I’m a fan of the old major-city movie palaces of the 1920’s and 30’s. Those majestic structures with ornate terra cotta facades, soaring marble-clad lobbies, gigantic auditoriums lined with sculptures, and huge stages with curtains that look like they were designed for royalty – you get the idea. In their early days, they often featured a complete, multi-act live show, featuring comedians, dancers and bands followed by a movie program – a newsreel, cartoon (or a Three Stooges or Our Gang two-reeler) and the feature film. “Going to the movies” in major cities in that era would be more accurately be described as “going to the show”. It was easily a 4 to 5 hour long event.
During the depression and war years, hard times forced the cutback and eventual elimination of the live shows, leaving only the movie program portion. Built “for the ages”, the economic model for this type of theatre was pretty much shot by the early 1950’s. Some of the reasons were the same as those behind the closing of downtown variety stores – declining downtowns, increased crime, lousy parking and other negatives. Added to this were factors more directly associated with theater operation - high labor costs (for large usher staffs, curtain operators, etc.) and the enormous maintenance costs of those beautiful old buildings, among other things. By the time I came around, most of these theatres were gone – either torn down, or boarded up, or converted to another use such as a bowling alley. Most that could still be nominally considered “theatres” were showing X-rated or exploitation films.
No, for many of my generation - those of us who began our moviegoing habit in the 60’s, 70’s or very early 80's, “going to the movies” meant pulling up to a white, boxy looking building of simple modern design with the lone word “CINEMA” (occasionally followed by a few roman numerals) as its only identification. They were located next to the mall, or to Korvettes, or whatever the local shopping center might have been. These were the theatres of the General Cinema Corporation.
Though his company would eventually become known as the pioneer of the ever-present “shopping center theatre”, General Cinema’s founder enjoyed earlier success as a proprietor of standard downtown theatres, and later on of drive-in theatres, that pop culture icon of the 40’s and 50’s - an institution which played no small part in the demise of the aforementioned movie palaces. The company that would eventually become General Cinema Corporation was founded by Philip Smith, a Syracuse, New York native, who moved to Boston in 1918 upon being hired to operate the National theatre, a unit of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (later known as Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or “RKO”) theatre circuit. Smith later leased the theater to operate it on his own, and by 1922 had formed his own company, Smith Theatrical Enterprises. By 1930, Smith was operating some 18 theatres in the New England area.
By the early thirties, as the depression entered its darkest days, Smith was in search of a unique approach to the film exhibition business, something that would set his company apart from the pack, giving it a better chance of surviving those tough years. When Smith learned of the new “outdoor amphitheatre” for automobiles that opened in Camden, New Jersey in 1933, he was intrigued, and closely studied the drive-in concept over the next couple of years. Confident, both in his aptitude for the theatre business and in the potential of the new concept, Smith eventually made the decision to jump in.
Joining forces with financier David Stoneman and his family, Smith started a new company called Mid-West Drive-In Theatres, Inc. This may seem like an ironic name for a Boston-based enterprise, but the fact was that most of their early drive-in theaters were indeed opened in the Midwest, where Smith saw the greatest potential for the business. Mid-West’s first theatres were opened in the Detroit and Cleveland areas in the spring of 1938. The company grew slowly over the next 12 years, constrained (as were other drive-in operators) by the lack of access to first-run motion pictures. A series of lawsuits aimed at the famous ”studio system” – the cartel of studios who owned their own theatres, which included 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount and MGM (the Loew’s theatre chain), eventually leveled the playing field for the drive-ins.
In 1950, Mid-West Drive-In, with Phil Smith’s son Richard now a full partner in the business, launched a major expansion drive. At this point there were 14 drive-in theatres in addition to the company’s traditional New England downtown theatres, and the company had footholds in Omaha, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Gary, Indiana, and Chicago (La Grange, on Route 66) in addition to their established Ohio and Michigan locations. Soon afterward they began opening drive-ins in the northeast for the first time, including three in New Jersey and one in Natick, Massachusetts, near their home turf. More were to come. Bettye Pruitt, author of the book “The Making of Harcourt General”, an excellent history of GCC which serves as the basis for much of the information here, notes that “by 1952, Massachusetts would have the most drive-ins per square mile of any state in the nation”.
