The Show Starts on the Sidewalk

An Architectural History of the Movie Theatre, Starring S. Charles Lee

Maggie Valentine

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From the 1890 penny arcades and the opulent and ornate movie houses of the 1920s and 1930s to the drive-in theatres of the 1950s and the multiplex cinemas of today, movie theatres have provided an environment where millions of Americans learned about life, culture, politics, romance, and sex. This book—as entertaining and lively as its subject—documents the history of the American movie theatre, tracing its evolution and exploring its role in American culture and architecture.

Maggie Valentine focuses on the career of architect S. Charles Lee, who designed more than three hundred theatres between 1920 and 1950, mostly in California, and whose buildings became prototypes for movie theatres all over the country. She vividly re-creates the sights and sounds of Lee's theatres, with their huge interiors, crystal chandeliers, Art Deco motifs, and majestic organ music. She describes the colorful terrazzo patterns that set off the theatre entrance and the marquee that formed a canopy over it, design elements exploited by Lee, who insisted that the sidewalk, indeed, was where the show started. Valentine discusses how glamorous motion picture theatres helped define and vary the skyline of America, changing the shape of commercial streets in cities and towns. Examining theatres as products and symbols of their time, she presents with dramatic flair both how they influenced and were influenced by architectural trends and the economic, social, and political forces of the era.

The book, richly illustrated with period photographs, will be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever reveled, popcorn in hand, in the luxury of an old-time motion picture theatre.

Maggie Valentine is assistant professor of architecture and interior design at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"This book emphasizes the career of S. Charles Lee. It is also the best history of the movie theatre as a building type. It contains more than 140 carefully chosen and admirable contemporary photographs and architectural readings."—Michael Dougherty, Southern California Quarterly

"Well researched and well documented, the book draws artistic, technical, functional, marketing, and even legal issues of the film industry into a reliable interpretation of the architectural settings in which movies were shown. . . . Well written and generously illustrated."—Robert Benson, Indiana Magazine of History

"The book will dramatically advance discussion concerning the place of film and movie theatres in American culture and history. It is a joy to read."—John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University

"Valentine has captured for all of us not only the magic of going to the movies but also the imagination that went into creating the environment for the magical experience to occur."—Tim. C. Warner, president and chief executive officer, National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada

"Valentine has done a good job of setting the cultural tableaux of Lee's world. With ample illustrations, she limns Lee's four decades of building bold, sometimes outlandish movie houses and honors him for making monuments where the fantasy world of film was at home. . . . A valuable, though specialized, addition to a growing body of work on American movie houses."—Library Journal

"Her thorough book places [Lee] in the context of movie exhibition history and is illustrated with wonderful photographs and plans in both black-and-white and color."—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Since Lee designed theaters from the early 1920s to 1950, a significant period in the growth and development of motion pictures, Ms. Valentine aptly places his career within an informative capsulization of the history of movie theaters in this country. . . . Her recounting of [this] history . . . is fascinating."—Suzanne Stephens, New York Times Book Review

"This heavily- and beautifully-illustrated book is a must-have for anybody who treasures memories of moviegoing as it used to be and is frustrated by what it has become."—Randolph Man, THE magazine

"This is one of those works that will keep you reading nights on end."—B. Andrew Fowler, Marquee Magazine

"A must-read for the popcorn-crunching cinephile."—Harpers & Queen

"One of the most scholarly treatments of the movie theater to appear to date. This is a significant contribution to the literature on film history and should appeal to a wide range of readers."—Choice

"The photographic documentation is excellent, including color reproductions of period postcards, black-and-white photos, sketches, and glossy color photos. . . . This book should be in every library and public library. Further, it should be compulsory reading for anyone who owns or operates a movie theatre today."—Sheila Klos, Art Documentation

"A sumptuous presentation of work by one of the field's most flamboyant expositors. Anyone concerned with this quintessentially American form of popular culture will find this book a useful source."—Richard Longstreth, American Studies International
ISBN: 9780300055276
Publication Date: May 25, 1994
288 pages, 8 x 10
111 b/w + 30 color illus.