Historic Structures

1920s Theaters Alabama Theater, Birmingham Alabama

The 1920s movie palaces were constructed during a transition period from vaudeville stage production to silent films, prior to the introduction of talkies, or films accompanied by sound. Thus, when designing these theatres, the architects had to consider many elements beyond the stylistic. Even though the film industry was becoming a popular venue, theatres were still being built with full stages to allow for vaudeville shows in case the films did not draw a large enough audience. Theatre owners were reluctant to invest large sums of money into their buildings; frequent advancements in film technology could quickly make them obsolete. For example, changing the screen size to accommodate projector advancement could change the sight lines, making the theatre inadequate for viewing movies. Theatres built for nickelodeon production and vaudeville shows generally began as small onestory structures. These evolved into elaborate two and three-tier structures that allowed for stage and movie production. These theatres were constructed to include the latest technological advancements in air conditioning and heating, projection, lighting and stage equipment. Changing stylistic preferences were also a concern, for elaborate decorations beckon the public inside the theater.

Theater design was based on many components. First, the size of the theatre was determined by such factors as the population of the city, the type of entertainment to be featured, and the money available for construction. Once the appropriate size was determined and a site located, the next consideration was the type of theatre plan needed. Theatre plans fall into five categories of plans: the simplest being the first floor type, consisting only of orchestra floor; the bleacher type, where the depth of the auditorium requires a steep grade to insure proper sight lines; the stadium, a variation of the bleacher type, with raised seats; the single balcony, and the balcony-mezzanine. The last was the largest and, therefore, the most desired plan type because it allowed maximum seating capacity without losing desirable site lines. On theatre sizes, building designer Eugene Clute explains that theatres with mezzanines and vomitories helped "increase the seating capacity of the balcony by removing the trunk line of the circulation from the back of the balcony." The average size theatre of the 1920s accommodated from eighteen to twenty-five hundred seats. Larger theatres ranged from twenty-five hundred to six thousand seats.

Special consideration went into the layout, primarily to visibility within the auditorium. Theatre designers of the 1920s, Sexton and Betts, suggest when developing theatre plans it is important to consider the following when referencing lines: “All dimensions on the plan, back of or in front of the stage, are given in their relation to the "curtain line"(line of the asbestos curtain). Dimensions to the right and left of the stage are figured from the center line of the proscenium arch, which is also the center line of the auditorium, and is drawn at right angles to the curtain line. Vertical dimensions are figured in their relation to the elevation of the stage floor, which is taken as zero. The plan is developed only after these three lines have been locate.”

An important requirement in determining the design of the theatre included choosing the size of the stage, the placement of the orchestra and provisions for the organ. The size of stage was determined by the type of entertainment presented. There were three general stage types used. The first two types were generally utilized for nickelodeons and small theatres that did not require space for the production of live performances, and includes 5' to 10' deep platform or the slightly deeper 1 5' to 1 8' stage which allowed for solo performances. The third type was the fully equipped 25' to 35' deep theater stage used in vaudeville and movie palaces. Most of the theatrical stages were constructed with trap doors for performers to enter and exit. This size allowed for adequate performance space and for the lighting and rigging equipment located to the side of the stage. While a seemingly tremendous amount of space is allotted to the auditorium, lobbies and lounges, and stage equipment, the architect had to consider workshop space for the stage carpenter and electrician and storage areas for sets and props. Adequate dressing room space would also have to be incorporated into the space on either side of the stage.

Another consideration in theater planning was the addition of the organ and the orchestra platform, each with a separate lift. A large pipe organ was considered "essential" in the 1920s to accompany the silent films. Organ chambers were usually located adjacent to the proscenium and resembled box seats. Behind these facades were the organ pipes. The chambers were built to be soundproof and located about 12' above the floor; the organ blower located in the basement away from the auditorium. The arrangement of the two are described in Sexton and Betts's American Theatres of Today (1928): “The use of the orchestra pit elevator is favored where a concert orchestra is featured. The entire floor of the orchestra pit is raised and lowered from the basement to the stage floor level under the control of the musical leader. An intermediate level below the sight lines of the audience is used when the orchestra accompanies the screen showing. The organ console may be on this or a separate elevator. The separate elevator gives greater flexibility for varying the program by organ solo numbers. The operation of these elevators is automatic and they are electrically controlled.”

