The Rollercoaster That Was Newsreel Theatres
Getting War News While It's Hot
I'll go ahead and nominate the most exciting screen stop of the 20th Century and open floor for debate. It's hands-down the newsreel theatre --- plural, that is --- as there were many at the format's peak, even if confined to urban locale where foot traffic was heavy and drop-ins kept seats warm throughout tense days of Depression and war. You could get in for a quarter (or less) at most. Shows lasted an hour, occasionally more (or less), depending on weight of current events. Newsreels theatres were not unlike nickelodeons that gave the industry birth. You could stop by anytime for shows running continuous early to midnight (beyond if nearby swing shifts were a factor). News never sleeps, after all, and houses harped non-stop on headlines they'd break, if not on screen, then via radio broadcast and teletypes pulsing at outer lobbies, the whole joint a nerve center to keep patrons in a war loop.
Freshest newsreels were at premium. Management cannibalized footage to compile a daily best of it. Programs changed as did headlines, sometimes twice/thrice in a day. Ads touting fresh reels were rushed to a bulldog or late night edition of local sheets. News houses were all about speed. You could stand before the lobby teletype and get scoop of the attack on
Newsreel theatres would augment intensity with "soft" content of sport reels (also a major draw) and fashion reportage as lure to m' lady, even if she saw greater interest in Axis invaders "cut to pieces by Russian guerillas." The war had made a populace bloodthirsty, and sometimes it needed a cartoon or Charlie Chaplin oldie to soothe savage breasts, newsreel houses not 100% screaming Extras. It all had to end eventually, as would the world conflict, thus thinning of herds, inevitable as move to suburbs cut pedestrian traffic and led a mass public to comfort of new-installed televisions. Newsreel theatres would disappear like Kane newspapers dotting off a map one by one. The last faced closure in the 60's, a lot longer than you'd expect any to survive. There remains scant info on the (mostly) mid-century phenomenon, that result of so few records surviving. Who'd save file cabinets out of a defunct newsreel theatre? There was a marvelous article in the Film History journal (Volume 19, Number 1) entitled Family history, film history: Dad & the Telenews Theatre Corporation, written by Michael, Jennifer, and Nathan, Jr., Aronson, that overviews the newsreel theatre era and personalizes same by way of a family member who managed for Telenews in Dallas, Texas.