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A Short History Of Humans Going To The Movies

From vaudeville to popcorn and chill. This abridged history is brought to you by Dolby Cinema at AMC.

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How we love to sit in red velvet seats and be entertained! Come with us back in time as we look at the evolution of Going to the Movies in America.

1800s: The Vaudeville House

Before we looked at humans on screens for entertainment, we went to the vaudeville house to look at humans doing comedy routines, magic shows, and other short acts in real life. Vaudeville houses kept everyone entertained for the second half of the 1800s, and it was a grand ol' time.
Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Before we looked at humans on screens for entertainment, we went to the vaudeville house to look at humans doing comedy routines, magic shows, and other short acts in real life. Vaudeville houses kept everyone entertained for the second half of the 1800s, and it was a grand ol' time.

1895: Arrival of a Train and Movies

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In December 1895, a couple of French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, premiered their short silent film L'arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat at a café in Paris. It was a hit, and they soon took their cinematograph to America, where they began screening "photoplays" in the vaudeville houses. The history of humans going to the movies was underway.

Movies were short and silent with a piano accompaniment, but as things got fancier, the piano was replaced by a full-on orchestra with an unlimited capacity for sound effects.

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Inspired by the Lumière brothers, a magician named Georges Méliès created hundreds of films and founded Europe's first real film studio. This injured moon is from one of his most famous short films, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902). Méliès pioneered film editing, and, they say, the whole science fiction genre.

1905: The Nickelodeon

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In 1905, the first-ever theater devoted exclusively to the motion picture opened its doors in Pittsburgh: the Nickelodeon.

Nickelodeons were generally small, family-owned, makeshift movie theaters, and they soon started popping up all over the country. It cost a nickel to get in, hence the name. ("Odeon" is the Ancient Greek word for "theater.") This meant more people could afford to go to the movies — and thousands did.

1913: The Grand Movie Palace

In 1913, the Regent Theatre opened in New York City, ushering (!) in a new era of the Grand Movie Palace. This same year, filming began on what is reputedly Hollywood's first feature-length film: The Squaw Man. From 1915, deluxe theaters were being built in major cities to accommodate feature films and growing audiences.

Renowned theatrical impresario Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel was called in to transform theaters into super-fancy, extravagant movie palaces, adding air cooling systems, potted plants, and other lavish touches. "Treat the audience like kings and queens," was his motto. What a time to be alive.

Kiosk of Samuel Rothafel's namesake Roxy Theatre, which opened in 1927.
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Kiosk of Samuel Rothafel's namesake Roxy Theatre, which opened in 1927.

Crowds pouring in to the Roxy Theater, called the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture” by its founder.
Herbert Gehr / Getty Images

Crowds pouring in to the Roxy Theater, called the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture” by its founder.

1927: The Jazz Singer

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Although sound in movies was already being developed years prior, talking pictures really became a thing in 1927 when Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer. Suddenly, the movies were doing the talking, and the audiences were not.

1933: The Drive-In

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In 1933, an enterprising car products salesman opened the first drive-in cinema in New Jersey. People would now pay a quarter per car and a quarter per person to watch movies from the comfort of their own cars. Drive-ins peaked in popularity in the late 1950s and '60s, mostly existing on cheaper spots of land on the outskirts of suburbia.

Separate Cinema

Meanwhile, from about 1915 into the late 1940s, black entrepreneurs would open their own movie houses, screening movies with all-black casts in segregated theaters. These so-called "race movies" were a departure from the stereotypical representation of minorities in Hollywood films at the time. The term "separate cinema" was used by historians John Kisch and Edward Mapp "to describe the segregation of the mainstream, Hollywood film community."

Lobby card from the all-black cast drama Miracle in Harlem (Herald Pictures, 1948), starring Sheila Guyse and Stepin Fetchit.
John D. Kisch / Separate Cinema Archive / Getty Images

Lobby card from the all-black cast drama Miracle in Harlem (Herald Pictures, 1948), starring Sheila Guyse and Stepin Fetchit.

On Popcorn

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Popcorn wasn't always allowed in the theaters. In fact, for a long time, it was banned. Truly a crime. Slowly the theaters started to allow it, though, and vendors would set up popcorn carts out front. Eventually, popcorn became such an important part of the moviegoing experience that theaters started selling it themselves. They started showing short advertisements, like the famous Let's All Go to the Lobby, to encourage people to buy snacks pre-film. Mmmm...snacks. Be right back.

