Friday, February 27, 2009

The Premiere of General Cinema

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.


  1. Very cool article once again! I loved reading about General Cinema's history.

  2. Panda- It really is a pretty interesting story - thanks very much!

  3. My grandmother worked for General Cinema at the Warwick Mall in Warwick, RI for a number of years. I remember how frozen in time that cinema was and really missed it when it closed. Thanks for the wonderful articles... I can't wait to learn more!

  4. The first picture represents the prototype used for General Cinema Theaters at Great Western, University City and Town & Country in Columbus. Eastland Mall and Northland Mall were part of malls, and the University Flick was in an existing theater on the OSU campus (later to become a Rax Restaurant).

  5. I would guess that Amy Joy Donuts (which were great) and Peter Pan Restaurants developed in areas where they already had theatres. Both were in Cleveland (Amy Joy is stilla round, btw--I wonder who owns them), but they never achieved a large critical mass, like Mister Donut or Dunkin' Donuts.

    The Peter Pan I remember was a classic "Googie" type place with a zigzig concrete roof and a rounded shape (at least in front). The one on Lake Shore Blvd. in Euclid, Ohio near St. Robert's Church was vacant for many ywears and then bulldozed for an early Arthur Treacher's (which outlast almost all the others). The long-runnning Amy Joy that's still in business is at Mayfield & Richmond Roads in Lyndhurst. It began in an A-frame and later moved into an inline location at a nearby strip mall. Amy Joy seems to have had locations in Atlanta as I have seen stores similar to the original in Lyndhurst being used for other purpses.

    The first GCC shopping center cinema in Cleveland was at Southgate Shopping Center in 1961. It also was the first one they twinned in the Cleveland area, a few years later.

    Historical note--downtown-style theatres were still being built after WWII, but ijn newly developing suburban areas and similar outer city neighborhoods. The still standing Lake theatre in Euclid, Ohio is an example (nearby was the Shore theatre). Not far from the Amy Joy I mentioned were the Mayland (Mayfield & Lander) and Richmond theatres, which would have gone up in the late 40s/early 50s. These theatres had the usual canopy entrace, pylon signs in many cases, lots of neon and small lights, and simplified but sometimes semi-ornate lobbies and auditoriums. The Shore had a starlight motif in the auditorium. Basically these were somewhere between the rather small theatres that had gone into urban neighborhods and the palaces downtown. The traditional theatre architecture they used made them look very dated by the end of the 50s. Although they had plenty of parking, these theatres often drew foot traffic for nearby ice cream shops, etc. and functioned in a way that was not really exploited by malls until food courts became common in the late 70s and 80s.

  6. I like these pictures. I too adore the ornate terra cotta laced neighborhood theaters of the past. So many have been lost over time. Yet may are still secretly turn around. While Chicago has torn down many of these, some are still standing while others are still in use. Two come to mind, teh Davis and the Logan, remodeled from the old days of course. I haven't been to the Davis in a while but I love going there. Though it isn't far from me, I have only been to the Logan once since they show second run films that I mostly don't want to see. While nothing holds a candle to most of these beauties, I like the sleek mid century modern designs of the GCCs as shown in these photos. Great work, Dave.

    I for one had no idea that GCC had such a rich history connected to other chains. I had a question though about In Chicago, Richard’s units were opened in Lincolnwood, Wilmette and Evergreen Park

    Any idea where exactly the Lincolnwood and Wilmette ones were located?

  7. Kathleen - Thanks very much! My grandparents lived in North Smithfield, RI, and my brother and I used to travel from Chicago every summer and spend a month with them from 1970 to 1980. I always wanted to go to the Warwick Mall, but we usually went to the Auburn, MA mall because it was closer (they weren't very fond of driving by that time), and then later to Lincoln Mall (where we saw several movies)when it opened up in the late 70's. I think I actually did see one movie at the Framingham theatre, "Snoopy Come Home". Definitely a while back!

    Anonymous - Thanks for that info, and that's interesting about the University Flick - was it a GCC theatre as well? And did they slap a "greenhouse front" on it when it became a Rax restaurant? :)

    Anonymous 2 - I think you're right, the restaurant development pattern seemed to follow that of the theatres. Several of the "Amy Joy" units were in bowling alleys, and I'm not sure if they remained there after GCC sold them off. Arthur Treacher's was likely operated by Fisher Foods at that time. And thanks for the info on the later period downtown theatres.

    Didi - You're right, even though many have been torn down, Chicago still has a number of them operating, and not just the big palaces like the Oriental or the Chicago. Stiil a fraction of the orignal number in existence, though.

    You know, the only street address I have is for the Evergreen Park Richard's (2630 W.95th St.).I'm curious to know the other ones myself!

  8. Here's some info about the University Flick ...

    Turns out it was purchased by General Cinema from Modern Theatres around 1971 and was part of a package deal that included the Eastland and Northland here in Columbus and the Mercury and Mayland in Cleveland.

    Here's a picture of it:

    I think the building actually did have a greenhouse front where the smoked glass is!

