World Cinemas and Art Deco: A Global Affair

By Robin Grow

Going to the movies—how exciting! In the 1920s and 30s, people all around the world could see a vision of the future that was inextricably linked on many levels to the rise of Art Deco design, often described as the first fully international architectural style. Perhaps no other building type demonstrates this like the cinema, which played a major role in illustrating and spreading the style, in the bricks, mortar, and concrete in cities and towns as well as in the images displayed onscreen.

 

In the post World War I (and post-1918 flu pandemic) years, the world was seeking even more entertainment, and the cinema increased its grasp on society enormously. The industry was increasingly controlled by large studios as it moved from penny arcades and nickelodeons to purpose-built venues. Not only did the cinema anchor an entirely new—and rapidly growing—industry, but it also led the way in new fields and professions, including cinematography, marketing and advertising, global distribution, interior design, and acoustical engineering. In the United States, a new era was born, with large-scale studio and production concerns realizing the new medium’s commercial prospects, particularly after studios relocated from the East Coast to Hollywood. By 1921 the Paramount chain boasted 300 affiliated theaters across the country. The films were silent, often accompanied by pianists and other musicians—sometimes on large Wurlitzer organs—who created dramatic effects linked to what was happening on the screen. But the introduction of “talkies” in the late 1920s forced a major change to the fledgling industry, requiring new equipment to produce and present films in this format. 

Early cinemas were rudimentary, but the improvement in the quality of films led to much larger venues constructed or converted from theaters previously used for music, opera, stage plays, and vaudeville. Fine examples of movie palaces were constructed in the early twentieth century, often with elaborate interiors in a range of styles, including historical revivalist designs. Some combined the staging of live theater and film, while many were for film projection only, requiring little backstage infrastructure. Architects and designers skilled in this medium began to make their mark. Typical was the Chicago Theatre, in Chicago’s Loop district. It opened in 1921 and was designed by the Rapp brothers, Cornelius and George, in Neo-Baroque French-revival style. It represented large, costly, and grand movie palaces and played an important role in the film world. 

 

In the 1920s, new styles for cinemas emerged, and the palaces were soon dominated by Modernist and Art Deco styles. A major example is The Capitol theatre, in the center of Melbourne, Australia. Most Australians lived in major cities around the coastline and had been quick to establish themselves as enthusiastic moviegoers. The southern city of Melbourne boasted numerous cinemas in the 1920s, none as striking as the Capitol, by the American couple Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, designers of the new national capital, Canberra. Opened in 1924, its most remarkable features were the abstract geometric designs on the interior walls and ceiling in a series of plaster blocks, giving an impression of a crystal cave. It was not a stand-alone cinema. Like many, it anchored a commercial building with shops and offices—a layout later employed around the world. But in the early 1920s it was radical. Despite some 1960s modifications, it has long been recognized as one of the world’s great twentieth-century cinemas and has recently been refurbished. 

 

The 1930s saw the update of many existing cinemas and the construction of numerous new ones, generally owned by the large studios as part of a chain, all equipped with facilities to accommodate sound and larger screens. While the Great Depression affected cinema attendance, moviegoing remained popular as a way to escape the exigencies of life for a small outlay. The actual cinema experience started on the street, or, as architect S. Charles Lee is quoted as saying, “The Show Starts on the Sidewalk!” This was also the era of advertising, with the advent of large, colorful neon signs, designed to catch the eye of passing traffic—on foot, on streetcars and in an ever-increasing number of automobiles. 

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The Chicago Theatre, Chicago.

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Archival photo of the The Capitol theater auditorium, Melbourne.

The cinema’s name was an important element. Theater names were intended to be dramatic and convey style and luxury. Some were commonly used in cinemas around the world, such as the Roxy. Originating in New York as a nickname of Samuel L. Rothafel, the impresario behind Radio City Music Hall, it was then used across America in Hollywood, Miami Beach, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Washington, as well as international locations such as Leeton, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; Berlin, and Toronto. Other names were intended to portray glamour, such as Regent, Ritz, Grand Rex, Astor, Imperial, and Empire, while some were simpler and just identified their town or district, such as Bay, Des Plaines, Bad Axe, and Everett. Some were associated with important events or concepts, such as the Liberty, while others were named for theater owners or prominent people, including politicians and heads of state such as Senator and Bolivar. Some were associated with prominent locations in other countries, such as the Alhambra in Tel Aviv and the Milan in Havana, or with figures from mythology—the Minerva and Eros. 

