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The Dream Palace Theatre Chain revolution in Chicago.

Module: Spectacular Hollywood
Module Coordinator: Prof. Lincoln Geraghty
Academic Year 1 (2020/2021)

This is one of the first essays I wrote in my first year studying Film Studies BA (Hons). I remember finding scanned copies of various magazines dated between 1911 and 1926, some written by Balaban & Katz themselves. If I were to re-write this essay I would perhaps go into more detail, such as adding a map detailing the loop, but I find 1,000 word limits harder to meet than a 2,000 word limit. In the future I would like to re-write the essay without a word limit.

The Roosevelt Theatre, downtown Loop in Chicago, opened in 1921. Discuss this image (above) with reference to the Dream Palace Theatre Chain revolution in Chicago.

The Roosevelt Theatre was one of many theatres in Chicago, Illinois, owned and operated by Barney Balaban and Sam Katz during the Dream Palace Theatre chain revolution. Others included the Central Park, the Riviera and the Chicago Theatre. These theatres were dressed up spectacularly to provide a greater experience on top of just going to the theatre and whilst they only accounted for a quarter of total theatre seats, they generated sixty five percent of Chicago’s film rentals (Allen, & Gomery, 1985, p. 198).

After the First Great War, investment in the film industry grew 1090%, from $78 million to $850 million by 1930 which, adjusted for inflation, is from $1.1 billion to $12.5 billion in 2020 (US Inflation Calculator, 2020). This did not only include the creation of movies, but the investment in theatre ‘palaces’ for the exhibition of those movies. When it came to furnish the Uptown theatre, Balaban & Katz spent nearly $25,000 on the furniture and $50,000 on the drapes and carpets alone (Gomery, 2002, p. 126). They wanted to provide an upper-class feel for their visitors who were mostly middle or lower-class residents of Chicago.

Balaban and Katz were the first to introduce air conditioning into movie theatres, enabling them to show movies during the warmer summer months, thus generating more income – other theatres had to close during these months, or provide shows for fewer guests, as it would get uncomfortably warm for the audience (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, p. 158). Chicago, at the time, processed most of America’s slaughterhouse meat and they were able to take the technology from the cold rooms and implement it as air conditioning in the theatres. “It’s always perfectly cool in Balaban & Katz”, “Let’s go to Balaban & Katz theatre and cool off” and an “outside temperature now” thermometer were depicted above the entranceway on a huge billboard to draw in an audience to the cooler atmosphere.

The theatres were strategically placed near the transit system’s EL (elevated) train loop allowing the lower and middle-class a journey of only fifteen minutes to their nearest theatre. It was advertised as such: “There’s one near your home – and 6 in the loop”. In fact, these signs boasting about the locations and air conditioning were often larger than the billboard advertising which movies were showing.

Thousands of light bulbs would mark the theatres as a beacon to grab the attention of nearby potential customers and once they were inside, they would be greeted by smartly dressed ushers, enormous chandeliers and even grand pianos in the lobby to entertain waiting guests. Where large billboards weren’t appropriate, enormous vertical signs marked their location from miles away, as depicted in the photographs of the Riviera and Chicago below.

“Wider version of the 1925 photo via Tim O’Neill.” (Zornig, 2019).
“October 1933 photo via Phil Wizenick”. (Zornig, 2020)

The Roosevelt opened during a time in which movie exhibitors were acquiring theatres at a fast pace. They followed in the footsteps of department stores by bulk purchasing movies at a discount to ensure maximum profit once the tickets had been sold. They didn’t necessarily run major films, but instead promoted multiple reel / longer films. The grand entrances to the theatres mimicked those of the department stores in scale. They also kept on top of local trends for concessions, with chewing gun becoming a staple offering in the 1930’s (Gomery, 1992, p. 42).

Furthermore, child day-care was provided for mothers to visit the theatre and not worry about their children. The children were well looked after by an in-house nurse, allowing them to stay longer.

When you entered any of the Balaban & Katz theatres, you were greeted by smartly dressed and strictly disciplined ushers, under strict guidance to call patrons gentleman, lady or child and any request was to be followed with a thank you (Gomery, 1979, p. 29).

The ushers were West Point (The United States Military Academy) graduates and Balaban & Katz advertised to their customers the strict professionalism of their staff as seen their advertisement (1922) below.

This was further reinforced by the inclusion of an usher on the billboards above the entrances. You can see the smartly dressed usher waiting to welcome you to the theatre. The professionalism of the ushers added to the experience – you wouldn’t go to the theatre to see a movie; you would go to the theatre and see a movie.

Although from a business point of view it would have made a lot of sense to keep running costs down as much as possible, the spectacular display and customer experience helped drive those sales and encouraged customers to stay longer and watch more and longer films.  Balaban & Katz had a winning formula, and applied it to all of their theatres, however, when it came to the décor they made sure to do something different to what was already in the geographical area – for example, if an existing theatre was in the style of French Renaissance, they would set theirs up with a different architecture to make it distinctive (Katz, 1927, p. 265).

Underneath the Roosevelt branding comes the adaptive advertising for the movies showing at any moment in time. Although it is clear to a potential audience which movies are showing and which stars are appearing in those movies, it could be expected that more advertising would have been given to the shows and less towards the services. Balaban and Katz (1926, p. 87) reasoned:

Posters are the final appeal to the prospective patron as he approaches the front of your theatre. One or two carefully selected, and attractive posters will many times be enough where a greater number of posters tend to cheapen the exterior appearance.

This accounts for why we don’t see as much advertising for movies or shows as could be expected. Balaban & Katz saw it to lower a potential customers impression of the theatre house and that they wouldn’t see them as palaces – too many advertisements would break the upper-class atmosphere.

In 1925 Balaban & Katz merged with Famous Players-Lasky, resulting in the first theatre chain with production, distribution and exhibition all handled by one company (Thompson & Bordwell, 1994, p. 157). This secured Balaban & Katz the biggest theatres and auditoriums in the Midwest. Had it not been for their aggressive expansion techniques and service beyond expectation they would not have stood out above the rest of the competition.


  • Allen, R. C., & Gomery, D. (1985). Film History Theory and Practice. Newbery Award Records, Inc.
  • Balaban, B., & Katz, S. (1926). Bill Boards, Street Car Cards, Posters. The Fundamental Principles of Balaban & Katz Theatre Management. Balaban & Katz Corporation.
  • Balaban, B., & Katz, S. (1922, September 13). The best of everything all the time at Balaban & Katz Theatres. Chicago Daily Tribune.
  • Gomery, D. (1979). The Movies Become Big Business: Publix Theatres and the Chain Store Strategy. Cinema Journal, 18(2), 29.
  • Gomery, D. (1992). Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States. London: British Film Institute.
  • Gomery, D. (2002). Fashioning an Exhibition Empire: Promotion, Publicity and the Rise of Publix Theatres. In G. A. Waller (Ed.), Moviegoing in America (pp. 124–137). Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
  • Katz, S. (1927). Theatre Management. In J. P. Kennedy (Ed.), The Story of the Films (pp. 263–284). London A. W. Shaw and Company, Limited.
  •  Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (1994). Film History: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill.
  • US Inflation Calculator. (2020, December 10). US Inflation Calculator. US Inflation Calculator.
  • Zornig. (2019). Wider version of the 1925 photo via Tim O’neill [Riviera Theatre]. Cinema Treasures.
  • Zornig. (2020). October 1933 photo via Phil Wizenick [Chicago Theatre]. Cinema Treasures.