Tennessee's Small-Town Movie Theater Architecture


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  • Park Theatre c. 1949, Full Façade.People unknown but notice the African-American man looking at a movie poster in front of the left lobby door. Gabe Clericuzio, Photograph Albums, Private Collection.
  • Cutter points this out in 1948 briefly describing the ideal theater auditorium, he writes that the moviegoer should be able “sit down and look at what is ahead of him and not be conscious of the physical shelter in which he is enjoying that picture.” A 1949 book defines the basic requirements of an auditorium, beginning with “The audience comes to see the show and to hear the show. It wants a maximum of comfort, a minimum of distraction, and complete safety.”Cutter, “Psychology of the Theater,” 39.4. Burris-Meyer and Cole, Theatres & Auditorium, 1.  
  • 1944; McKenzie+Oct.+1926-Mar.+1944,+Sheet+2
  • 1939 April 4 Rockwood Amusement Co. purchased the McKenzie Theatre from Douglas Moore for $9,000. Early in 1939, Rockwood “leased a storeroom in the heart of the best business block” with plans to remodel and open the building as a new movie theater; this was the motivation Moore needed to sell out to Rockwood.
  • Erwin Record,article printed above fold.
  • Use reflects national ideals for theater interiorsBenefits of indirect lighting for the patron “a proper lighting scheme for the interior of a theatre should provide a gradual transition from the brilliancy of the marquee to the darkness of the auditorium.” “A light source should never be visible to the eyes of patrons in the modern motion picture theatre,” because the theaters sell their product in “semi-darkness” and must maintain the proper atmosphere. Theatres’ lighting described at their openings“Soft lights flow from indirect fixtures giving the atmosphere a warm, exotic pleasantry.” (Park Theatre, McKenzie)“The indirect lighting adds much to the general scheme of modernistic decorations.” (Lyric Theatre, Manchester)Sources: Joseph W. Holman, “The Theatrical Possibilities of Indirect Lighting,” in The Theatre Catalog: 1942, 19. McKenzie Banner, July 4, 1941. Coffee County News, special issue. May 14, 1936.
  • Celotex wall covering absorbed sound Was a very common wall treatmentNote art deco curvesProjection The recollections of Gabe Clericuzio and Mary Kate Penn Ridgeway, children of managers at the Park Theatre and the Capitol Theatre respectively, provide perspective on how the architectural design of projection rooms helped determine the gender qualified to work in this room. Ridgeway categorizes the projectionists’ task as being a “man’s job” while Clericuzio notes that the job was largely worked men. He recalls, “I only remember guys applying for that job. There was no [A/C] in the projection booth. It was warm in there during the summer.” Forrester, Footlights & Flickers, 99; and Gabe Clericuzio, e-mail message to author, July 19, 2012. 
  • Erwin Record, 1935 11 (Nov) 03
  • A product of its time and place, the Park Theatre has an inherently segregated history. As the McKenzie Banner began publishing articles on the proposed theater and its progress, authors unapologetically note the segregated layout of the future theater. As anticipated, the theater’s storefront, from right to left, ultimately had a small office at the corner of Cedar and Main Street, a “stairway leading to the negro balcony,” “double box office” next to main entrance “built so as to serve both white and colored patrons,” double doors to the lobby, and a stairway leading to three second floor offices. McKenzie Banner, February 14, 1941, 1; and McKenzie Banner, January 31, 1941, 1.ANOTHER EXAMPLE“another entrance will be made…for colored patrons.” Bruceton News Section in the Tennessee Republican, Sept 17, 1940always the furthest from the screen in the least desirable location, often in the balcony or simply a portion of the balcony. The purpose of racial segregation was twofold: to isolate African-American customers from white moviegoers and to limit the viewing and “social moviegoing environment as experienced by white patrons.”C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 18-19; and Weyeneth, “The Architecture of Racial Segregation,” 19.  Allen, “Relocating American Film History,” 74.  
  • The 1945 Film Daily Year Book of Motion Pictures, ed. Jack Alicoate, 27th ed. (Fort Lee, NJ: The Film Daily, 1945), 47, 49.
