Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Community" Theaters

Two teenage girls in the 1930s won a prize turkey in a raffle at their local movie house. They lived in a city, close to the downtown where several movie theaters were located, and the turkey was alive. They walked it home, with a piece of rope fastened to its neck like a leash, along the crowded sidewalks of the busy downtown. They were a bit mortified, but the turkey seemed to have had a pleasant time on the walk home.

Fortunately, their mother, like the turkey, was farm-raised, and knew what to do with it. It was a welcome prize in the Great Depression.

Cash raffles in movie theaters were also common, and turned out to be easier to take home than a turkey on a rope. What is called carnival glass today, or Depression glass, was also a premium theaters offered to entice patrons. Some young women acquired entire sets of dinnerware by the time they were married and put it to use. Unless they dropped it on the way home from “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.”

Blood drives, bond drives, community service programs were all common in movie theaters in the 1930s and 1940s. It might be difficult for young people to imagine today, with large cinema complexes in the suburbs and movie prices and fewer movies worth seeing which make going to the movies a sometimes thing and not an every day thing, that the movie theater was as central to community life at one time as the city hall, the corner grocery, school or even houses of worship. Theaters were the common meeting place for people of all backgrounds. That they, and the film industry which created them, should have an enormous impact on the society of the day is fascinating.

What is also interesting is that movie moguls knew that, and imposed standards, censorship codes, and war-effort films to acquiesce to the public, to mobilize it. The film industry today, despite whatever complaints or suspicions some might have about its pervasive influence over our society, cannot compare to the influential place it had in America before the 1950s. While people all over the world still look to America through its films, the American film industry today itself seems to be more and more irrelevant to most Americans.

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