Tuesday, 21 June 2005

Old Time Names for Cinemas

I have always been interested in cinema history. And among the aspects of cinema history I find most interesting are the names that various theatres bore throughout the years. In many cases, it is fairly obvious why theatres might bear a given name. This is the case of the name "Cinema," a word which simply means "movie theatre." Indeed, in a way naming a theatre "Cinema" is like naming a diner "Diner!" In other cases, the reasons behind the name are not so obvious.

Of course, one of the most common practices was for theatres to be named for the people who owned them. The Loews theatre chain (which once owned an interest in MGM) was named for its founder, Marcus Loew. Perhaps the most famous example of a theatre naemd for its owner was Grauman's Chinese Theatre (indeed, I remember the protest over the name being changed to "Mann's" after Ted Mann purchased the theatre--it is now named Grauman's again...). I seem to recall that at one time many theatres in the Midwest were named Sosna because they were part of a chain owned by a man of that name; at one point in its history, the State Theatre in Moberly was named "the Sosna State."

The practice of naming theatres for the inidviduals or corporations who owned them is the reason so many older theatres bear the names of famous Hollywood Studios--"Paramount," "Fox," "RKO," and so on. Until 1948 when the Supreme Court ruled that the major studios could not own or operate cinemas, nearly all of the major Hollywood studios ran their own theatre chains. Naturally, the theatres were usually named for the studios who owned them. Although now a stage theatre, The Fox Theatre in St. Louis began as a cinema in 20th Century Fox's theatre chain. It was reportedly one of the most lavish and largest cinemas west of the Mississippi. There is a fine example of an old Paramount Theatre in Abilene, TX.

Interestingly, there is one instance in which a theatre was named for its owner and the name proved so popular that theatres throughout the United States adopted the name for their own. Samuel L. Rothaphel was a theatre entepreneur whose nickname was "Roxy."Among other theatres, he founded Radio City Music Hall. In New York City in 1927 he opened what was one of the most exquisite cinemas ever, if not the most exquisite cinema of all time. Named "the Roxy," it could seat nearly 6000 people.It was not long before many other theatre owners across America named their theatres "the Roxy," wishng to associate themselves with the famous Roxy of New York City and its finery. One of those theatres bearing the name was the one in Huntsville, Missouri

The wish of theatre owners to associate themselves with ostentatiousness and finery is probably also why many theatres bore the name Ritz. The word ritz means "ostentatious display of elegance, fanfare, ostentation." The name Ritz ultimately comes from Cesar Ritz, a Swiss hosteller who owned a chain of ostentatous hotels known for their finery in the 19th century. The desire on the part of theatre owners to associate their cinemas with the better things in life may also be why there were so many theatres named "the Palace," "the Princess," and "the Royal."

As might be expected, many cinemas took their name from the theatre (as in the stage). It is for that reason that many theatres were named "Rialto." Rialto is a word for "a theatrical district" or "a market." The word comes from the name of an island in Venice, Rialto, where the market (and presumably the theatres as well) was located. In Salisbury (Missouri, not England) there is a theatre called the "Lyric," as there are many other places. On the surface, the word lyric would have more to do with music or poetry, but among the various senses of lyric is "Of, relating to, or being musical drama, especially opera." Indeed, it must be pointed out that in ancient Greece (as in Shakespeare's time as well), poetry and even music played a large part in drama.

The common theatre name Orpheum also has its roots in both ancient Greek theatre and Vaudeville. The name ultimately comes from the Greek hero Orpheus, whose poetry and songs were so compelling that they even impressed the gods. The word Orpheum more or less means "place of Orpheus." In the 1890 there was an Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. By 1899 its owner, Morris Meyerfeld, would become partners with Martn Beck, who had worked with the Schiller Vaudeville Company. Beck aquired theatres from California to Chicago over the years, the entire chain bearing the name "Orpehum." Eventually the Orpheum circuit of theatres would merge with the equally powerful Keith-Albee circuit of theatres to become KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum). Many of the theatres retained the "Orpheum" name. Still later, in 1929, KAO would merge with Joseph Kennedy's studio Film Booking Office to become RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures. Many theatres named "the Orpheum" once belonged to RKO, while others simply adopted the name for themselves.

Here I must point out that cinema names from Greek or Roman history were by no means unusual. There were cinemas named "the Coliseum," for the famous arena in ancient Rome where gladitorial combat took place. There were also many theatres named "the Hippodrome." The word hippodrome is used of "a place for horse races." In specific, it referred to places in ancient Rome where chariot and horse racing was held. It ultimately stems from ancient Greek hippos "horse" and dromos "race course."

One group of cinema names which always puzzled me were those related to precious stones jewels, and trinkets--names like "Bijou," "Gem" and "Jewel." Apparently, the names of these theatres go back in theatre history. The name "Bijou" ultimately stems from the word bijou, which means "a small, exquisitely wrought trinket." I cannot be absolutely certain, but I think the practice of naming theatres "Bijou" may stem from the Bijou Theatre in Paignton, England, a small theatre in the late 19th century. Although a small theatre, it gained a good deal of fame and even had the honour of being the first theatre where The Pirates of Penzance was ever performed. I have no idea, however, as to why they called it "the Bijou (the fact that it was small and ornate perhaps?)." As to the name Gem, I am not absolutely sure why it came to be applied to theatres. There was a Gem Theatre in Deadwood, North Dakota dating from the 1870s. The theatre, like Deadwood itself, was fairly famous in the late 19th century, so I can only figure that many theatre owners named their own theatres for the one in Deadwood.

The practice of naming cinemas after famous stage theatres may also be seen in the use of the name "the Regent" that so many cinemas bore. I rather suspect that such theatres were named for the Regent Music Hall which operated in London on Regent Street from 1861 to 1879.

In some ways I think theatre owners and theatre chains have lost their touch when it comes to choosing names for theatres. It seems to me that these days, rather than giving a theatre a fanciful name such as "the Bijou" or "th Regent," a theatre chain is more likely to name a theare for the chain and the number of screens it has. For instance, a theatre might be named "the Dickinson Five." At best a theatre might be named for the chain that owns it and the street on which it is located, an example being the "Hollywood Stadium" in Columbia (owned by Hollwood Theatres and located on Stadium Drive). I don't know if the theatre chains and theatre owners have simply grown lazy or lost their imagination, but the names of theatres just don't capture my fancy the way names like "the Roxy," "the Lyric," "the Regent," and so on. I can only hope they return to the good, old fashioned names of the early to mid-Twentieth century.

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