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The atmospheric theatre style was designed to evoke the sense of being transported to a far-off 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 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 hit leading to levels of austerity coupled with the desire to move away from opulence, and instead embrace a streamlined modernistic approach with an eye to the future, employing new materials such as aluminum extrusions, pressed sheet metal, vitrolite, bakelites, and plastics.
Instead of the formal, box-like symmetrical designs of traditional theatre auditoria, atmospheric theatres were typically asymmetrical and more playful in their design. Atmospherics were most commonly Mediterranean or Spanish courtyards or garden settings, above which soared a blue sky, often with clouds drifting lazily past thanks to new technologies for the 1920s, enabling the projection of moving cloud effects using light.
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 design 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 pioneer of the atmospheric theatre style, prolific theatre architect John Eberson, said “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 also 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 by Eberson’s traveling construction team, and then painted.
Back in 1923, 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.
Mike has lectured extensively on atmospheric theatre styles, and has also created a 70-minute video all about the style, its background, development, history, prolific architects, and legacy. Contact Mike here if you’re interested in seeing the video (not public for copyright reasons).
You can view Mike’s continually-updated map of extant atmospheric theatre on Google Maps by clicking here .
For additional research and information on John Eberson, inextricably linked with the atmospheric theatre style, refer to the paper “John Eberson and the Development of the Movie Theater: Fantasy and Escape” (2003) by Celeste M. Williams & Dietmar Froehlich.
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.
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.
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.
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