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The Movie Theater Boom of the 1920s

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It’s no secret that films were immensely popular in the 1920s, with the growth growing rapidly each year. The coming of sound helped create some of the biggest films of the decade, but even before then, films were a popularity juggernaut that just kept on growing as the decade grew. That much has always been widely known.

But thanks to online archives of the trade magazine Film Daily, there is another way of quantifying just how popular films were: the growth of movie theaters. The data supplied is for the first 11 months of the year 1926, and the results are staggering.

166 new theaters opened in 1926, across 23 states. Many states opened up a dozen or more: Massachusetts (20), California (18), Illinois (18), Wisconsin (15), Connecticut (13), New York (12). In September alone, 25 theaters opened up nationwide. An absurd amount of money was spent to construct and open more theater house across the country. In total, $86,353,898 was invested into new theaters. With inflation, that equals $1,142,154,839 today. Illinois alone led the country with putting over $21 million into new theaters.

And that was just the start. At the time the stats were complied at the start of 1927, estimates were already in for 1927. Estimates indicated that the amount of money invested into new theaters would more than double– $199,652,500 (2,640,692,248 with inflation). It was estimated that 3.9% of all construction for 1927 would be movie theaters.

It’s easy to understand why these theaters were being constructed so rapidly. The popularity of films were constantly on the rise as the years went on. And in the few years that followed, it must have paid off massively. All of these new theaters popped up shortly before the Jolson talkie The Singing Fool in 1928, which was a big enough smash hit to make an theater profitable. That broke practically every box office record upon release, and according to some anecdotes, it helped individual theaters out greatly. One theater in Buffalo drew 150,000 in one week, and a theater in Michigan drew more people for the film than actual residents in the town.

Of course, this was not to last forever. The Great Depression hammered theaters, as it did every other part of the economy. And while the economy did eventually recover, audiences never packed theaters in the same numbers as they did in the 1920s.

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There is one more movie theater note that stands out in the Film Daily archives, worth noting briefly. Take a look at this section of the publication and see what happens to pop up more than once:
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The pages of Film Daily are littered with stories of theater fires, sometimes multiple reports in one issue. There are a few theater fires that are infamous due to how deadly they were, but dozens upon dozens of others long forgotten occurred in the 1910s and 1920s. Some of these fires can be attributed to the nitrate film stock, whose flammable nature also caused many films to be lost. Even if that wasn’t the cause of a fire, it certainly helped feed the flames. Theater fires were, rather unfortunately, a surprisingly common occurrence.

And please, read that entire Philadelphia fire story. The image it paints could be a film itself.

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