Escape to the Movies:
Seattle Cinema in the Great Depression

by Andrea Kaufman

Bruen's 45th Street Theatre in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood, 1934. Seattle's theatres engaged in a variety of advertising campaigns, special give-aways, bargain nights, and promotions to encourage theater-going in hard times. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

Amidst the tough economic times presented by the Great Depression, film managed to survive becoming a bankrupt industry. The 1920s had been a decade of great advancement in film, delivering talking pictures and providing the public with grand, luxurious movie houses. However, the Great Depression left all industry, including the film industry, “operating at half its capacity from before the Crash.”[1] In 1931, The Seattle Paramount Theater, “beset with financial woes” was forced to close its doors, and remained closed until the following year.[2] By 1932, about three years after the initial economic downturn, national movie attendance was down from ninety million admissions per week to sixty million, and average ticket prices had to be reduced by 10 cents, causing movie companies to see $56 million in losses.[3]

Yet despite the presence of Hoovervilles and a growing unemployment rate, movie houses located in the heart of Seattle and the University District still catered to rather large crowds. Among the leading downtown cinemas were The Music Box, The Paramount, The Liberty, and The Capitol, each of which ran daily advertisements in The Seattle Times. The “Amusement” section of The Seattle Times was home not only advertisements purchased by the theaters, but also to movie reviews and announcements from Hollywood. The “Amusement” sections of 1932 illustrate how the Seattle film industry was able to survive the desperate economic times by cutting ticket costs, developing new advertising language, and developing marketing techniquest that made movie-going seem like a necessary, yet cheap, part of everyday life. The articles published throughout the year also highlight cinema’s development of new genres and storylines that provided an escape from the reality of the Great Depression and economic crisis, further drawing in viewers fed up with the Great Depression’s hardships.

Seattle’s theaters realized that they would not survive the economic climate if they didn’t increase ticket sales, and were forced to devise creative strategies to bring people in. The Paramount, for example, announced a “double bill,” giving audience members two full-length shows for their 35 cent admission.[4] On January 6th, The Seattle Times ran an article announcing that “The first two features to appear under the Paramount’s new bargain policy will be George O’Brien in ‘The Rainbow Trail’ and ‘Working Girls.’” [5] This marketing move helped to entice the public into patronizing The Paramount. The use of the word “bargain” allowed people to feel as if they were spending money on something worthwhile rather than frivolous, and in fact, it worked so well that many other theaters also introduced multiple show bills—The Embassy even went so far as to introduce a triple bill.[6] The Depression had created a nation of bargain hunters, so the more people were enticed by taking advantage of a good deal, the better chance a theater had of filling its auditoriums.

When the novelty of multiple show bills began to wear off, theaters again began to feel the pinch. Just in time for summer, The Seattle Times printed news of “Lower Prices for Summer at Capitol,” allowing patrons to pay just 10 cents until 7 p.m. and a mere 15 cents for the remainder of the night.[7] This drop in admission rates was appealing to audiences experiencing even heavier economic burdens. To remain competitive, the other Seattle theaters also dropped their prices by 10 cents. Smaller theaters also wanted to maintain a competitive edge, so they began offering giveaway nights. On April 22nd, Liberty Theater appealed to Depression-era women to “purchase your tickets after 6 p.m.” to receive a “beautiful silver spoon.”[8] This ploy helped to bring people into the theater at a later time, providing a higher profit to the theater. Seattle was not unique in offering premiums and prizes in order to sell movie tickets. “Dish Nights” were publicized throughout the United States, and Business Week reported that “Prior to the giveaway, a certain house took in $50 on Monday. By distributing 1,000 pieces of china costing $110, Monday business increased to $300.” [9] Movie houses not only made back what they spent on gifts for patrons, but doubled their previous ticket sales. Give-aways also offered the citizens of Seattle, and the nation, a reward for spending their precious income on a leisure activity. Theaters would offer whole sets of china, one dish per event, enticing patrons to return night after night to collect the whole set. Although these prices were advertised as a summer special, the lowered rates of the summer season remained after the summer months had come to a close and the practice of distributing premiums still serves as a way to draw in movie audiences.
The Roosevelt Theatre in Seattle's Capitol Hil in 1937. Note its art deco facade and its showing of a Frank Capra film, both popular in the Depression. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

Besides lowering admission prices, the theaters also spent money to run persuasive advertisements in The Seattle Times. The Liberty Theater ran an ad advertising its current movies as “a continuous roar from start to finish” and full of “Thrills – Spills – Galore.”[10] Both of these clippings allude to the funny and exciting nature of the films. All of the theaters competed to make their film showings sound the most enticing. The Music Box opened the film Miss Pinkerton and touted it as “The story that made America SIT UP – ALL NIGHT!” [11] This line is laid over a wide pair of cartoon eyes. Pairing the capitalized text and the wide eyes convinces the reader that Miss Pinkerton is a thrilling film, worthy of the admission price, and a must-see. The wide exaggerated eyes allow the reader to imagine the effects of staying up all night and cause them to wonder more about the film’s storyline.

