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Thursday, December 10, 2009

HISTORY LESSON: Life Before Popcorn

There is something magical about the movie-going experience. The theater has become a second home to many of us. On a weekend or a free night, we go to the nearest cinema, buy a ticket, and sit down with friends in a roomful of strangers. As the trailers begin, tickling us with the prospect of exciting new films to come, the lights darken, the audience hushes, and a rush of adrenaline hits as the awaited feature begins. As the anticipation of a new experience takes hold, all of the many people around us disappear, the sticky floor is forgotten, and we relax into the rickety seats in the theater's womb.

An integral ingredient of the movies is, of course, the candy: the snacks, the soft drinks... From pretzels to hot dogs, it seems that we accumulate more and more choices on which to gorge ourselves these days, and as our wallets get slimmer, our guts... Well, we won't go into that! But the Mother of all movie snacks is, has always been, and always will be, a big bucket of popcorn. In fact, "popcorn" and "movies" have become almost inseparable. Even at home, many of us toss a bag in the microwave to prep ourselves for a laid back DVD night, perhaps to bring us closer to the feeling we receive when watching something on the Big Screen. 

But, popcorn wasn't always around. Hard to imagine, I know, but in the early days, there was no food or drink allowed in the Nickelodeons, the Flicker shows, or the slowly emerging Movie Palaces. Perhaps this is because early movies were so short, running mere minutes to maybe an hour. As films became more grandiose and lengthy-- 2-reelers turning into 8-reelers-- rear-ends started aching and stomachs started rumbling. 

The early compensation for this was to have a meal before going to the theater, knowing full well that one would have to wait awhile before being able to grab a bite. Restaurants and eateries next-door to theaters, therefore, began to do very well. For example, a really busy joint in Hollywood was The Pig 'n' Whistle (above), which still stands today. Before people went next-door to Sid Graumann's Egyptian Theater (left), they would grab some grub and fill their tummies. Hence, "dinner and a movie." The Pig... has an interesting history all its own, feeding the likes of Loretta Young and Judy Garland. And The Egyptian has a claim to fame as being the first theater to officially host a true movie premiere extravaganza, (thanks to Douglas Fairbanks's epic Robin Hood, which literally took over Hollywood).

Sooner or later, theater-owners got smart, deciding to make theaters not only a facility for projecting films, but palaces that provided an "experience." As the structures became more lavish and popular amongst all classes, profiteers started looking for different ways to draw in the public. They began offering contests and raffles, in which lucky patrons would take home a cash prize. People loved it-- for awhile-- but it was more of a gimmick than a movie time ritual. Theater owners decided that they needed a new, reliable way to up the ante. Enter: Popcorn. 

During the Great Depression, popcorn provided a cheap and easy-to-make snack for the hungry nation. The modest "candy stand" appeared outside of theaters, generally manned by a high-schooler, and started earning hundreds of dollars worth of profits. Seeing the monetary potential, theater owners then placed concession stands inside their theaters, offering a wider variety of candy choices. Popcorn, at this point, was still located only at neighboring confectioneries or wagons strategically placed outside, but finally, at the end of the 1930s, popcorn stands found their way into theater lobbies as well.

The addiction was quick. Not only did the buttery scent of popcorn permeate the theater, where waiting patrons' mouths began to water, but the snack was much less expensive than the other candy selections. During the depression, movie-goers started foregoing chocolate for the more affordable, salty bags of popped decadence. Theater owners made a mint, for they could buy the kernels in bulk, saving money and thus making their money back a hundred fold. The big boom in popcorn sales even made corn a "cash crop" for farmers!!! It was everywhere, in every theater, and by WWII it was THE movie staple, never to be topped.

With the addition of air-conditioning, the movie theater became a lavish home away from home! Comfortable temperatures, food, entertainment... What more could a saddened country in the midst of war ask for? One ticket bought you an all day seat, and soon, stopping for popcorn in the lobby before or between features became second nature. 

So here we are, 70 years later, and nothing satisfies our taste-buds at movie time like ol' faithful. Next time you buy a bag, be sure to think about how such a simple thing has provided such pleasure to so many people, through good times and bad. We take it for granted, because it has solidified itself as one of our most cherished traditions, but the impact of popcorn on our culture is more complicated than we realize. So, savor the flavor of one of the things that makes the movies so much sweeter. "Let's all go to the Loooobby!"


  1. Superb research! Thanks for a great post!

  2. I so love reading your posts! I never thought about the cost-effectiveness of popcorn vs. candy.

    Now I'm totally craving popcorn!

  3. Haha! I am secretly a popcorn marketer. This was all part of my scheme. Glad you enjoyed :)

  4. I was in the Pig N Whistle. I was nursing a beer waiting for Jean Harlow but she never came. ):