How Popcorn Saved the Movies

 

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Apologies for the delayed post, readers. Holidays and other necessities of living have gotten in the way of a timely posting since the California wildfires of early November. We’re still recovering as a state but the good news is that we’ve had some rain, the smoke has cleared, and the fires have been put out. Thanks to everyone for your beautiful comments and concern.

In other news, I went to see Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma this evening at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley (if you haven’t seen Roma, please rush out. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and takes much influence from prior cinematic movements–I may make a post about this later.) As I waited for the film to start, my mind wandered as I ate my box of popcorn. I ruminated on the origins of popcorn as a movie theater snack, and how it came to be. The story is actually quite an interesting one, with roots in the political and social history of the United States.

Popcorn was a popular street food at fairs and carnivals going back to the 1800s. It was a cheap, tasty treat, a luxury that people from any social class could afford. This, along with its messiness and noise, made it particularly loathsome to those in the burgeoning movie theater business. When the first movie theaters were built, the managers directed their advertising and aesthetic to the highbrow, theatergoing clientele. As the movies were silent and intertitles were used to convey speech, audience members had to be literate, which made movies most accessible to members of the educated upper classes. Patrons dressed in their best clothes, carpets were rolled out in the theater foyer and the audience was expected to be on its best behavior, just as they would be at any other theater. Any distraction such as munching or snacks spilled on the floor was unacceptable, and as such, there was no popcorn or any other food sold in the theater, nor was anything allowed in.

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The Embassy Theatre in Seattle, WA shows Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, 1930

Then sound came to the movies. In the years between 1927 and 1929, between the release of The Jazz Singer and the time when sound became industry standard, the movie business went through upheavals in just about every department. Hand cranked cameras had to be replaced with synchronized sound devices. Actors with vocal problems lost their careers. Theaters had to convert their auditoriums to be conducive to sound. And because the need for intertitles disappeared, the movies began to attract a different, less literate, more common crowd. That crowd would frequently show up at the door with a bag of popcorn, which had to be checked along with coats and hats.

The coming of sound happened to coincide with the first signs of the Great Depression. The combination of rising costs due to theater renovations for sound, and a stock market that was starting to spin out of control, was a death knell for many small town theaters. All over the country, theaters closed their doors due to their financial inability to make the changes needed to stay in business.

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The Cabrillo Theatre in San Diego, CA

However, people still flocked to the movies. The common man needed to escape from the world of breadlines and unemployment, and for a few cents he could do just that at a movie theater. Some particularly clever theater owners saw a way to keep the doors open for those needing entertainment. They tossed aside their hesitancy to allow snacks, and began to allow outdoor popcorn vendors to pay for space inside the theater, getting customers in the door to see a movie and bringing in the extra fees brought by the vendors. Eventually, theaters began to sell popcorn themselves. Using the extra money from popcorn sales, theaters were able to satisfy their clientele and survive the Depression. Other theaters caught on and began selling popcorn, saving themselves from the brink of closure. Eventually they added concession stands that included candy and drinks, and their profits skyrocketed.

The 1940s confirmed popcorn as the ultimate movie snack. World War II saw a decrease in the amount of candy and drinks that could be sold, due to the strict war era rationing requirements on sugar. Because of this, theaters heavily pushed popcorn as the snack to buy, and it has stuck ever since. Now, it is an absolute necessity. Due to the complex web of distributors and studios that go into bringing a film to your local theater, none of the money from ticket sales actually goes to your theater. The theater only earns money through the sale of concessions, of which popcorn is still the biggest sell.

So next time you go to the movies, be sure to get a bag of popcorn, support your theater, and remember this history as you eat!

3 responses to “How Popcorn Saved the Movies

  1. So interesting! I will definitely buy some popcorn the next time I go to the movies. Thank you for this bit of history!

  2. Lara – I read your opening here with interest as my grandmother was a passionate silent movie-goer for almost two decades being born in 1911. When I was an adult she was still mourning the death of Rudy Valentino! She was born and raised in a very small steel town north of Pittsburgh and had an 8th grade education, although was an avid reader all her life. As she attended these movies with her friends and family I’ve always thought of Silents as the great leveler, especially for our immigrant families: no matter one’s grasp of English the meaning could still be ascertained. Perhaps it was different in the heartland as opposed to the West Coast.

  3. Hi Molly, thanks for your comment! They had the potential to be great levelers. But there were a couple of things at play, I think–the theaters wanted to make the movies feel like “the theatre,” to make them feel sophisticated and draw theatre-going crowds to them. Also, you really did have to be literate–especially later when intertitles became more frequent within the movies. But that’s not to say, of course, that less educated people didn’t go at all. I think it just wasn’t catered to them until sound came in. Now we think of movies as one of the most accessible forms of entertainment!

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