The projection booth was another important consideration in the design of the theatre. Because the projection booth was essential to the service of the theatre, much preparation went into determining its location, layout and equipment. It was usually placed in the rear of the theatre, depending on the depth of the balcony. When the balcony's pitch was too steep to place the projection booth above it, the booth was located in the front and center of the balcony. This avoided a long projection from machine to screen and excessive projection angle. The projection angle should not exceed twenty degrees, otherwise the picture on the screen will look distorted.

Non-technical, but nonetheless important aspects of a theatre's design, was the front facade and entrance to the theatre. The facade was the primary marketing tactic, elaborately decorated in revival styles-often from exotic countries-to draw a crowd. The movie palace eclipsed other structures along the city street with their illuminating signs and marquees. On the largest sign is usually stated the name of the theatre. A 1925 theatre design article explained that the "electric signs that were at one time designed by tinsmiths are now carefully studied as a part of the architectural composition, and are now anchored to the buildings with due consideration for architectural fitness." The somewhat smaller marqueedisplaying the title of the show of the day-also served as a canopy for the patrons, sheltering them as they waited to buy a ticket. The 1920's theatres were the first to install elaborately decorated ticket booths strategically placed in the center of the street entrance and often open to it. The elaborately ornamented booth attracted crowds, but prevent those without a ticket from entering the theatre.

In designing the exterior and interior of the movie palace, comfort and decorative ornament played an important role. Crucial to the plan was the careful layout of the lobby, lounges and restrooms. In most of the grand theaters there was a large lounge area with restrooms on the basement floor, easily accessible from the main lobby area, The other area designated for this purpose was found under the balcony, so that the patron could reach it easily from the balcony or mezzanine. It was crucial to the theater design that this area be large enough to allow for comfortable standing room, because it is here the crowds had to wait to enter the auditorium. As explained by one architect of the period: “In reality the lobby must be a place of real interest, a place where the waiting throng may be transformed from the usual pushing complaining mob into a throng of joyous and contented people...In other words the lobby should be so designed and so equipped that the fascination resulting from it will keep the patron's mind off the fact that he is waiting.”

Overwhelming the patron's comfort level inside the building, theater owners believed the opulent architectural setting drew the crowds. Thus, the architect was inclined to create a facade for the theater building that was inviting to the public; the romance of its decor allowed the theater to sell itself. Psychology played a role in the design of the entrance and lobby areas of the theatre. The grand lobby was always richly decorated with exotic styles, large chandeliers and inviting furniture, introducing the patrons to an elegance they were not accustomed to at home.

As mentioned, architectural details, located throughout the palace, were also intended to keep the patron from getting bored while they waited; decoration usually engaged the patron. To some this served as an art history lesson; details were taken from prominent European structures, some as old as the fifteenth century. A 1928 interview with theatre architect Thomas Lamb describes the radical changes that were taking place in theatre palaces in the late 1 920s. Lamb stated, "architecture has become so important that the interiors of the theatres now are really educational for all those who are interested in this art, in decorative painting, modeling, etc." Architects had to make sure that they did not miss an element of any of the prescribed motifs for fear of being criticized by art and architectural professionals.

Throughout the theatre, spaces such as smoking rooms and lounges served as vignettes expressing architectural periods. The palaces were built to reflect a rich surrounding, accessible to all. The elaborate details of historic and exotic styles brought the theatre to life. However, some architects thought the decorative elements of the theatres were taken to the point of gaudiness by the use of more than one style and extensive interior ornamentation. Many of the architect's design inspirations came directly from architectural style books, which "contained measured patterns for the ornamental elements of every age and culture." The result was an eclecticism seen in few other building types. Designers combined religious, royal and theatrical imagery with architectural elements taken from churches, castles, public buildings, and other theatres. These themes were reflected throughout the theatres, sometimes down to the pattern in the carpet. Outside of theatre design, architects of this period used these same style books for their designs of libraries, railway stations, government offices, and private homes, though not in combinations as seen in movie palaces. Artistic license was often taken by the architects in interpreting pattern book designs, at time with humorous results, such as the coat-of arms featuring a chicken head that appears in the Alabama.