  • Larger cities seat 1,000+ moviegoers
  • Tennessee's Small-Town Movie Theater Architecture

    1. 1. Theaters Studied • Examples from each of the grand division with a focus on West TN • Small towns (populations: 1,200 to 5,875) • Part of a theater circuit • Built new, renovated, or remodeled between 1927-1942
    2. 2. Towns and Theaters • West TN – Union City: • Capitol Theatre (1927, 1939) • Ritz Theatre (1939) • Roxy Theatre (1939) – McKenzie: • McKenzie Theatre (c. 1926) • Park Theatre (1941) – Huntingdon: • Court Theatre (1929, 1940) – Bruceton: • Ritz Theatre (renovations 1939-1941) • Middle TN – Manchester: • Lyric Theatre (1936) • East TN – Erwin: • Lyric Theatre (1935)
    3. 3. Shift away from Picture Palace to Movie Theater
    4. 4. Common Features • Preexisting buildings in the heart of downtown • Regular renovations • “Modern” in every respect – Comfort • Lighting • Seating • Air conditioning and heating – Fire safety – Projection and sound • Storefront arrangement – Treatment – Corner stores • Segregation • Architects specialized in small-town theaters
    5. 5. Preexisting buildings in the Heart of Downtown • McKenzie example: – “The construction of this theatre right in the main part of the business district will mean much to the City of McKenzie and be an added asset in more mays than one.” McKenzie Banner, April 5, 1940
    6. 6. Old theater New theater
    7. 7. Preferred locations Looking down Broadway towards the Caledonia Masonic Lodge on Mule Day, 1930. Looking down Cedar towards the Park Theatre and the Lynn Hotel, c. 1960s.
    8. 8. “Modern in Every Respect:” Newspaper quotes • “This building will be remodeled into a first class theatre, modern in every respect…The newest type of screen and movie equipment, and air condition will be installed.” Erwin Record, July 10, 1935. • “We do not believe any other small town, the size of Erwin, in the state of Tennessee can boast of having such a beautiful theatre.” Erwin Record, November 3, 1935. • “It will be one of the most modern in West Tennessee.” Tennessee Republican, Aug 3, 1940. • “Already styled ‘The Showplace of West Tennessee,’ the theatre has taken on the appearance of theatres in much larger cities.” Tennessee Republican, Aug 30, 1940. • “The Ritz Theatre is undergoing a remodeling which will class the show building with the most attractive and modern in West Tennessee.” The Bruceton Reporter in the Carroll County Democrat, Sept 6, 1940. • New projection and sound equipment will give the theater “the most modern and up-to-date equipment to be found in the country.” Union City Daily Messenger, Feb 14, 1939. • “The New Roxy is one of the most modern theatre buildings in this section of the country, and Mr. Henry challenges movie goers to find one better equipped and better arranged. No expense has been sparred in making the theatre attractive, and in use of the best equipment that the market [affords]. His sound and lighting equipment are the most modern and up to date on the market.” Union City Daily Messenger, March 9, 1939. • “The theatre when completed will be one of the most modern equipped and most beautiful in any town this size in the state.” Coffee County News, April 23, 1936.
    9. 9. Comfort: Lighting (indirect) Park Theatre in McKenzie, TN
    10. 10. Comfort: Seating • • • • Staggered Love seats Cushioned Sight lines
    11. 11. Comfort: Air Conditioning and Heat Park Theatre, c. 1999-2000 Ad, Tennessee Republican, 1939.
    12. 12. Safety, Sound, and the Show Fire Safety Projection and Sound • Fire proof projection room • Steal framing where possible • Fire exits Capitol Theatre in Union City, 1954
    13. 13. Storefront Arrangements • • • • Glass fronts Corner stores Offices over lobby and under balcony Segregated entrance
    14. 14. Capitol Theatre, Union City
    15. 15. The Capitol Theatre, Erwin Capitol Theatre at opening in 1935 Capitol Theatre in November 2011 Capitol Theatre in Erwin, 1944.
    16. 16. Park Theatre, McKenzie
    17. 17. Segregation Park Theatre, 2011
    18. 18. Relative Size • 1944-1945 average seating capacities – National= 647 – Tennessee = 539
    19. 19. Relative Size: Number of People per Seat in 1939 • West TN – Union City: • Seats = 1,176 • Population = 5,875 • Middle TN – Manchester: • Seats = 482 • Population = 1,200 – McKenzie: • Seats = 344 • Population = 1,858 – Huntingdon: • Seats = 422 • Population = 1,250 • East TN – Erwin: • Seats = 766 • Population = 3,600
    20. 20. Modern Architecture in Small-Towns Belle Meade Theatre, Nashville, 1940. Joseph W. Holman. Park Theatre, McKenzie, c. 1949.