Atmospheric Theaters – When The Theater Was Part Of The Show

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In the United States the period of the ornate Movie Palaces lasted from around 1915 to the 1940’s. In that short period thousands of ornate theaters were built all over the country. Of the several genres of architecture that were created during that period, the Atmospheric theaters came the closest to blending the new media of film with theaters’ stage drama roots.

Architect and Designer John Eberson

Architect and Designer John Eberson

The Atmospheric movement was created by John Eberson, a stage designer and architect who immigrated from Europe. Having studied electrical engineering in Dresden, he took an apprenticeship with a theatrical designer in St. Louis and worked as a set designer and scenic painter. His first theater design was for a ‘picture house’ in Hamilton, Ohio. By 1926 he had perfected his ‘atmospheric’ concept with the creation of the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas. Earning the nickname “Opera House John”, he would design over 500 atmospheric movie palaces by the end of his career.

 

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

Majestic Theater- Houston, Texas, built 1926

For the average American, spending an evening in one of these theaters was as close to a trip to Europe as they could ever hope to have. Usually designed with European themes, Eberson’s designs featured large coved ceilings that gave the illusion of sitting outside in a courtyard with facades on either side. The ceilings were painted sky blue and a projector called a Brenograph was used to project moving clouds and stars on the deeply coved ceilings.

Eberson's drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Eberson’s drawing for a facade for the Paradise Theater in Chicago

Most of the facades detail and ornament were executed in traditional staff of plaster and hemp fiber, painted and gilded.

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

Saenger Theater, New Orleans

As with most popular trends, the atmospheric theme was quickly picked up by others and expanded throughout the country where the palaces were built even in small rural towns. One such theater is the Holland Theater in Bellefontaine, Ohio, built in 1931. The theater is the only known theater with a 17th century Dutch motif and features a twinkling star ceiling and turning windmills. Turned into a 5 screen multiplex in the 1980’s the theater was hut down in 1998. In 2009 the theater was reopened as a live theater venue and the interior is slowly being restored back to it’s original look.

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it's painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

Recent photo of the interior of the Holland Theater with it’s painted sky, starlight and turning windmill blades

 

Just Shoot It

Quote

Scene from Days Of Heaven - Production Designer Jack Fisk

Scene from Days Of Heaven – directed by Terrence Malick – Production Designer Jack Fisk – cinematography by Nestor Almendros

“It’s one of those foolish truisms that a lot of what is perceived as great cinematography actually is really good production design or really good location choice. Often it’s that easy – it’s so damn good, just photograph it.”

Stuart Dryburgh , Cinematographer

Wayne Manor Was A Remodel – Delineating Set Walls on Drawings

Often when sets are designed there is either an advantage or a mandate to using existing flats for a set’s construction. Sometimes a standing set is revamped or stock set walls are pulled from storage to either save money or time or both, particularly in Television where there is never enough of either.

Universal Studios was famous for revamping sets to the point that some sets were merely repainted and dressed for a TV series when a show required numerous sets. I spent my first years in television at Universal and the Production Designers there were experts at reusing stock units from the large stock sheds on the lot. In recent times some designers resist the idea of reusing scenery but audiences rarely ever notice when they are seeing a stock set. The practice was much more widespread in the early days of TV when there were actual studios in existence who saw the value in having large amounts of stock scenery and made efforts to catalogue and maintain it.

The problem from a Set Designer’s perspective is how to delineate the different walls on the drawings to communicate what is what. Each studio had a slightly different nomenclature, as I learned on my first show at Universal on Murder She Wrote. One day the foreman called from the stage. “Where the hell are all these stock walls you’ve got on this drawing?” he asked. I was confused until I realized they used a different delineator symbol than what I’d always used.

Some of the nomenclature was universal (no pun intended). A thin line on the plan meant the wall was existing and standing in place. it was rarely dimensioned on the drawing. A thick line at most studios meant it was a stock wall and was accompanied by it’s stock number. At 20th Century Fox, this line was also poch├ęd (shaded). A hatched line denoted new construction except for drawings done at MGM and Universal Studios where it meant the wall was stock. A thick line to these art departments denoted a new wall.

At 20th Century Fox Studios when they were planning a television version of Batman in 1965, the producers were on a limited budget to make the pilot. As the show required numerous sets and the Batcave interior was going to take a big chunk of the construction budget, they cruised the stages on the lot to see what sets might be standing that they could reuse, particularly something that would stand in for Wayne Manor as the script called for a well-appointed mansion.

According to Ed Hudson, long-time manager of the Art Department, the producers heard that the TV series 12 O’clock High was going to be using one of their main sets less, a reproduction of an English Tutor mansion that stood on Stage 18 and was used as the headquarters of the squadron. The network had decided the show didn’t have enough action scenes to keep the young crowd engaged and planned to shoot more of the show ‘in the air’ with scenes in the planes and less talkie scenes on the ground.

Shown below is a copy of the original plan and elevations showing the various wall types, dated September 1965. For those of you wondering, the Bat poles are at Elevation H.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

The set drawing for the Wayne Manor interior for the pilot episode.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Plan detail showing walls at Elevation A. Note shaded and hatched walls.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

Elevation A showing the three types of walls clearly marked.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

The table beside the title block clearly lists all the stock walls, their position on the plan and their stock number.

Once the network accepted the pilot, a permanent set matching it was built on Stage 24. With minor alterations, the original set was duplicated as seen in this November 1965 drawing below. Note that the walls drawn as ‘standing’ on the other plan are hatched for new construction.

Batman_Wayne Manor2_copy

The exterior of the house was an actual location, a house at 380 South San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena. It’s my guess that the location was chosen after the interior set was built.

Having a standing set influence the look of another permanent set is more common than you would think. The set for the 1993 comedy The Nanny, was a reused and slightly revamped stock set from a show called Sibs, which had been shot on the same stage and never made it past the pilot stage.

When the 2010 NBC series Parenthood started, the main characters house was based on a home in Malibu canyon where the exterior shooting was planned. The site was surveyed and had been reproduced on stage by the time the deal between the homeowner and the studio fell through. With no time to redesign, the producers were stuck with the houses look. When the exterior of the house was duplicated on the backlot at Universal the next year, it was a close copy of a house that was never shot for the series.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Original location of the house for the main characters of the series Parenthood.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot.   photo by NBC Television.

Parenthood cast in front of the exterior facade built on the Universal Studios lot which was influenced by the location house which was chosen but never shot. photo by NBC Television.

One thing that producers aren’t is psychic, much to their dismay, and you never know if you have a hit or a flop on your hands until the public sees it, and even then you can’t be sure. When the pilot for the original Batman series was tested it tested worse than any other show the network had done. Considering shelving the series, luckily they decided to air it since so much money and already been spent on the show, not knowing it would become a cultural phenomenon.