Let's Go to the Movies!

24, October 2017

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives.

Going to the movies during the Great Depression was a very exciting experience—or at least that’s what I had always thought. Granted, that assumption was based largely on the number "Let’s Go to the Movies" from the musical Annie. The historical accuracy of singing and dancing ushers aside, it’s safe to say that seeing a movie today is a very different experience from what it was in the early 1930s. Many Sievers Studio Collection photos related to the St. Louis movie theater industry illustrate this perfectly.

One of the most significant differences was, of course, sound. Movies had been around for decades by the early 1930s, but until 1927 they were silent. In October of that year, Warner Bros. Studios released the film The Jazz Singer, and with the line, “Wait a minute . . . you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” the world was introduced to talking pictures. Almost overnight, the live orchestras and title cards of silent films disappeared, replaced by “talkies.” Going by the proud advertisement of talking pictures in a 1931 Sievers Studio photograph of the Globe Theater, the four-year-old technology must have still seemed an amazing innovation.

Black-and-white photo showing detail of advertisement outside the Globe Theater in 1931This detail from a photo of the Globe Theater (1310 Franklin Ave.) in 1931 advertises the still-new talkies. Photo by Harold Sneckner. Missouri Historical Society Collections.
Black-and-white photo showing a seated woman and a man in stilts next to an oversized telegram from St. Louis mayor Victor MillerHe looks more excited than she does to be promoting Parlor, Bedroom, & Bath at Loew's State Theater (715 Washington Ave.) in 1931. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

More so than now, movies were also quite the form of escapism. Because the Great Depression had hit St. Louis so hard, movie theaters tended to be places where you could forget your troubles for a while. Just ask Mayor Victor Miller, who provided this endorsement for Loew's State Theater in 1931: “Let’s all stop worrying about the Depression, street widenings, and assessments long enough to enjoy a good laugh. Come on down to Loew’s State and see Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath. If that doesn’t make you laugh then you have something to really worry about.”

If you couldn’t get the mayor to personally plug your theater, you could always try a parade. In September 1931 a local movie house chain, the St. Louis Amusement Company, celebrated its self-declared Greater Entertainment Month by decorating a car to represent each of its theaters. In the days before movie trailers were available on TV and YouTube, that was the best way to promote upcoming films like the classics City Lights and Cimarron, as well as not-so-classic movies such as Party Husband and Broadminded. Incidentally, the St. Louis Amusement Company was an innovative business started by three brothers who came to St. Louis from Greece in 1910. Eventually Charles, Spyros, and George Skouras sold their theater company to Warner Bros., and all three men went on to run major entertainment enterprises, including 20th Century Fox and United Artists Theatres.

Black-and-white photo showing car decorated to promote the Mikado Theatre in a parade held by the St. Louis Amusement CompanyCar from the Mikado Theatre (2812 Vandeventer Ave.) decorated for a parade in 1931. Photo by Harold Sneckner. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

One of the most striking differences between watching movies now and back then is where you watch them. Today, unlike in the early 1930s, you don’t have to physically go to a movie theater. Instead, you can enjoy a movie nearly anywhere you go—even outside in a hammock, like I did recently—thanks to smartphones and tablets. The scenery isn’t quite the same though. Some old movie theaters were grand palaces with marble floors and uniformed ushers, and they went to great lengths to publicize their featured motion pictures. Case in point: In 1932 the St. Louis Theatre (now Powell Hall) placed a full-size plane in its lobby and dressed its ushers as pilots to promote the film The Lost Squadron. Now that is an experience I’d get out of a hammock for!

Black-and-white photo of St. Louis Theatre ushers dressed as pilots to promote "The Lost Squadron" movieUshers in pilot costumes pose with an airplane in the lobby of the St. Louis Theatre (718 N. Grand Blvd.) in 1932. Photo by Isaac Sievers. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

—Amanda Claunch, Archivist, Photographs and Prints

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