The Neighborhood Theaters

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.

Some 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.

Several 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.

People were buzzing this week about a new sort of movie palace. Walter Reade, which owned a chain of 40 movie theaters in New York and New Jersey, was building a theater, the Park Avenue, at Park and 59th. It was not going to be huge, only 600 seats. It would not be first-run; it would get movies three weeks after the Loew’s or RKO chains. But it would be deluxe. The gag is, see, Reade planned to sell seats only by annual membership fees. The theater wouldn’t have a box office. The stainless steel lobby would hold an art gallery, not a "Coming Next Week" display. The mezzanine would have love seats for two. Instead of selling popcorn and candy, management would serve coffee and cookies in the downstairs mirrored lounge where patrons could play backgammon or watch that novelty, television. A licensed beautician would dispense beauty tips and free cosmetics in the ladies lounge. The Saturday morning kiddy show would feature 16 mm educational films. The theater would have the latest technology like earphones and telephones at the seats and wiring for large screen video when that became available. It was designed in “modern baroque,” all peaches and cream with gold accents, to appeal to Park Avenue socialites and celebrities who did not want to stand in line or deal with first-run crowds and weren’t interested in double features or sitting beside the kind of people who patronized neighborhood houses. Reade told Variety that they already had 2000 membership applications.

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.