Snacks At Their Summit
Nowhere was selling so intense as concession stands in the fifties. Those (popcorn) kettles had been boiling since the war ended. Soft drinks hoarded for service personnel was now available to everyone, as was candy and other sweet confections. The end of sugar rationing opened gates wide for treat counter expansion and profit enough to make up some of the loss resulting from reduced attendance and higher film rentals. Never before were patrons so manipulated, for theatre admission was but a preamble to management's dedicated campaign to lighten customer purses. The sensory seduction began with popping corn in the lobby, its siren song irresistible to eyes, ears, and smell. One fix necessitated another, as salt-laden bags aroused customer demand for beverage. Small change was returned for dollars spent, thereby tempting further impulse purchase of snack goods. Candy became huge. Nestle’s packaged chocolates especially for theatre sale. Nickel bars were good, but dime ones were better. Dressing concession areas became as important as displays out front, and no longer was negotiation limited to food. When the Des Moines Theatre in that city of the same name went to selling The Greatest Show On Earth, it all but pulled viewers out of their seats to insure repeated visits to a lavishly appointed counter as shown here. A Betty Hutton trapeze cutout swung over the heads of attendants and fairground inspired displays adorned the lobby. Clowns and barkers worked streets approaching the house, and circus bric-a-brac was sold alongside candied treats. Your seat in the auditorium was no refuge from determined hawkers working aisles during intermission and even seizing the stage itself. Ladies and gentlemen, while we are changing acts in the center ring, our ushers will pass among you with popcorn, peanuts, Crackerjack, hot dogs, and soft drinks. Further stating the obvious, and with the help of shrill whistles to command attention, barkers assured that These are for sale! They are real! They are delicious! Throughout a newsreel opening the show, hard selling continued with employees marching back to front holding merchandise aloft and tossing bags and boxes to customers. Crowds for The Greatest Show On Earth necessitated several satellite candy counters throughout the lobby and mezzanine areas, with the Coca-Cola Company loaning extra coolers with aprons and caps for roving salesmen. It may seem like obnoxious marketing today, but a carnival atmosphere was an expected part of the moviegoing experience then. For many exhibitors, showing movies was but a pretext to getting people to their food stands, for these concession extravaganzas were at least as big as any spectacle their screens could offer.
Air conditioning and plenty to eat were reasons enough to buy a ticket in those days. Double features meant you could settle in for hours enjoying cool comfort and take meals besides. Sandwiches might be offered in addition to sweets. We had them at the Liberty, plus a bulldog countenanced attendant named Frank who’d invariably slam my M&M’s down with sufficient force as to shatter the outer coatings (is there anything so enervating as that broken glass sound you hear upon shaking a previously abused package of these?). One thing we did not experience was a pitch for Will Rogers Hospital, the industry’s primary charity and one that remains functioning to the present day. Again there were aggressive moves upon patrons to kick in. United Artists Theatres for one used to bring up house lights before sending ushers down among seated customers with collection cups, and this has been within fairly recent memory. During the fifties, a fourth of operating venues maintained regular drives for the hospital, which was located in Saranac Lake, NY. Rogers displays such as one shown here were common, and always placed prominently so as to engage patrons entering the theatre. Always a downside for increased concession variety was attendant mess and necessary cleanup. Most of this stuff wound up on floors, and floors had to be cleaned, but how to monitor near continuous spillage and droppage through a typical day, where janitorial service ran a losing competition with kids using refuse as improvised missiles? You’d think no sensible exhibitor would encourage chewing gum sale on his premises, yet here is trade evidence that some indeed did in the name of offering variety to customers. Further enhancement of audience appetite was provided by shows appealing to youth. House Of Wax and other 3-D gimmickers were a natural for enhanced counter treatment, as here with the dimensional cutout looming over concession buyers. Restless youngsters sought out displays such as ones Disney provided for 1953’s Peter Pan, a marketplace for souvenirs well beyond mere candy bars and Pepsi. Note the availability of plastic place mat sets for four inspired by the character. There were also hats, phonograph records, comics, coloring books; the stuff of a well-named Peter Pan Bazaar, and an early occasion for Disney to bring his merchandising right through the front entrance of houses where his animated feature was playing. Part of the reason all this worked was prices that remained within reason throughout the fifties and into the sixties. So-called (elevated) "theatre" prices for concessions were kept at bay at least that long, and snack business thrived, but how many sales and how much customer good will has been thwarted since for the sake of burgeoning greed on the part of theatre chains and candy distributors? I could sooner make a down payment for a new car as pay prices they’re asking for popcorn and a soft drink at cinemas today. Thirty years ago, I was sneaking Burger King sandwiches into the Thruway Multiplex (read shoebox) in Winston-Salem to see things like The Betsy and Saturday Night Fever, and even then, it was obvious things were going from bad to worse. How exhibitors survive charging prices like these for Junior Mints and a puny drink (mostly ice) is quite beyond my comprehension, but since no one’s left but a few of us old timers to remember better days (and many have retreated to DVD), who’s to initiate reforms at this late juncture?