Here are a few scenes from various General Cinema theatres from 1976 through 1980. If you grew up going to any of their theatres during or around that era, these photos should resonate.
General Cinemas were an appropriate fit for the “New Cinema” of the early 1970’s, meaning the Hollywood trend toward “relevant” films as opposed to the popular sugar-coated fantasies of the preceding decades. These new movies – MASH, The French Connection, Shaft , Serpico and The Candidate, to name just a handful , represented a big departure from the “make-believe world that used to pass for ‘real life’ in the movies that enchanted millions a mere 10 or 15 years (earlier)”, to quote GCC ‘s president Richard A. Smith in a fascinating essay entitled “Cinemas for the 70’s”. These films were gritty, depicting the world as it was, however unglamorous it may have frequently been.
The move away from the stately theatres of the preceding decades and toward the comparatively spartan and functional theatres that GCC operated mirrored this trend. Fancy theatres were somehow no longer “relevant” to the moviegoing experience, the audience focus having shifted to the product onscreen, with the auditorium’s physical atmosphere assuming much less importance.
The convenience factor had played a huge part in GCC’s success as well – after all, this was the era of Perma-Prest clothes (or Penn-Prest, if your folks shopped at Penney’s), Hamburger Helper, and the rise of fast food restaurants on seemingly every corner. As Smith says in his essay, people were favoring “clean, comfortable, conveniently located theatres with adequate parking facilities and a reasonable number of entertaining films each year. The best combination of these factors is to be found in the large shopping center in which we have hundreds of successful cinemas established”.
And successful they were. By the end of 1971, the company had 172 locations (with 247 screens), mostly located in shopping centers. Another 49 shopping center locations, with 103 screens, were in the works. There were also 48 drive-ins at the time. The company enjoyed the benefits of being in a fairly recession-proof business, as proven out in the tight years of the early 70’s – commenting in 1971 that “our patrons were willing to give up more expensive forms of entertainment, such as legitimate (live) theatre, dining out, and week-end or vacation trips, but not their movie-going habit”.
By this time, General Cinema was making its mark in a completely different business, one that also proved to be more or less recession-proof – soft drink bottling. In 1968, GCC established itself as a major player in the soft drink bottling industry with four major acquisitions – American Beverage Corporation (Pepsi-Cola in Miami, Florida, several major Ohio markets, and a private label plant in Houston), Miami Seven-Up Bottling Company, Pepsi-Cola Allied Bottlers, Inc. (Multiple cities in Florida and Indiana, plus Savannah, Georgia, Lynchburg, Virginia and Charleston, West Virginia, and the Pepsi-Cola franchise in Cleveland, Ohio. Added to this were several Dr. Pepper and Seven-Up franchises, mostly in cities where GCC held Pepsi bottling rights. In just a year, GGC went from zero bottling holdings to owning 17 plants in seven states, achieving status as Pepsi-Cola’s second largest independent bottler. More bottling territories would be added in the ensuing years. In short order, revenues from the bottling operations exceeded those from the theatres.
In the mid-70’s, GCC became a soft drink franchisor as well. Having hired a successful former brand executive with General Mills, the company sought to market a proprietary brand of its own, and talks were initiated with Sunkist Growers, Inc., with the goal of obtaining soft drink manufacturing and marketing rights to the Sunkist brand. Sunkist, as described in Bettye Pruitt’s book The Making of Harcourt General, conjured up images in consumer’s minds “like motherhood, apple pie and a flag in this country”. In 1977, GCC won out over other companies interested in the Sunkist rights, including PepsiCo. Sunkist Orange Soda was introduced in mid-1978 and quickly became the most popular orange soda in America (a ranking it still holds), surpassing long time brands such as Orange Crush and Coca-Cola’s Fanta. This was no doubt helped by GCC’s memorable advertising campaign for Sunkist, which used The Beach Boys’ classic song “Good Vibrations” as its theme.
The theatre industry was changing by the mid-70’s, with multi-screen cinemas rapidly becoming the norm. In 1970, GCC opened 152 single screen theatres, 45 twins and one quad. In 1978, they opened just 32 singles, 181 twins, 95 triples, 23 quads and one 5-screen theatre. Various factors were behind this, one being an understandable resistance to tie a theatre’s fortunes to one picture – a lousy (or just plain unpopular) movie would depress that location’s profits for the duration of the particular film’s run. The chance for success was multiplied by the number of movies a theater could show concurrently. Also, by the mid-70’s, movies were given longer runs in theatres (in large part to defray the huge rental costs of such blockbusters such as The Godfather), so the size of the individual auditoriums began to shrink appreciably. Many existing GCC singles or twins were expanded to add more screens during the mid-70’s, frequently carved out of existing auditorium space. The increasingly smaller average auditorium size is a major reason why today’s 16-screen megaplexes are housed in buildings not much bigger than the triples or quads of old.
Sadly, as Ms. Pruitt points out, General Cinema was not destined “to be the leader in the multiplexing of America”. That distinction went instead to Kansas City-based American Multi-Cinemas, Inc. (now known of course as AMC), descendant of the family owned Durwood theatre circuit, which was originally founded in 1920. Through the 70’s, AMC made a practice of “shadowing” General Cinema, opening locations in close proximity to new GCC theatres. In the 70’s and beyond, however, General Cinema’s theatre group was far larger then AMC.
