Cooling the Customers


Air conditioning and movies – or movie theaters – go together so well that it’s hard to imagine a time without the benefits of both together. In 1902, just as movies were getting started, Willis Carrier (whose company made the political news in 2016), a mechanical engineer, invented the first modern air conditioning plant to help a Brooklyn, New York, printing company solve a paper wrinkling problem at its facility. It wasn’t until 1925 that Carrier got together with a movie theater owner to install air conditioning at the Rivoli Theater on New York City’s Times Square. It was a match meant to be, and from then on the summer, which had been the poorest season for movie theaters, became the richest as people attended movies as much for the air conditioning as for the entertainment.

When The Seven Year Itch, starring Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, appeared in theaters in 1955, most houses and apartments did not have air conditioning. In the scene before this one, they leave an air conditioned movie theater after viewing Creature from the Black Lagoon, a 3D monster movie the appeal of which, for them, was probably not as great as the cool comfort of the theater itself.

Home air conditioners were still unusual in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1970s most homes had some form of air conditioning, whether central or window units. Movie fans no longer flocked to theaters in summer only for the sweet relief of a few hours respite from summer’s heat and humidity. People continued going to see movies in theaters in summer on account of children being out of school, and how air conditioning in theaters since the 1920s had established summer as movie season. Watching movies at home was still unsatisfactory because of small television screen sizes, low picture resolution and poor sound, and a lag of one or more years before Hollywood would release movies to television.

Meredith Willson 1967
Meredith Willson, when he appeared on the Texaco Star Theater television program in 1967. Willson, who was born in 1902, coincidentally the same year that Willis Carrier invented modern air conditioning, had a long career spanning Broadway theater, Hollywood movies, radio, and television.

All that has changed in the past forty years, of course, starting with home video technology and the ability to either buy or rent movies for home viewing. Theaters felt the pinch, and old style movie palaces shut down, relegating the movie theater experience for the most part to shoe box multiplexes at suburban malls. Drive-in theaters, another summertime movie going experience from a bygone era, shut down along with the air conditioned movie palaces. Now in the last ten years the home theater experience, for people who can afford it (and it becomes more affordable all the time), has progressed to the point that a fair portion of movie fans feel little pulling them toward returning to theaters. Their homes are air conditioned, their televisions and sound systems have gotten bigger and better, and Hollywood releases movies for home viewing so quickly that only the most impatient fans aren’t happy to wait a little while.
The old movie palace experience was something special that can’t be matched by watching a movie at home, no matter how comfortable and technologically sophisticated circumstances at home have become. Comedies and big, crowd pleasing musicals in particular seemed to take on a frisson of excitement when viewed in a well appointed theater among other patrons who were similarly enthralled. Now that theater owners around the country have finally gotten the message and are starting to move away from the nothing special, cookie cutter mall multiplex and toward building theaters that reestablish the grandeur that is only possible outside the home theater, it is questionable whether movie fans will return.

Meredith Willson’s most famous entertainment, The Music Man. Robert Preston, shown in this scene with Buddy Hackett, starred in the long running Broadway show before doing the movie version in 1962.

Some people have had time to drop the movie going habit, for one thing, and for another there is a relatively recent technology that has come into the equation which affects their enjoyment of movies – cell phones. In the theater, cell phone users interfere with the other patrons’ enjoyment of the movie, but at home, for those people who simply can’t do without their phone for even two or three hours, then at least they’re not annoying other paying customers, and for their own enjoyment of non-stop cellular connectivity there is always the pause button on their home theater remote control. Might as well stay home then to enjoy summertime movies, and keep your cool.
― Techly