  9. Dave thanks for the mention and the link to my blog again. I am certainly interested in knowing more about that book you mentioned. Tha Amy Joy Pancake House at the Medford Holiday Lanes lasted for a few years, from when it was built until about 1968 I'm guessing. After that it was leased out as one or two different lunch counter type restaurants probably until the end of Holiday Lanes operations. Somehow I cannot remember when the lanes closed but if I had to guess, I would say late 1970's. My mother and father both bowled in leagues there. As a matter of fact at one time or another most of the family bowled in leagues there. I was in the Junior Bowling league for one season. I sucked in league bowling! Did much better when I bowled by myself. My older brother has a placque that was given to my dad for appreciation in starting a long-running bowling league (by General Cinema Corp.). I should try to photograph it so you can see it. I wish I had the little Amy Joy book they used to give out to kids who ate at the restaurant.

  10. Yea, I looked it up through Proquest but I couldn't find anything on there at all. Maybe someone out there remembers exactly where it was. My suspicion is that the Lincolnwood one and possibly the Wilmette one are long gone. I checked out the post you linked to Diner Hotline and looked at the pictures. The writer suggests that the building prototypes of Richards were about the same and built by the same people and I just cannot picture a building that looks like that still standing in Lincolnwood. Somewhere out there, someone knows and might see this post or the comment I left on Diner Hotline.

  11. What's fascinating about this article is that there is really nothing to a modern movie theater, and the GCC theaters were also pretty bland. The prototype buildings never struck me as being particularly eye-catching and the lobbies were nothing special. As to the theaters themselves? Just a bunch of seats in a dark room.

    In reality, they were no different than any other chain (such as Loews), but for some reason they have a following. And in my opinion, the real "hook" with General Cinema was the entertaining trailers and the kitschy "Feature Presentation" music. A guy by the name of Stephen Arnold who is a commercial music composer (he does a lot of TV station news themes) has a name for this phenomenon. He calls it "sonic branding" and I think this concept is very applicable when it comes to General Cinema.

    Here is an interview with Stephen Arnold:

    Here's a link with some of his music. I bet you've heard one or more of these tunes and you immediately associate the channel with it ...,0,3


  12. Here is an article on the Lurie connection to General Cinema:

    Jeff Lurie Link 1

    Jeff Lurie Link 2

  13. To Anonymous: I have to agree. When I was a kid, I thought the General Cinemas were rather ordinary. At least the ones I went to. I sort regarded them as "cheap" back then. Don't know why. However, the multiplex they ran for a brief time in Boston (in the Fenway area) was pretty impressive looking. I think General Cinemas owned it for half the year in 2000 before they went out of business.

  14. Anonymous - Thanks for that info. two things amaze me about that, one that GCC would buy an old-style downtown theatre at that late date, and secondly that they would call it "University Flick"! Must have done a great business with the OSU students.

    Larry - I saved myself the embarassment and never even tried league bowling! I'd like to see the plaque if you come across it, and thanks for the additional background on Holiday and Amy Joy. I emailed yuou the Amazon link for the book, let me know if you didn't receive it.

    Didi- I would be amazed if they stood today, especially the one in Wilmette. A 50-plus year old former fast food restaurant building probably would be an oddity in that high-end real estate market. Both long gone, I would guess.

    Dan - The auditoriums were certainly bland, the lobbies somewhat less so. Upkeep of the whole thing was pretty poor in many locations by the 1980's, as I recall.

    I think the combination of fond childhood memories and that great theme song are what keeps GCC alive, nostalgia wise. Great links, by the way. Mr. Arnold hits it right on the head!

  15. Anonymous - Thanks for those links. the "Harcourt General" book is where I got a lot of the background info for these posts. the woman who wrote it, Bettye Pruitt, had the full cooperation of GCC. It's a great read!

    Panda - They were ordinary to me, as well, but the uniform look is probably why they're so well remembered. The GCC "experience", if I can call it that (guess I already did on a post title), was the same in all regions of the country. And again, the unforgettable bumper theme song.

  16. I think the combination of fond childhood memories and that great theme song are what keeps GCC alive, nostalgia wise. Great links, by the way. Mr. Arnold hits it right on the head!

    Exactly my point. When it comes right down to it, what was so compelling about General Cinema? was there anything really making them different than other movie chains? I think you basically remember the good times you had when you were younger and how excited you would become when you heard that kitschy jingle.

    In fact, through the miracle of YouTube I'm finding that the same jingles that made an impression on me as a kid obviously made impressions on other people. The same stuff that caught my attention as a kid (which usually involved some sort of catchy jingle) seem to end up on YouTube. People taking the time to put this stuff up on YouTube means it made an impression on them as well. Likewise, without the musical "branding" I doubt that anyone would consider General Cinema to be

    Also the cool thing about the internet ... who would ever know about "sonic branding" or even who is behind these commercial musical scores (or dead retail chains, for that matter) if not for the internet!


  17. The second photo looks almost like how Cinema I & II at Korvettes (Northeast)Shopping Center, in Philadelphia, PA when it first opened in the early 1960's.

    Photo #3 looks exactly like the former Cinema Clifton Heights, in Clifton Heights, PA. When this particular GCC Theatre closed in the late 1990's, the roadside marquee had "Eric" on the sign, replacing the GCC logo. The "Eric" name was used by The Sameric Theatres chain, and for 3 years, by United Artists Theatres in Philadelphia.

  18. Photo #2 looks like the Cinema I & II (aka Northeast 4) Theatre in Philadelphia.

  19. MikeRa - Thanks for the comments on the Philly area GCC theatres. The paintings might well be based on the actual units you describe. In any event, they did a good job of standardization.

  20. The bottom picture from Florida is in Boynton Beach at Boynton Beach Blvd and Congress Ave. That theater closed in 2006. It is now a Chuckie Cheese.