A problem that had dogged the movie exhibition business for some time, surprisingly, was a decline in the number of movies available to be shown. The Pruitt book cites industry stats that show a steady decline in the number of Hollywood films produced – from 306 in 1970 to just 199 in 1978. With the growth of the GCC chain and the continual addition of new locations (329 units with 739 screens were operating by the end of 1977), this became an ominous problem. The situation was relieved somewhat with the release of several mid-70’s blockbusters – Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Star Wars and as pictured above, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the “message films” had by this time been eclipsed by disaster and fantasy films with evermore impressive special effects), but the company was still anxious for more product.
To alleviate the situation, the company decided to enter the film production business, a move they had previously resisted. In 1975, GCC entered into a joint venture with the British firm Associated TeleVision, (ATV), headed by famed entertainment mogul Sir Lew Grade, later promoted by the Queen to “Lord Grade” (They’d seen his face before –everyone was pretty sure that he was from the House of Lords), and eventually to Baron Grade in the years preceding his passing in 1998. Grade was famous for winning control of the Beatles song catalog, then selling it to the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” years later. The joint venture was named Associated General Films (AGF), and seven films would result over the next couple of years, the best known of which were The Cassandra Crossing, The Eagle Has Landed and Capricorn One. Disappointed in the results, GCC ended up selling out its interest in the joint venture to ATV. Around this same time, the company made a failed attempt to acquire Columbia Pictures, which would later become a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Company. General Cinema did retain another subsidiary, GCC Films, whose purpose was providing funding for films by independent producers.
Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the theatre division became an increasingly smaller piece of the General Cinema pie. In the 1980’s, GCC gained a reputation for deal-making, seeking to further diversify their business through “patient opportunism in an age of excess”, to borrow a phrase from Ms. Pruitt. In 1984, GCC took control of Carter Hawley Hale Stores, rescuing them from a hostile takeover attempt by The Limited. Carter Hawley Hale was the owner of a number of venerable department store chains, including The Broadway, The Emporium, Neiman-Marcus and New York’s famed Bergdorf Goodman, along with specialty chains such as Waldenbooks, which was promptly sold off to Kmart Corporation. In 1986, The Limited (in partnership with developer Edward DeBartolo) made another run at Carter Hawley Hale, forcing a split of the operation into two groups – The Neiman-Marcus Group (including Bergdorf Goodman) which remained under the control of General Cinema, and Carter Hawley Hale (the other department store properties), which was ultimately spun off to CHH employees.
In 1984, GCC sold its Sunkist brand to Canada Dry, then a division of R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company. Five years later, the soft drink bottling operations were sold to PepsiCo, then in the process of consolidating of its bottlers, as was Coca-Cola at the time.
The last major step in the reinvention of the company was the buyout of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which occurred in 1991 after months of wrangling with HBJ bondholders. Harcourt, a well known publisher of textbooks, would soon constitute the largest portion, nearly half, of the company’s earnings. The following year, the company name was changed from General Cinema Corporation to Harcourt General.
The theatre business, now accounting for only 4 percent of the company’s earnings, was in steady decline, at least in terms of market position. In 1986, GCC had lost its number one position, and as Pruitt cites, would soon fall to fourth place, behind United Artists, Cineplex Odeon and AMC. In 1993, Harcourt General spun off the theatre group into a new company, called GC Companies, Inc.
In 1999, the Neiman-Marcus group was spun off from Harcourt General, with Richard Smith, whose family remained the major stockholder, remaining as chairman until the family sold its interest (12.7% of $5 billion – not bad for someone who began their career with a small chain of drive-in theatres) in 2005. In 2001, Harcourt General sold out to a European publishing firm, Reed Elsevier, who later sold it to Houghton Mifflin. GC Companies, the theatre group, continued to struggle, declaring bankruptcy in 2001. In early 2002, many of the former General Cinema chain’s theaters came under the ownership of AMC.
The GCC publicity shots above depict the following: (1) Cinema I, II, III, IV and V at the Greenspoint Mall in Houston, Texas from 1977. Cinemas IV and V are showing “Semi-Tough” and “The Goodbye Girl”, respectively (2) Ticket booth and refreshment counter from South Shore Plaza Cinema I, II, III and IV in Braintree, Massachusetts, also in 1977 (3) A wide lobby shot, also from South Shore Cinema, where John Travolta takes his place alongside the art gallery (4) Mesmerized young folks at the candy counter, unknown location, from 1979. (What do theatre candy bars cost these days, nine bucks apiece?) (5) Another candy counter scene from the same year (6) Ticket window scene, 1979 (7) Those ever-lovin’ famous seats, 1976. Below: (8) a 1976 scene from what I believe is the Chestnut Hill, Mass Cinema. GCC ran a straw poll for every presidential election, usually with uncannily accurate results, and (9) A marquee photo from 1979, featuring Caddyshack, the “Citizen Kane” of my high school years.
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