 

Some cities, such as Los Angeles and Buenos Aires, boasted streets with a succession of competing cinemas. The new cinemas were designed in a variety of styles, although the elements were consistent: a lobby, a stand-alone ticket booth, restrooms, a concession stand, and an auditorium, and sometimes with seating divided into classes that allowed different ticket prices, and segregation by race or gender. A major component was a projection booth, or bio-box. These spaces were not always safe: celluloid film could be combustible, and cramped bio-boxes could be death traps if fire broke out. Some cinemas were described as “atmospheric,” such as the Grand Rex in Paris, which opened in 1932, with an auditorium featuring a starred ceiling and fairy-tale decorations on both sides of the screen, including water features. The exterior provided a dramatic and stunning example of Art Deco design that was beginning to be seen around the world on new and updated cinemas. The proliferation of more modest and more economical venues in the simple Moderne style meant lower setup and operating costs but could stand out by the use of multi-colored and glossy surfaces of vitrolite, an opaque glass product, chrome, and other metals, and stylized lettering for the theater name on the marquee and large vertical signs. Elaborate interiors with chandeliers, ornamental plasterwork, and sculptures were often replaced by simple streamlined walls, perhaps enhanced with speed lines, etched glass, rounded corners, glass block, carpeting or linoleum flooring with geometric designs, machined metal, and stylized lights and fittings. Many buildings were striking in appearance, enlivening mundane streetscapes, and became exciting style icons, particularly in small towns. In areas where Art Deco design was common, like South Beach, Miami, cinemas such as the 1936 Cameo, with its tropical motifs, fitted in seamlessly. Some stood out by virtue of defined styles, such as Moorish, Mayan, Egyptian, and Aztec, while others were prominent because of the placement of a dramatic large tower, visible for long distances, such as the spiral tower on the Academy in Los Angeles, lit in blue neon at night. 

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Atmospheric auditorium of Le Grand Rex, Paris. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

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Le Grand Rex façade, Paris. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

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The Academy Theatre, Los Angeles. Photo: Julius Shulman, 1939. S. Charles Lee Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

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Odeon Cinema, York. Photo: Adrian Whittle

European cities and towns boasted numerous cinemas, and countries such as France, Italy, and Germany fostered their own film industries and distribution networks, often badly affected during the depression years. England was a major force in cinema design along with its production networks throughout the British Empire. Across Britain, cinemas emerged that dominated main streets with designs ranging from highly elaborate to simpler Moderne. 

One firm provided numerous examples of striking, stylish architecture. The Odeon circuit, founded by Oscar Deutsch, began with a cinema in 1928 and expanded greatly in the 1930s. Eventually Deutsch was responsible for over 350 cinemas, either designed by a variety of architectural firms or acquired from competitors. Odeon employed a house style for its exteriors, often combining rectangular and rounded elements and invariably dominated by stepped forms, vertical fins, or tower-like rectangular structures. Interiors were characterized by simple lines on walls and ceilings of ribbed plaster. Many remain and have been landmarked, but, with the advent of television, many ceased screening films and became bingo halls, now threatened by bans on smoking. 


The rise of the film industry in the 1930s was largely driven by free enterprise. Studios exercised control over the product, driven mainly by the profit motive. But in Europe, where totalitarian states had emerged in Germany, Italy, and other countries, they were operating in a complex political environment. These governments controlled film production and distribution and mandated that films be used as instruments of propaganda. Other countries, such as Great Britain, also produced propaganda, encouraging studios to produce films that endorsed patriotism and loyalty to the Empire, increasingly threatened by Nazi Germany. 

The fervor for film also took hold in Central and South America. Argentina took up cinema with a passion and, early in the century, embraced films created locally as well as those from Europe and America. The industry in Buenos Aires replicated Hollywood, with big studios, important directors, stars, luxurious wardrobes and sets, and a range of associated businesses, such as movie magazines, which covered Argentina and the rest of Latin America. Buenos Aires claimed to have the “largest and most varied set of cinemas in the world,”1 and it is still possible to experience the era’s style and elegance in cinemas captured in the Teatro Opera’s stepped tower. In Brazil, Cariocas (natives of Rio de Janeiro) could enjoy the latest films at temples of the style, such as the Cinema Metro, the Brazilian version of the Roxy at Copacabana, and the Olinda.2

In the 1930s, large cinema chains also developed across Africa—in Egypt, South Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and the Congo—the Middle East, and Asia, particularly in India, with the construction of striking cinemas in major cities such as Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Delhi. Perhaps India’s most distinguished cinema was the Eros in Churchgate, Bombay, designed by local architect Sohrabi Bhedwar—unusual because most cinemas in Asia were designed by Western architects—and constructed in 1938. The four-story building, on a prominent corner beneath an octagonal tower, was much more than a cinema; it was a major entertainment center and billed itself as the “Most Modern Theatre & Restaurant in the World.” When it opened, it also housed an upscale European ballroom and restaurant seating 500, an ice skating rink, and luxury offices and retail shops.3 On the lobby columns were figures of mythological gods, including the Greek god of love, Eros. 

 

Some cinemas emerged from the hands of architects in places where there was little history of modern buildings or cinemas. A fine example was in Shanghai, China, where a key architect was Hungarian-born Laszlo Hudec. Along West Nanjing Road, near his massive Park Hotel, Hudec designed the Grand Cinema, which opened in 1933 with 2,100 seats, showing films from Japan and overseas. The exterior was distinguished by perpendicular planes and angular surfaces that contrasted with gently concave voids. Walls of glass stood in vertical panels above the entrance.4 It stands today as a fine example of Art Deco design in Shanghai. It has been remodeled a few times, and the latest version contains wonderful graphic images of the theater on the interior walls. 

