Each of the big five studios- Paramount, Twentieth, Warner Brothers, MGM (Loews) and RKO- owned theater chains, which were the next stop after a movie’s first run. The studios divvied up the nation’s top metropolitan areas. While Paramount had the largest chain nationally, Loews, which owned MGM, was the dominant chain in New York City. RKO also had a chain of neighborhood theaters in New York, some of which had been built as vaudeville houses by the company’s predecessors, the Keith, Albee and Orpheum circuits. In fact, a lot of neighborhood theaters dated back to the silent era. Few new theaters had been built during the Depression or the war and existing postwar plans to build new theaters had to be postponed after the government put a freeze on all new construction, other than housing, in March.
of the top neighborhood houses were ornate palaces in their own right,
particularly the five Loews “Wonder” theaters: the Valencia in Jamaica,
the Paradise in the Bronx, the Kings in Brooklyn, the Jersey in Jersey
City and the 175th Street in Manhattan. The interior of the
Valencia, for instance, evoked a plaza in old Spain under a ceiling of
drifting clouds and twinkling stars. At the other end of the spectrum were the small shabby houses, many of which began as small time vaudeville houses or nickelodeons, found in low-income neighborhoods.
smaller independent chains, like Brandt’s, Walter Reade and Translux,
as well as a number of individually owned theaters, operated in the
city as well. Except for a handful of independent midtown houses which
ran first-run attractions from Columbia, United Artists, Universal or
even on occasions from the majors, the independent theaters did not get
an A movie until weeks after it had played the Loews or RKO chains.
Some neighborhood theaters relied on B-pictures, mostly westerns and
crime dramas. Instead of waiting, some of the Manhattan independents
adopted alternative strategies. For instance some of the Translux
theaters, which were equipped with rear projection, specialized in
newsreels and short subjects, which were fading somewhat in audience
appeal now that the war was over. Other independent theaters showed
foreign films or revivals.
When legitimate theater abandoned 42nd Street and vaudeville died, several theaters between Broadway and Eighth Avenue turned to burlesque. After the puritanical Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia closed down the burlesque houses, many of these aging theaters on the now bawdy, naughty street, lined with penny arcades and tourist clip joints, began operating as 24-hour movie houses with continuous showings of older movies or B pictures. Forty-Second Street already had become a male bastion. a street that unescorted women avoided, unless they were looking to do a little business. In those days when gay sex was a furtive activity, "gay for pay" hustlers patrolled the street. So did some gays who were looking for a bit of the rough or maybe even a drunken sailor.
Ticket prices were lower the further down the distribution chain you went but the distributors controlled this by setting minimum prices that theaters were allowed to charge. The goal was to limit the temptation to wait until a picture hit the cheap venues. The studios also forced the independents to pre-book entire slates of films, sight unseen, if they wanted any of the studio’s product. To make money under these conditions, the neighborhoods pioneered such innovations as double features, special promotions and kiddy matinées. But it was the introduction of concession stands that became their greatest source of revenue. In fact, according to that week’s Variety, some of the independents theater owners claimed that if it weren’t for the sale of popcorn, candy and soda they would be operating at a loss.Almost all neighborhood theaters showed double features, along with shorts, cartoons and newsreels. Sunday often was their biggest box office day when whole families might show up. Most changed pictures twice a week; some even presented three different shows each week. To satisfy the demand, all of the major studios produced lower-budget B pictures to run as a second features in the neighborhoods. Several studios, most notably Republic, Monogram and PRC, specialized in B pictures and Saturday afternoon serials. Some weak performing first-run films ended up as the second half of a double attraction.
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