and the presentation experience at the theater is substandard.

    When movies are shown properly, you WANT to see them on a big screen, not on your laptop.

  12. Jeff Heise says:

    Boy, the good old days of presentation, presentation are a thing of the past, sadly. When I ran a college film program years ago we had a showing of GONE WITH THE WIND in 16mm and the print had the overture, intermission music, entr’acte and exit music on it, so I coordinated with the projectionist keeping the light from the projector off until the overture ended, an assistant bringing the lights down in stages during the music, and I ran the curtains from backstage, marking on the ropes when they would be open just right for a 1:33 image as the Selznick trademark faded in. I had explained to the audience that they were about to see a very special presentation and that nothing was wrong-the music was a mood setter and just listen and let it begin to pull you in. No one shouted out anything and there actually was applause as the curtains opened-that was a thrill.

    I even managed to do something like this with a Super8 sound print I had of THE BIRTH OF A NATION. I took some magnetic striped leader and spliced about 10 minutes worth together. I then took organ music that had been adapted from a score for the film, dubbed it onto the leader, then spliced it to the front of the second half, so I had some intermission music for when I would show it in film history classes. I actually got some nice compliments from some of the viewers.

  13. Steve Rubin says:

    Bravo, Leonard for bringing up a long forgotten word in Hollywood – SHOWMANSHIP. I was sitting here reading about movie marquees, realizing that most movie theaters don’t even have marquees anymore. They’re just buildings that show movies. Occasionally, there is a place to put up the titles, but theaters are more often than not situated in malls. And promotions seem to have mostly disappeared. I convinced Ivan Reitman and Columbia in 1983 to let me lead a truck tour of the whole U.S. where we could show off the costumes, props and vehicles from a summer 3D release called SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. We did 12 major cities in 63 days and everywhere we were greeted by crowds. We did shopping malls, county fairs, landmarks, major league baseball games and it was quite a lot of fun and, I believe, very successful. ( we opened at No. 1). I wonder if a studio would green light a driving tour in this day and age.

  14. Vincent says:

    To prove that movie showmanship extended far beyond Manhattan, here’s a pic of the Criterion Theater in Oklahoma City in February 1953, featuring a giant Marilyn Monroe to promote “Niagara”:


    Note the two teen girls, standing next to each leg of the mega-Marilyn.

  15. John says:

    Ah those were the days when every theatre had it’s individual character, from the grand movie palaces downtown to the main street “grind houses” where you could see 3 features for 50 cents. Like Leonard I can tell you where I saw almost every movie in my teen years (the 1950’s) and probably what the second feature was. Yeah you actually used to see two features on almost every program, accompanied by a cartoon, newsreel and previews of coming attractions which unlike today’s Madison Avenue made trailers were as entertaining as the features themselves. I won’t get into the presentation itself except to say it was much better when there was a projectionist back there watching the focus and framing, checking the sound volume and in most theatres even opening and closing the curtains at the proper times.

  16. Norm says:

    Interesting perspective from Mr. Maltin. Maybe he should be more inspired in his reviews.
    The history of theatres in America may be as interesting as the film industry itself.

  17. Kay says:

    Fantastic article, Leonard and fascinating link to a great read. I never attended that particular theater, but have fond memories of similar ones in Maryland, where I grew up. I was recently told that many Cinemetque theaters are closing all over the country; mightn’t these be saved with some showmanship?? I can only hope! I truly enjoyed this post. It was inspiring! Kay in Rochester, NY

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