What Is a Movie Palace?

The Beautiful Movie Theaters of the 20th Century

Grauman's Chinese Theatre for the 1944 Academy Awards ceremony
Due to war restrictions, only two searchlights illuminate Grauman's Chinese Theater for the 1943 Academy Awards.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The term "movie palace" refers to upscale movie theaters that opened from the mid 1910s through the end of the 1930s. These large theaters attempted to replicate the lavish standards of legitimate theater houses.

Did You Know?

Since 1991, Walt Disney Studios has premiered many of its blockbuster films at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, a restored movie palace that originally opened as a live performance theater in 1926.

Origins of the Movie Palace

In the earliest days of cinema, movie theaters were often makeshift operations, with many simply working with a projector, a screen (which could even be a white sheet), and rows of chairs. For example, many vaudeville theaters exhibited films between acts. It wasn't until feature-length films proved to be a significant entertainment draw that theaters dedicated to exhibiting movies began to be established. By the mid 1910s, upscale movie theaters were being built in major cities in the United States with the intention of both drawing more affluent crowds to movie theaters and raising the prestige of the medium as legitimate and on par with live theater. Growing movie studios also hoped to change the common view that films were low-brow entertainment.

The first movie palaces, including the Strand Theatre in Manhattan, New York (just under 3,000 seats), and the Regent in Patterson, New Jersey (just under 2,000 seats), opened in 1914. Over the next two decades, tens of thousands of movie palaces opened throughout the United States. Though early movie palaces typically resembled ornate opera houses or live stage theaters, themed designs based on various exotic architecture styles began to gain popularity in the 1920s. These include several famous theaters built by famed showman Sid Grauman in Los Angeles. After building one of Los Angeles’ first movie palaces, the Million Dollar Theatre (opened in 1918), Grauman built the Egyptian Theatre (opened in 1922), designed after the architecture of Ancient Egypt, and the Chinese Theatre (opened in 1927), designed after traditional Chinese architecture. In particular, the Chinese Theatre became famous for hosting many movie premieres and for the many celebrity handprints and footprints outside of the theater. In addition, the venue held the Academy Awards in 1944, 1945, and 1946.

Themed movie palaces became a trend across the United States, and in particular Egyptian-style theaters became popular after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 made international headlines. The major film studios soon entered the movie palace business, opening elaborate theaters to premiere their biggest films for exclusive engagements.

Elements of Movie Palaces

As movie palaces became more elaborate, they added more features. Some included live entertainment as part of the admission, even hosting special appearances by movie stars or performances by dance groups or exotic animals. Many featured luxurious amenities like elaborate powder rooms and childcare facilities. Common elements in luxurious movie palaces were grand lobbies, balconies, and large pipe organs that were originally used to provide accompanying music for silent movies. Both during and after the silent era, they were used to entertain audiences before screenings and during intermissions. The amenities and programs of movie houses were typically reflected in the admission ticket price, and grander movie palaces could charge premium ticket prices.

By the 1930s, many movie palaces were being built in an Art Deco style to project modern exuberance and glamour, which were also cheaper to build than the grand opera house-style movie palaces of the 1910s. Many of these movie palaces were built with elaborate marquees with eye-catching neon signage.

Two of the largest movie palaces ever built were in New York City. The Roxy Theatre (5,920 seats, opened in 1927) and Radio City Music Hall (5,960 seats, opened in 1932). The latter is still in operations as a live performance venue and home to its annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular stage show, featuring the dance company the Rockettes. Incidentally, the dance group’s name was derived from the Roxy Theatre, where they originally performed before film screenings.

Though movie palaces were most popular in the United States, a significant number also opened in Europe, including Paris’ Le Grand Rex (opened in 1932), which today is the largest movie theater in Europe.

The marquee of Hollywood's El Capitan Theatre during the premiere of the 2019 film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 19: Exterior shot of the marquee of "Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker" at the El Capitan Theater on December 19, 2019 in Hollywood, California. Photo by JC Olivera/Getty Images

Decline and Legacy of Movie Palaces

Several significant factors led to the decline of the movie palace. Movie going attendance dropped significantly during the Great Depression, and audiences that continued to attend movie theaters often opted for smaller, cheaper theaters instead. However, the more significant decline in movie palaces came after the 1948 United States Supreme Court decision U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, et al., an antitrust suit that ruled that Hollywood Studios could no longer own movie theaters. Many independent owners did not have the resources to maintain opulent movie palaces as the major Hollywood studios could, nor could they rely on guaranteed bookings of big budget productions.

In addition, the rise of television’s popularity in the 1950s led to another significant decline in movie attendance, as did the family growth of the Baby Boom, which made going into the city to see a film less practical for a large family. With the population growth of the suburbs, the novelty of drive-in theaters began to attract audiences. Later, the 1960s saw the growth of multiplexes, which were facilities with multiple theaters that could offer a wide variety of viewing options to audiences. This was an economic model that was much more profitable for movie exhibitors.

A number of movie palaces were converted to different operations when they were no longer profitable as movie theaters. While many that were not demolished were converted into live performance venues (including the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood), some have been converted into retail establishments. Others have had more unique conversations: for example, the Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, New York (opened in 1928), was at one point used as a basketball arena for Long Island University.

However, several movie palaces remain in operation as movie theaters today, after undergoing renovations that have updated their visual and sound quality. For example, on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (now in negotiations to be purchased by Netflix), Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now the TCL Chinese Theatre), and the El Capitan Theatre (now owned by Walt Disney Studios) are still in operation as movie theaters and offer modern audiences a taste of what moviegoing was like during the era of movie palaces.