The exciting slogans utilized in movie ads was accompanied by urgent, reader-centered language. Many film advertisements used the words “you” or “your” to draw the reader into feeling a personal connection with the film. The film His Woman, released by Paramount, was described as a “stirring tale that clings to your heart like the memory of your first kiss.”[12] A kiss is a personal event, and to compare the film to a kiss creates an emotional connection and sparks a specific, hopefully good, memory among readers. Connecting emotionally to the audience helped to draw in larger crowds at Seattle theaters. Alongside these emotive ploys, theaters created a sense of urgency in their ads. Often, theaters would display ads that urged an audience to “hurry” and to “not miss out.” [13] By encouraging the Seattle populace to think that the movies were a limited engagement made them more exciting and made people rush to the theater. People were more likely to purchase a ticket to something when there was a fear that they might miss out by waiting. Bills could be paid later, but theaters gave a sense that movies were only in town “for one big romantic week.”[14] The use of “romance” again triggers an emotional response in the reader of the ad and encourages audiences to head to the theater and join in the experience.

Despite efforts to make movies more affordable and draw viewers in through print, film would not have survived without its ability to provide quality and mind-freeing entertainment. The “Amusement” section ran an article that described the public’s opinion that “Pictures are not what they were. They are infinitely superior in technique and performance to the majority of silent films and earlier talkies, and they have educated the public to appreciate and demand the best.”[15] The Seattle public demanded the best in new film technology for their admission price. They not only wanted, but expected, to enjoy an exciting and dynamic show. A day or night at the movies was also expected to be a stress-free escape from the worries of the day: the 5th Avenue Theater called for people to “Forget Your Worries!” and enjoy a movie.[16] Time spent in the theater was time spent in a different world, a world where finances were of little importance and men were not worried about providing for their families. People were able to forget about the despair and hardship of the Depression for precious hours, or even for just a few minutes.

The public need for escapism led to the rise of new film genres and the reworking of old ones. A particular favorite was the comedy, and the Depression era gave birth to a new form: the “screwball” comedy. Screwball comedies focused on “the fairytale world of the idle rich” and “invited the public to laugh at the romantic foibles of the upper class.”[17] This new type of comedy was a diversion from the economic reality of the Great Depression, and provided an outlet for social tensions as the poor were invited to laugh at those who still had wealth yet also still identify with them and their out-of-reach lifestyles. The rise of the screwball comedy caused headlines throughout the year of 1932 to echo each other in announcing “Stars of Comedy and Drama Shine on Local Screen.”[18] One glance at the “Amusement” section of The Seattle Times left the Seattle public with dozens of comedic offerings to choose from. Theaters offered the public the chance to “start your laughs” and escape into a world of fanciful delight, a world untouched by the economic crisis.[19] Comedies provided an outlet for the citizens of Seattle. They allowed people to remember what life had been like before, and offered hope of a brighter future to come. While helping to relieve the stress of the public, comedies served to replenish the bankroll of the film industry. On October 1st, The Seattle Times built up a new comedy by writing “merely to say that Laurel and Hardy have brought to the screen the second of their feature length comedies should be sufficient to arouse keen desire to see them in their latest offering.”[20] Comedic teams became beloved public figures and people would come just to see their newest feature film, regardless of its plot.

Actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller visiting Seattle in 1926. Weissmuller was most famous for starring in the Tarzan films, a genre of escapist fantasy that was popular during the Great Depression years. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)
While comedies reigned, a poll released in June stated that public preference was “switching to ‘wild life, adventure and the great out-of-doors.’”[21] Hollywood quickly responded and the July 14th headline read “Jungle Sensation.” [22] Films portraying wild animals and exotic locations found their way to Seattle theaters. Jungle safaris on film provided another escape from the everyday that moviegoers could enjoy. The public wanted to experience lands and animals foreign to the Northwest, and imagine themselves in exotic locales far from the bleak economic hardships of America. Audiences sold out shows and caused theaters to re-release movies multiple times.[23] The more exotic the location, the more glamorous the movie seemed to the Seattle audience. The jungle locations did not have streets full of discarded workers, or depict bread lines stretching around corners. Nature presented an uncomplicated escape from the stresses of city life. The jungle adventure genre also produced films that could set the hearts of its patrons racing. One ad exclaimed that the “Jungle holds no terrors like these blood thirsty white bellied cannibals.”[24] The Seattle public was pulled into the seemingly unreal aspect of a human devouring another human, causing the reader to escape into their imagination as they pondered the terrible acts of exotic cannibals. Movie thrills and blatantly marketed exoticism provided a break in the humdrum of everyday life and allowed Hollywood to explore culture through film.