1960s: The Multiplex

In the 1950s, television slowly started killing off most of the grand, opulent movie palaces. But throughout the '60s and '70s, theaters that weathered the television storm were converted into twin- and triple-screen theaters, with the first "multiplex" theater opening in 1962: the Parkway Twin in Kansas City. Suburban shopping center theaters made use of new, high-tech projection equipment, and the multiple screens allowed the theaters to offer something for every movie-loving human.

A Twin Theater opens in 1966 at the Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, CO.
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A Twin Theater opens in 1966 at the Villa Italia Mall in Lakewood, CO.

1975: The Summer Blockbuster

Going to the movies had mostly been a winter pastime, but the American Summer Blockbuster we know today was born in 1975 with the launch of Jaws. The release had been deliberately postponed until the summer, when executives knew people were going to be out in the water at beach resorts. It would go on to become the top-grossing film of all time. Two years later, in the summer of 1977, Star Wars would surpass it, and going to the movies in summer had well and truly become a thing.
Universal Pictures / Getty Images

Going to the movies had mostly been a winter pastime, but the American Summer Blockbuster we know today was born in 1975 with the launch of Jaws. The release had been deliberately postponed until the summer, when executives knew people were going to be out in the water at beach resorts. It would go on to become the top-grossing film of all time. Two years later, in the summer of 1977, Star Wars would surpass it, and going to the movies in summer had well and truly become a thing.

The Stereo Era

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Speaking of Star Wars, when those opening-scene spaceships passed over our human heads in 1977, a new standard was set for sound in cinema. Theaters had reworked their sound systems to accommodate new stereo technology. This represented a major shift in what movie-goers came to expect from the experience, although it wasn't long before multi-channel digital sound would take over.

1999: Cinema Goes Digital

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Digital cinema developed throughout the 1980s and 1990s as we transitioned from stereo sound to multichannel surround sound technologies. In 1995 we were given Toy Story, the first ever fully computer-generated feature film, and, in 1999, digital projection was first demonstrated to the public with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. We were officially modern movie-going humans, with stadium seating, fancy snacks, and the ever-important cupholder armrests in our theaters.

2009: 3D Becomes a Real Thing

Filmmakers had been experimenting with 3D for decades, with marking the release of the first 3D color film: Bwana Devil. But 3D hit the mainstream in 2009 with the release of James Cameron's Avatar, which, of course, was the highest-grossing movie of all time, until Star Wars: The Force Awakens took its place in 2016. Whew. Anyway, today's 3D glasses are way more slick than they used to be.
ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images

Filmmakers had been experimenting with 3D for decades, with marking the release of the first 3D color film: Bwana Devil. But 3D hit the mainstream in 2009 with the release of James Cameron's Avatar, which, of course, was the highest-grossing movie of all time, until Star Wars: The Force Awakens took its place in 2016. Whew. Anyway, today's 3D glasses are way more slick than they used to be.

And Beyond...

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We'll never stop going to the movies. And today, our movies sound and look better, brighter, and sharper than ever before. We have 3D sound, laser projection, super-comfy seats, in-theater bar service, luxury dine-in cinemas for when we're feeling fancy, and regular ol' cinemas for when we just want a normal Saturday night out. And no matter what we can access on our screens at home, there's still no better way to watch a movie than on a giant screen in a dark room with a whole lot of strangers and a box of buttery popcorn.

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2016: The Dolby Cinema at AMC Experience

We've come a long way from the vaudeville house and the 1920s talkies. And the future is bright. Dolby Cinema at AMC delivers audiences spectacular image and sound experiences with reserved seating and recliners to make every visit a completely captivating cinematic event.

Here's Jon Favreau on how he brought The Jungle Book to life with Dolby Atmos® and Dolby Vision™:

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Dolby Vision™ is a laser projection system that produces amazing contrast, brightness, and color range that more closely matches what the human eye can see. And with Dolby Atmos®, the soundtrack moves around the theatre, even overhead, with amazing richness and depth.

Check out what's playing near you and get your tickets to Dolby Cinema at AMC here!