The ornament was made from materials, such as terra cotta and plaster, that were easily molded to the precise pattern desired. These building materials were developed and used first on the smaller theatres in the 1910s. A Cinema Journal article notes that "there were several companies and decorator supply houses in the business of revamping the fronts and providing terra cotta decorations for buildings to be used as movie theatres." These materials were "more permanent" than the early used pressed tin and sheet metal; "terra cotta, in particular, was durable, inexpensive, easy to clean, easy to model and particularly suitable for the movie theatre facade...it was also good for decorating large plain surfaces with no or few windows characteristic to the movie theatre." Although large theaters from this period, like the Alabama, were constructed using structural I-beams, ornament masked the modern building technology. For example, the ornamental plaster ceiling, in reality a thin shell, was suspended from he theater's steel framework.

In the 1920s, approaches to overall interior design fell into two types: the "Atmospheric," that simulated the out-of-doors, and the "Exotics," depicting scenes from strange and faraway places. Austrian-born architect John Eberson, developed the "atmospheric," a style associated with the firm of Rapp & Rapp, who designed in this style. Rather than the usual ornamental plaster ceilings, the principle intention of this mode was to create an "open air illusion" through the use of ceilings painted as a blue sky with clouds, or a nighttime sky illuminated by stars. The walls, in turn, were painted to create a feeling of being part of a set, such as a romantic Italian garden or a Spanish or Mediterranean castle. The result was a fantasyland. Designs in this manner distracted the patron from the world outside the theatre, to ease his escape from everyday life. John Eberson summed up his intentions by stating: “We visualize and dream a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky in an Italian garden, in a Persian court, in a Spanish patio, or in a mystic Egyptian temple-yard, all canopied by a soft moonlit sky.”

The second type of theatre was the "Exotics", or the "super" as it was referred to in the 1920s. It featured the most current architectural trends, which generally consisted of elaborate revival styles; Egyptian and Chinese being two most prominently used. As stated in a leading architectural journal in 1927: “Many theatre designers, including Rapp and Rapp and Sexton and Betts, argued that the movie theatre of the 1920s represented the cultural expression of changing American social values. Having risen to prominence following the "war to make the world safe for democracy" and having flourished in multiethnic cities, this most popular of the popular arts provided a place for democratization in a setting of distinct class differences: imperial palaces.[commented a leading architectural journal of 1927]”

Both "Atmospheric" and "Exotic" interiors added to the imagery depicted within the films being shown. They set a mood that hopefully lingered after the patron left the theatre.

Auditorium lighting was also used to create a mood by emphasizing certain details of the theatre or by changing to correspond with the action depicted in the films. A 1925 Architectural Forum article I.J. Lichter describes three types of lighting appropriate for an auditorium. First is direct lighting, by means of chandeliers or wall sconces and lanterns. Indirect lighting, the second type, is used by placing lights behind cornices and other ornamental elements. The last is a combination of these two lighting types. A method which grows more popular each year, is to conceal "strip" reflectors in recesses around the bottom of the main dome, to have illuminated panels in the main ceiling, and in the balcony soffit, sometimes together with direct lighting brackets in the side walls. Very often this same concealed "strip" lighting is used around the proscenium arch....

New ideas in 1928 included the three-color houses, primarily blue, red, and white lights used indirectly in the main ceiling dome, balcony soffit and in the organ grills. Using these colors, lighting could go through the spectrum from the lightest blue, through purple, to the brightest red. Each color of light was individually controlled from the stage tight board.

The 1920s theatres were also known for their amenities and special services. These included doormen and ushers and such amenities as nurseries, lounges, smoking rooms, along with the overall plush atmosphere. Even the restrooms are elaborately decorated. Thomas Lamb, famous movie palace architect, describes the improvements in these facilities: "These public rooms are designed in special periods of architecture, and the furnishings, which years ago were bought on a budget system for the lowest amount possible, now are being selected most carefully to suit the style in which the rooms are designed."

In The Practical Requirements of Modern Buildings, author Eugene Clute states that with regard to theatres "the architect must keep in mind constantly the following: fire protection, steel construction, circulation, sight lines, acoustics, ventilation, and stage operation, to say nothing of a number of other matters." The technological aspects of the theatres of the 1920s included a number of newly developed systems. The period of the construction of the movie palace, coincided with international advancements in building technology. The adaption of new architectural styles that reflected the changing technology.