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Teatro Opera, Buenos Aires.

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Eros Cinema, Mumbai.

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Poster for the Grand Cinema, Shanghai.

Some architects of the era concentrated almost exclusively on cinema design. One prominent example was S. Charles Lee, responsible for over 300 cinemas across the United States and a few in Latin America. A busy man, Lee saved time on his projects by flying between them in his Beechcraft, greatly impressing his investors. It seemed that every town wanted its own movie theater. Working for Fox West Coast Theatres, Lee used a simple formula for his designs, many of which remain today, with an emphasis on “efficiency and cost control” intended to provide a good dividend for the owners.5

When people around the world went to see a film, what did they experience? First, they had to decide what to see. Some patrons had regular bookings and would turn up regardless of what was showing. Others were more selective, and one of the major challenges facing studios was to determine what people would pay their hard-earned money to see. Would it be drama, musicals, comedies, cartoons, or documentaries? And which stars would reliably bring in crowds? 

 

When filmgoers entered the lobby of an Art Deco theater, what did they see? Interior lobbies became stylized, with dramatic use of the latest materials on walls, such as tiles and vitrolite sheets. Durable terrazzo was used extensively on floors, often incorporating the cinema’s initials or logo. Examples of Deco styling may be found in the lighting, often recessed, glasswork, metalwork, clocks, and floors. Some paid homage to the history of the cinema, such as the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles, whose lobby features a wide stairway, lined with sculptures in Art Deco style, one depicting a camera crew filming. 

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Stand-alone ticket booth designed by S. Charles Lee for the Academy Theatre, Los Angeles. Photo: Julius Shulman, 1939. S. Charles Lee Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

But the first place to visit was the ticket booth, generally stand-alone, some designed to look like spaceships. And, of course, the concession stand, a feature of Art Deco theater, designed to maximize revenue, where popcorn became a staple. These stands were—and still are—strategically placed so that customers had to pass by to enter the auditorium.

 

Once inside, seating was generally plush. Walls and ceilings tended to be streamlined, consisting of simple lines in the plaster walls, or geometric or circular motifs. Air conditioning was a major attraction in hot locations, where cinemas could boast the comfort of cooled auditoriums. 

 

One issue that developed in the early days of the cinema was audience behavior, which often reflected the local culture. English-speaking audiences generally frowned on talking during the show and were encouraged to refrain from foot-stomping and whistling. In the volatile world of interwar Palestine, crowds—both Jews and Arabs—could be more raucous; silent-film audiences told the actors how to behave and when to watch out for danger, chewed and cracked sunflower seeds, and greeted any onscreen couple kissing with deafening whistles.6 Such behavior was modified after the introduction of sound films in the late 1920s. Some cinemas featured “crying rooms” where mothers could leave their babies while watching the film; they were issued a number, which would be flashed on the screen to alert the mother if the baby cried. Cinemas in many countries, such as Britain, tolerated smoking until in the 1970s. Audience misbehavior continues to be a concern of theater operators, more so today with the proliferation of cell phones. 

 

Post-World War II developments in cinema included the perfecting of color and Cinemascope, requiring modification to many cinemas to accommodate larger screens in the early 1950s. 

 

Many Art Deco cinemas around the world have deteriorated and are being converted to multiplexes, repurposed as churches, or replaced by apartments or commercial space. Often they are victims of their valuable size and desirable locations, as well as technological developments such as streaming. 

 

But as lovers of the style travel the world seeking examples of Art Deco or Modernist design, the discovery of an intact cinema is one of the great thrills. You can still catch a film at the Rex in Paris or a Broadway show at Hollywood’s Pantages, and in Tel Aviv, you can spend the night in the Cinema Hotel in Dizengoff Circle, created out of the former Bauhaus-style cinema called the Esther.

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Camera crew sculptures in the lobby of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles.

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Interior of the Hotel Cinema, Tel Aviv. Photo: Meghan Weatherby

About the Author:

Robin Grow is the longtime President of the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia and author of the award-winning Melbourne Art Deco (2009). He has researched and written extensively on the interwar era and has presented papers at local, national, and international conferences. He is heavily involved in ICADS and currently holds the role of Vice-President with responsibility for preservation activities.

 

Endnotes:

Mimi Böhm, Buenos Aires Art Deco Y Racionalismo, 2008, p. 309.

Marcio Roiter, Rio de Janeiro Art Deco, 2011, p. 79.

Navin Ramani, Bombay Art Deco Architecture, 2007, p. 212.

Edward Denison and Guang Yu Ren, Modernism in China, 2008, p. 212.

Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk, 1994, p. 9.

Rachel Neiman, “Israeli Cinemas of Yesteryear Get Repurposed or Closed,” Israel21c, January 15, 2018, https://www.israel21c.org/israeli-cinemas-of-yesteryear-get-repurposed-or-closed/.

 

All Photos: Robin Grow unless noted otherwise