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.

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May 2024