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The atmospheric theatre style was designed to evoke the sense of being transported to an exotic outdoor location. Far-away places were considered exotic and so in America that often meant European cities, places which most Americans would never have the chance to visit.
Atmospheric theatres were a phase in the evolution of theatre design which followed the grand American theatres and movie palaces of the 1910s and early 1920s, largely modeled on the design of European opera houses; but before the Great Depression took hold leading to increased levels of austerity coupled with the desire to shun opulence, and instead embrace a streamlined modernistic approach with an eye to the future.
The atmospheric theatre style eschewed the formal, box-like symmetrical designs of traditional theatre auditoria. Atmospheric theatres were typically asymmetrical and far more playful in their design. Atmospherics were most commonly Mediterranean or Spanish courtyards or garden settings, above which soared a cerulean or azure blue starlit sky, often with clouds drifting lazily past thanks to new technologies for the 1920s enabling the projection of moving cloud effects using light.
But the atmospheric theatre style wasn’t just about creating dazzling effects for the patron: atmospherics were also very much about the economics of running a theatre. Atmospherics cost less to build than traditional theatres – which were differentiated from atmospheric theatres by being called “hard tops” in the United States, usually sporting an expensive central chandelier, a richly detailed plastered classical ceiling perhaps with gilded lines and accents, cherubs and caryatids adorning and supporting the balconies and boxes, and classical detailed murals.
In contrast, the atmospheric theatre style called for a simple rounded plaster dome ceiling at a time when construction costs had escalated after the First World War and wages for ornamental plasterers had reached an all-time high.
The first atmospheric theatre was built in early 1923, although experimentation with the emergent style was taking place as early as 1921. Accordingly, these proto-atmospheric theatres which helped define and inform the atmospheric style as it was being developed, are included in our listings of atmospheric theatres.
The atmospheric theatre style hit its stride in the mid-1920s and then peaked in 1928 and 1929. The style gradually tailed-off in the early 1930s as the Great Depression took hold and audiences clamored for more austere and less opulent surroundings.
The few atmospheric theatres built after the mid-1930s were a design choice generally paying homage to the opulent 1920s style, and deliberately eschewing the early 1930s austere and streamlined approach to movie theatre design.
“My idea for the atmospheric theater was born in Florida. I saw the value of putting nature to work and so have borrowed the color and design that are found in the flowers and the trees. The inhabitants of Spain and southern Italy live under the sun and enjoy the happiness nature affords them. So I decided their architecture probably would provide the firm foundation for a theater.”
Eberson devised a business model which saw his own centralized studio, staffed with dedicated master plasterers, create statuary, moldings, and architectural components which he would then re-use across multiple theatre designs, rearranging the separate elements into different settings, thereby reducing the cost of building a theatre simply through the economics of reuse.
The model also meant that Eberson could control the quality of product from start to finish by using his own master plasterers and installation crews. Construction on-site was simplified and therefore costs reduced because ready-made statues and architectural elements arrived in crated packages and just needed assembled on-site and then painted by Eberson’s traveling theatre installation teams.
Eberson declared the Majestic Theatre in Houston, Texas (demolished in 1971), as his first atmospheric theatre. The evolution of Eberson’s atmospheric theatre designs leading up to this point seems clear from his earlier projects prior to the Majestic, which we will refer to as his proto-atmospherics.
The Majestic Theatre in Dallas, Texas, was Eberson’s first proto-atmospheric. Opened April 1921, it sports a mix of formal Corinthian columns surrounding a triumphal proscenium arch, with symmetrical organ grilles giving way to latticework with a plain blue-lit ceiling behind...perhaps suggestive of a cerulean blue night sky?
Eberson’s second proto-atmospheric theatre was the Indiana Theatre in Terre Haute, Indiana (opened January 1922), designed in a Moorish style featuring false balconies on the sidewalls with the organ grilles designed to look like backlit windows. The theatre design was developing into something which made it feel like the audience was sitting inside a village or community.