By this time, Mid-West was also involved in “drive-ins” of another sort, specifically drive-in restaurants, another institution that was surging in popularity at the time. Their first “Richard’s Drive-In”, named after Richard Smith, Philip’s son, opened adjacent to one of the company’s Detroit area drive-in theatres in 1946. Soon more restaurants would be built in the Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago areas. In Chicago, Richard’s units were opened in Lincolnwood, Wilmette and Evergreen Park, among other locations. Later on, the chain would expand into the northeast, following the company’s theater development. The menu was typical of carhop joints of the time-hamburgers, fries, chicken sandwiches and “frappes”, (which translates to “milkshake” in most areas outside New England). Larry Cultrera’s “Diner Hotline” website has a great article and pictures of some of the Richard’s units. If you haven’t checked out his site, it’s a real gem – a great look at the golden (and present) age of the diner, along with other pre fast food- era restaurants. There were other restaurant ventures as well- Peter Pan Snack Shops, a 7–unit chain that Mid-West would buy and expand to 18 units, Jeff’s Charcoal Broil, named after Phil Smith’s grandson, and the Amy Joy Doughnut and Pancake Houses, an early competitor to Dunkin’ Donuts and Mister Donut in the New England area, named, of course after his granddaughter.
In 1951, Mid-West opened their first shopping center indoor theatre, a move that in retrospect started the company on its destiny. In 1950, plans were announced for an innovative new shopping center, to be opened in Framingham, Massachusetts and known as Middlesex Center. The name was changed to “Shoppers World” prior to its opening, and the new center received considerable coverage in the retail and architectural trade press. Bettye Pruitt quoted Architectural Record on the new shopping center’s design – it was “laid out as a carnival midway, with the main attractions (a theater and a department store) at either end”. The “department store” in this case was the funky, flying-saucer-like Jordan Marsh store. This website has an excellent history of Shoppers World, along with an in-depth look at the original GCC Shoppers World Cinema, with great photos of the original and expanded versions of the theatre. They also appear to have mirrored the defunct GCC website, complete with a listing of the chain’s locations as of 1983 and 1999. The Framingham Cinema’s original business was slow, and as Ms. Pruitt points out in a fascinating anecdote, for a couple of summers, “Smith rented the auditorium to the cartoonists Al Capp (Li’l Abner) and Lee Falk (Mandrake the Magician), who ran a summer theater program in the Boston area, bringing in Hollywood actors such as Mae West, Melvyn Douglas and Marlon Brando to star in their productions”. Within a couple of years, however, the cinema was doing much better, and presumably the cartoonists had to look elsewhere. More importantly, Mid-West began to consider the possibility of opening shopping center theatres on a large scale.
In 1960, the company, now renamed General Drive-In, went public. The restaurants were spun-off as a separate operation, still under the control of the Smith family, allowing the new entity’s business to focus strictly on theatres. For a while, that is – that same year, the company decided to enter another recreation field – as an operator of bowling centers. This was spurred on by a nationwide decline in movie attendance, due in large part to a continued drop in new film releases, from roughly 450 a year in 1948 to only 350 a year in 1960. By 1963, the company owned 15 “Holiday Lanes” bowling centers, mostly in the New England states.
In 1961, General Drive-In suffered two tragic losses – Phil Smith, the company founder, died at age 62 in July, and Morris Lurie, his son-in-law, passed away around the same time. Lurie was largely responsible for running the family’s restaurant businesses. Forced to assume the responsibilities of two other top executives in addition to his own, Richard Smith decided to sell off the restaurant group within the next couple of years, in order to concentrate fully on the company’s shopping center theatre business. When the buyer defaulted on the purchase, Smith continued to operate them for several more years before a suitable new buyer could be found.