Building codes regulated a significant percentage of the architect's design. In Sexton and Betts's American Theatres of Today (1927), they noted that building codes and laws regulated the width of the aisles and exit courts; the space between the aisles; and the dimensions of the balcony steps; and the pitch of the balcony. A separate set of rules governed fire protection. The fire codes regulated the layout of the exits; an asbestos curtain to separate the stage from the auditorium; types of fire protection doors; and codes for projection booth safety.

For physical, as well as psychological, comfort it was important that these theatres have an excellent ventilation system: air conditioning and heating. Most late 1920s movie theatres incorporated the first modern air ventilation systems, one of two types, into their plan. A 1930 article on theatre ventilation outlines the first type, the downward system. “The conditioned air is projected horizontally into the auditorium near the ceiling or through diffusers in the ceiling against a horizontal baffleplate and spread evenly over the whole upper area of the auditorium...moving down, air absorbs outer heat transmitted through the walls and the roof and the heat emitted by the occupants of the seats, and finally reaches the desired temperature and humidity before it strikes the seated persons.”

The air is then exhausted through outlets in the floor. This system, adopted for use at the Alabama Theatre, was the most used, probably due to its ability to maintain consistent temperatures. The other type of ventilation system introduces air at the floor, which in turn rises and is then drawn out through ceiling ducts.

Cooling systems were being used in conjunction with the theatre's overall ventilation system. An air conditioning system consisted of a refrigeration machine connected to a dehumidifier, motor driven fan, air supply ducts and return air ducts. In the process of cooling, fresh air mixed with the return air from the auditorium drawn out by a centrifugal fan. It mixture was then pulled through a dehumidifier where it was cooled and cleaned. If using the downward system, the air was then introduced back into the auditorium through ducts in the ceiling and balcony soffit, and then exited through vents in the floor to repeat the process. Fresh air was generally exchanged every three minutes.

The heating process has been referred to as a "deheating problem." Because heat is radiated from the patrons and the lights in the theatre, the ventilation system must remove the excess heat and moisture produced. Fresh air is then circulated throughout the auditorium to assure a constant temperature.

A system essential to the theatre's function is its stage equipment and lighting. It is important that the architect understand the workings of a stage, so that it is designed and constructed appropriately. In the late 1920s, most theatres converted their rigging system from the rope to the more modern counterweight system. One popular system was designed by Peter Clark and distributed under his name. It employed the most modern system of counterweights and drapes. Peter Clark describes the gridiron structure in a 1932 interview: “The gridiron, as constructed today, is a part of the structural framing of the building and consists of structural channels and I-beams, with small channels laid flat and spaced on about 6 in. centers on the structural channels and I-beams, to form a working floor."

The height of the gridiron is determined by the height of the proscenium-twice the height of the proscenium plus three feet. This allowed for the space necessary to conceal sets and lighting. The method of rigging required a line to be tied to the batten, or pipe, which is suspended from the grid. The line then runs through a loft block and then through the head block at the operating side of the stage. It is then secured at the locking rail. There is a loading platform at the grid level where weights are added to counterbalance the weight on the batten. The modern counterweight system allowed the stage hands, agrees Peter Clark, "to operate [lines] together and with a maximum of speed and minimum of effort." The fly systems of this era were usually equipped with a combination of equipment to service vaudeville as well as movie theatre. The attached Peter Clark stage design was widely used in movie palaces, including the Alabama. Another attachment shows the usual lighting requirements for a larger stage with an average thirty foot stage. As the HABS drawing shows, an average theatre stage contained four light rods with a trough of footlights at the edge of the stage.

Developing construction technologies of the twentieth century were enlisted in theatre design as well. For example, the cantilevering system was perfected which made possible the removal of the earlier supporting piers required for balconies that obstructed the patron's view. Previously, balconies without supports were usually shallow, stacked only six rows high. The new structural system utilized steel beams which permitted a stronger building and cantilevered balconies at a steep slope, covering as much as half of the lower auditorium seating area. This allowed for a mezzanine-balcony type theatre which increased seating. Another significant structural feature of the movie palaces was its double shell construction. A thin plaster shell, which contains the ornamental plaster work and other details, is actually suspended inside the girded box of the auditorium frame creating a ceiling as well as incorporating architectural detail.