Eberson’s third and final proto-atmospheric theatre was the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita, Kansas (opened September 1922). While still a symmetrical auditorium design, it features statuary, niches, and window-like openings which would go on to become staple features of Eberson’s atmospherics theatres. Notably the theatre also features a smooth blue-sky ceiling bordered by faux tilework roofs in the balcony combined with cove lighting. The ceiling currently contains stars, and if these are original this is hugely significant and adds significant strength to the theory of the theatre being one of Eberson’s proto-atmospheric designs.
Eberson’s first self-proclaimed atmospheric theatre, the Majestic in Houston, garnered much attention with the press noting:
“Revolutionary developments in theatre design have been few since the beginning. Unquestionably the most innovational is the Majestic, Houston, Texas, designed by Architect John Eberson of Chicago.”
Everyone agreed, and the movie and theatre-going public flocked toward this new escape into exoticism. Theatre owners loved the lower cost and faster time to build, Eberson had no end of commissions to take up, and thus the fascination with Atmospheric Theatres was born!
In June 1926, industry publication Motion Picture News printed an interview with Eberson as interest in atmospheric theatres was taking hold of the movie-going audience and theatre managers alike. You can read a web-friendly version of the article, complete with color sketches by Eberson and photos of some early atmospheric theatres, by clicking on the banner below:
The mid-1926 article was followed-up 18 months later with another major article in Motion Picture News: a second and lengthy interview with Eberson, illustrated with more color sketches from Eberson’s sketch book alongside black-and-white photographs of the increasing number of atmospheric theatres across the United States. You can read a web-friendly version of the article, complete with all its glorious color sketches, by clicking on the banner below:
The term “atmospheric theatre” can be used rather loosely and at times incorrectly, so let us define the criteria used on this website for a theatre to be an atmospheric:
Theatres which are not full atmospherics are included here under the umbrella style of Pseudo-Atmospheric, which includes substyles such as Maverick Atmospheric, Abstract Atmospheric, and Semi-Atmospheric.
By far the most popular atmospheric style was Spanish, accounting for 53% of all atmospheric theatres thus far surveyed on this website.
The popularity of Spanish themes likely reflects the fact that atmospheric theatre styles were most popular in the United States during the 1920s, at the same time as Spain was particularly alluring to Americans. Europe seemed mystical, coupled with the fact that most American theatre-goers were unlikely to have the means to visit these exotic European lands. Spanish, and to a lesser extent Italian, landscapes typified the mystic allure of Europe for Americans.
There were also a wide range of more obscure styles such as Dutch Villages, Japanese Tea Gardens, Medieval Villages, Mesoamerican temples, and even a theatre design modeled on a 16th century French Chateau.
There are yet more atmospheric styles to be found in the records of lost theatres, including examples such as underwater themes featuring Neptune and seahorses!
The popular Spanish atmospheric style, accounting for 53% of all atmospheric theatres thus far surveyed, can be broken down into numerous sub-styles.
While many scholars would happily argue whether a particular auditorium interior is a Spanish Garden or a Spanish Courtyard, Mike has researched the sub-styles listed on this website back as close to the original source as possible. When no historic direction on style is available for a particular theatre Mike has used his experience surveying atmospheric theatre designs across the globe to decide upon a specific sub-style.
In many cases the Italian or Spanish sub-style is as quoted by the architect, however some Spanish styles are represented by how the local media interpreted the theatre at the time of reporting theatre openings. Whereas this may have been based upon interviews with the theatre’s design team Mike concedes it may in part be down to the interpretation of the reporter, and therefore potentially unreliable.
In cases where no sub-style has come to light during the research process, Mike has categorized theatres into one of the existing Spanish sub-styles. This data continues to be reviewed as additional information comes to light.
The last great atmospheric theatre was built in the early 1940s, however the style has resurfaced at times throughout the decades. In the late 1980s Disney partnered with Pacific Theatres to renovate a single screen neighborhood theatre in Los Angeles, the Crest Theatre.