The bowling centers proved to be an unhappy venture, due in part to the difficulty the company found in organizing bowling leagues, the lifeblood of any bowling alley, in the New England area, as compared to the more industrial, factory-rich Midwest. Also, “ten-pin” (today’s standard sized bowling pins) bowling was relatively new to the area, and didn’t have the following that locally favored “candlepin” (cylindrical pins) or “duckpin” (short, squatty pins) bowling had. In 1965, GCC began to put the bowling centers up for sale.
The shopping center cinemas were a completely different story, however, and very quickly became the company’s mainstay. At the end of 1961, the company had eight shopping center theatres, including new locations in Pompano Beach, Sarasota, Daytona Beach and Orlando, Florida, and Menlo Park, New Jersey. They also bought the existing Plaza Cinema in Memphis that year. The Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland markets were entered the following year, and many more followed in quick succession - Northern California (San Mateo’s Hillsdale Mall, the first of many NorCal units), Denver, Detroit, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Akron, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, among other metro areas, by 1966.
While the drive-in business grew steadily – from 26 units in 1963 to 49 in 1968, the shopping center theatres exploded – from only 10 in 1963 to 319 ten years later. In a nod to the obvious, the company changed its name to General Cinema Corporation in 1964.
Interestingly, GCC did not have to invest a great deal of resources to come up with new locations, as was often the case in the history of many great retail chains of the mid-20th century. A number of examples come to mind – from McDonald’s Ray Kroc or Publix’s George Jenkins flying all over in company–owned prop planes, feverishly scouting new locations on which to plant their respective flags, eventually setting up sophisticated market research departments as their businesses grew. Instead, within just a few years, mall and shopping center developers were flocking to the company to offer them prime sites, and as long as the terms were good, the company generally went for it. This was a big reason behind the very wide geographic reach that GCC reached in such a short time. As Ms. Pruitt writes, “Where competitors might carefully research the socio-economic characteristics of potential theater locations, General Cinema left that kind of analysis to others”.
The GCC theatres had a fairly uniform look, designed by architect William Reisman. With their white-painted steel framed and red upholstered seats, they were certainly austere compared to the ornate theatres of years past. The lobbies, as shown in the previous post, did have a nice sense of style, now breathlessly referred to of course as “Mid-Century Modern”. One GCC innovation that permanently changed the industry (for better or worse depending on your point of view) was the “shadowbox” screen. Gone were the theatre curtains (and the projectionists’ union members who operated them) and the stage itself. In their place was a simple white wall with a recessed portion for the screen, somewhat akin to a “tray ceiling” tilted up on its side.
A huge step forward for the company was the introduction of the “twin” cinema, the first of which was opened at the Northshore Shopping Center in Peabody, Massachusetts in 1962. While this obviously enabled a location to show two different pictures at once, it also allowed it to utilize two screens for the same film, with staggered showtimes, in the case of a blockbuster like “The Sound of Music”. Of course, the other big advantage to the twin was the fact that the two auditoriums shared a common lobby, concession area and projection room, minimizing the added incremental operating cost. Soon after the Peabody unit opened, twins followed in Charlotte, NC (the first GCC theatre in the state) and in Fort Lauderdale. In 1966, the first Chicago-area twin (a third theatre was added in 1971) opened at the new Ford City Mall. As time went on, more and more GCC theatres were opened with two or more screens.
As far back as 1962, Time Magazine hailed the shopping center theatre, acknowledging General Drive-In’s (General Cinema’s) leadership role in the trend - “Now the movie theater operators, who have been shuttering one downtown palace after another, have latched on to the shopping center as the place where the people are (or can get to)”. Throughout the 1960’s, an ever-growing percentage of the American public could easily “get to” a General Cinema theatre.
The six artist's renderings above, showing typical GCC exterior configurations, are circa 1964. (The film listed on the marquee in the third photo, “Tunes of Glory” was actually a 1960 release.) Below is an unknown Florida location, in a circa 1963-64 photo, appearing here courtesy of Leon Reed, whose father took the photo during a family vacation. Added bonuses are the Christmas decorations (Christmas in Florida – now we’re talkin'!), the Woolworth’s and Mr. Reed’s Ford wagon and Airstream trailer. I believe the location might be Miami’s Cutler Ridge Shopping Center, but don’t really know for sure.