The use of film as escapism set the stage for Hollywood companies to produce film oddities that would thrill audience members. 1932 saw the release of a film simply titled Freaks. Ads caused readers to ponder the questions “Can a full grown woman really love a midget?” and “Do Siamese twins make love?”[25] Fantastical films, like Freaks, provided not only a separate setting, but a strange variation of reality as people became morbidly entranced by the strangeness of the characters on the screen. Yet while the characters on the screen had rather fantastical qualities, questions about the film’s “freakish” main characters closely paralleled public concern about the homeless and disabled in Seattle and the United States. The Depression created an audience ready to be taken into a different reality, where discussions about “the place of community codes of conduct” could be analyzed without being too personal an issue.[26] So, audiences were able to ponder how the homeless, once members of a stigmatized minority group, had somehow become the majority, without being bombarded by images of the homeless or shanty Hoovervilles. Freaks, and similar releases, allowed audiences to view social problems brought forward by the Great Depression by providing an alternate—and perhaps less socially explosive—context in which to explore them.

Providing a place of escape for the public allowed the film industry to survive the hardships of not only 1932, but the unparalleled unemployment level of 1933. Theaters adjusted to fit their audience’s new budgets, and managed to drop ticket prices, while continuing their ledgers move back toward the black. Film managed to bounce back, and many of the theaters providing entertainment to Seattle citizens kept their doors open—indeed, many of the same theaters provide entertainment to Seattle’s population today. Although prices have steadily risen over the years, modern film echoes the same pattern as movies released during the Depression. In fact, movies still function as an escape for American masses. David Germain, a writer for The Seattle Times, explained that “In an era that brought harsh reality home with the war on terror and an economy gone bust, Hollywood became more of a dream factory than ever, embracing fantastic escapism at a time when audiences needed it most.”[27] Indeed, many have flocked to theaters in recent years to forget about the challenges facing them. Yet unlike the entertainment choices of the Depression that “came in the form of breezy comedies or glossy musical romances,” modern films have focused more on epic tales, thrills and modern special effects.[28] The “dazzling digital world” presented in Avatar, has allowed people to escape to an alternate world, a modern day jungle adventure.[29] It seems that as long as there is turmoil in the world, people will hope to escape from it. And as long as people yearn to escape, the film industry in Seattle and nationwide, will continue to reinvent itself, develop new marketing strategies, and new genres in order to prosper.

  Copyright (c) 2010, Andrea Kaufman
HSTAA 105 Winter 2010

[1] David Lugowski, “Movies and Transgression,” in American Cinema of the 1930s:  Themes and Variations, ed. Ina Rae Hark (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 69.
[2] Nena Peltin, “The Paramount Theatre: ‘Show Divine at 9th and Pine.’” (accessed on February 11th, 2010.)
[3] 2010. “Great Depression and Industry Finances.” (accessed on February 11, 2010.)
[4] Seattle Daily Times. “Paramount’s Double Bill Announced.” January 6, 1932: 18.
[5] Seattle Daily Times. “Paramount’s Double Bill Announced.” January 6, 1932: 18.
[6] Seattle Daily Times. February 14, 1932: 27.
[7] Seattle Daily Times. “Lower Prices for Summer at Capital.” May 11, 1932: 16.
[8] Seattle Daily Times. April 22, 1932: 14.
[9] “Premium Thriller,” Business Week, December 8, 1934, 24, quoted in Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, “Dish Night at the Movies,” in Looking Past the Screen, eds. Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 255.
[10] Seattle Daily Times. January 15, 1932: 12.
[11] Seattle Daily Times. July 14, 9132: 19.
[12] Seattle Daily Times. February 24, 1932: 8.
[13] Seattle Daily Times. January 5, 1932: 15.
[14] Seattle Daily Times. November 5, 1932: 2.
[15] Seattle Daily Times. February 14, 1932: 27.
[16] Seattle Daily Times. January 5, 1932: 15.
[17] Nicholas Laham, Currents of Comedy on the American Screen (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009), 47.
[18] Seattle Daily Times. June 26, 1932: 22.
[19] Seattle Daily Times. November 15, 1932: 11.
[20] Seattle Daily Times. “Laurel, Hardy Comedy Recalls World War Days.” October 1, 1932: 2.
[21] Seattle Daily Times. “Jungle Life Is Most Popular In Movie Field.” June 26, 1932: 22.
[22] Seattle Daily Times. July 14, 1932: 19.
[23] Seattle Daily Times. October 1, 1932: 2.
[24] Seattle Daily Times. December 29, 1932: 8.
[25] Seattle Daily Times. June 6, 1932: 12.
[26] David Lugowski, 76.
[27] David Germain. 2009. “Hollywood Counters Reality with Decade of Escapism.” The Seattle Times, December 8, 2009.
[28] David Germain. 2009.
[29] David Germain. 2009.