Theatre designer Joseph (Joe) J. Musil headed-up the project and designed a Hollywood Revival atmospheric interior for the renovated theatre. The auditorium sidewalls featured stylized Hollywood and Los Angeles buildings highlighted with fluorescent paint excited by black/ultraviolet light. The auditorium ceiling was painted to look like the night sky with lights representing stars, and a “shooting star” lighting effect which was triggered just as the main feature got underway.
The theatrical atmosheric design style can be seen in some building designs of the late 20th century, the most obvious example being the Venetian-styled shopping promenades of The Venetian Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas . The style was copied by other Las Vegas casinos to afford patrons the feeling that they were shopping outside.
Mike has lectured extensively on atmospheric theatre styles, and has also created an 80-minute video documentary all about the atmospheric theatre style, its background, development, history, prolific architects, and legacy.
Unfortunately we cannot provide the documentary for free download here due to copyright but please contact Mike here if you’re interested in seeing the video!
In addition to the database of atmospheric theatres listed further down this page Mike also maintains a public Google Map of atmospheric theatres which is searchable by atmospheric style plus former and current theatre names. Each theatre also includes a thumbnail photo for easy reference.
You can interact with the map by clicking here to open the map in a new window , or by using the map below:
The timeline does not display well on small devices. Click here to open the timeline in a new window.
The Avalon Theatre is one of the two main components of the Catalina Casino Building, built by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. and opened in May 1929. The 1,200-seat theatre was designed for movies however has a full stage, orchestra pit, and dressing rooms allowing for stage productions. The theatre still retains its Page theatre pipe organ in almost original condition.
The Alex Theatre opened in September 1925 as a movie theatre and vaudeville house called the Alexander Theatre. It was built by theatre magnate Claude L. Langley who named the theatre for his son Claude Alexander. Following various modernizations over its life, in 1993 the Alex was restored back to its 1925 glory.
The Arlington Theatre is the largest movie theatre in Santa Barbara and was built in 1931 for Fox West Coast Theatres. Although the theatre has undergone several renovations it retains its atmospheric Spanish Colonial / Mission Revival style. The theatre is home to a 4-manual, 27-rank Robert-Morton organ, one of only five “Wonder Morton” theatre organs to have been built.
The Aztec Theatre opened in June 1926 as a Mesoamerican-themed atmospheric movie theatre, generally considered the most elaborate example of its kind throughout the entire United States. Despite triplexing in the 1970s and an extended period of closure in the 1990s/2000s, the theatre has been restored to its 1920s glory and is currently an active live entertainment venue.
The Majestic was designed by theatre architect John Eberson, famous for his “atmospheric” theatres throughout the United States. The Majestic was completed in 1929 for Interstate Theatres under the management of Karl Hoblitzelle, and was built on the site of the Royal Theater (1909). It is the fifth theatre in San Antonio to bear the name “Majestic”.
The Visalia Fox Theatre was built by William Fox of Fox West Coast Theatres and opened in February 1930. It is one of California’s few remaining atmospheric theatres. The “blue sky” auditorium ceiling still features its original twinkling stars, and would have originally been enhanced with moving clouds adding to the atmospheric spectacle.
Opened in 1928 as the Warner Bros. Hollywood Theatre and seating just short of 2,800, this was the largest theatre of its day in Hollywood. The theatre’s footprint was cleverly maximized by orienting the oval-shaped auditorium and stage at 45 degrees to the building’s rectangular footprint.
Below we present an ever-expanding list of extant and demolished atmospheric theatres from around the world. Hover over a theatre to see if it’s a link to further information – atmospheric theatre data is being added regularly (currently 48% complete).
Total number of theatres on the list: 132
Number of theatres on the list “linked” with underlying information: 63 (48%)
Theatres featured in-depth on our Historic Theatre Photos website (see links above): 9
This is a work in progress and there is much data to include such as architect information, photos, and details of current usage for those theatres not operating as originally intended. Please get in touch if you have any data to share!
Photographs copyright © 2002-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.
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