It’s easy to take for granted the cool, comfortable air in a movie theater in the middle of summer. Settling into your stadium-seat with a cool beverage and cool air is quite the summer treat. Though, you probably don’t realize it but if you wanted to thank someone for such great summer blockbusters like X-Men, Avengers, Jurassic Park, Jaws and so many countless others, you can go all the way back to the 1920’s and thank the head of Paramount Pictures, Adolph Zukor and a guy who had a “refrigerated air machine” named Willis Carrier.
Adolph Zukor was head of Paramount Studios in 1925 and a place called the Rivoli Theater in New York City was trying something pretty big.
Carrier had persuaded Zukor to have his cooling system installed, to replace it’s older ventilation system at Paramount’s flagship theater under renovation in New York City. Centrifugal refrigeration systems had been installed in Texas with success a year prior but it wasn’t considered a true success until it was tested on Broadway. The theater was ready for it’s test with it’s first audience on Memorial Day Weekend, 1925. There were some amount of theaters across the country experimenting with different cooling systems – melting ice with a fan blowing the cool air and mechanical refrigeration, but the Rivoli Theater was one of the most publicized.
On the afternoon of the movie, people streamed into the theater and it became a packed house – because of some adjustments needed to the machine, Carrier and his engineers weren’t able to turn it on until people were seated in the theater.
Willis Carrier recalled the day in a memorandum he wrote after the event…
It takes time to pull down the temperature in a quickly filled theater on a hot day, and a still longer time for a packed house. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. Only a few chronic fanners persisted, but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them ‘cold’ and breathed a great sigh of relief.
We then went into the lobby and waited for Mr. Zukor to come downstairs. When he saw us, he did not wait for us to ask his opinion. He said tersely, ‘Yes, the people are going to like it.'”
The rest is history, as they say. Ticket sales at the Rivoli were up $100,000 that summer over the previous year and Carrier air-conditioned over three hundred theaters across the country over the course of the next five years.
Over the years, summer became a much bigger money-maker for theater chains in what was normally a tough time to bring in customers. Several decades later, in the 1970’s a little movie about a shark became the first summer blockbuster as we know it today, blazing the trail for numerous films since.
So when you cool off at the movies this summer, remember the folks that helped make that possible!
Air Conditioning Goes to the Movies, 1925″ EyeWitness to History
All-Time Top Summer Blockbusters
Keepin’ It Cool: How the Air Conditioner Made Modern America
Time Machine: Air Conditioning and the Cinema
The Story of Comfort Air Conditioning, Part-2 The Air Conditioned Building, 1900-1939
The Air-conditioned Century