The Best Ree-maining Seats

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I am working on a French interpretation of an atmospheric theater—the Garden of the Tuileries. We picture a Louis sending a message through the Land calling for painters, sculptors, gardeners, artisans of all kinds. And he gives the command to transform the spacious lawns lying in front of his palace into a festive ground, as he is going to entertain his grandees and dames at a glorious magic night feast.

Months and months of artful effort and vast energy are devoted to the transformation and the festive decoration of the lawns. Gigantic arches, enchanting colonades, illuminated lattice garden houses, mystic pyrotechnic effects all silhouetted against the entrancing moonlight sky of a beautiful summer night. Surprises, illuminated fountains, music niches, lovers’ lanes—a marvelous setting for a fantastic artful dance, the frills of the satin-and-silk-gowned nobles, the coquettish silk and ruffle-covered damsels, the air laden with jasmine.

This tempting Gallic romp finally found embodiment as the Paradise Theater in Chicago. Lorado Taft created the sculpture of the horses of the Sun King’s chariot bolting out over the proscenium, an effect that gave pause to many an orchestra leader below. There were angels blowing trumpets over the organ grilles from whence spoke the Mighty Wurlitzer, its five-manual console a-crawl with cherubim. The sky overhead was not only equipped with the standard Eberson stars and clouds; it could achieve striking dawn and sunset effects at the push of a button. The Paradise was considered by many to be Eberson’s masterpiece. It was, unfortunately, demolished in cold blood by Balaban & Katz in 1956.

After coming to the United States, Eberson’s first architectural assignment was not a theater at all; it was a porch for a lady named Mrs. Sheehan of Hamilton, Ohio—a three-sided Ionic affair tacked on to her Victorian dwelling. This was in 1908, and his commission was twenty dollars. It was not until the early twenties, after he was well established in the theater field, that he pulled his ace card: the Majestic Theater in Houston, Texas—the first “atmospheric.”

In an era when one or two movie palaces were opening every week, Eberson was bored by the sameness of their French baroque, Spanish baroque, or Aztec baroque interiors. Theater architecture seemed to be in a red plush rut, and builders kept piling in more crystal chandeliers, more gilded didos, and more coffered ceilings every time a new foundation was dug.

Eberson’s plan for the Majestic literally blew the roof off all the old ideas; so far as Houstonians of that more innocent day could tell, the new theater had no roof at all. They sat in an Italian garden, its travertine walls topped by pergolas, classic temples, and—shades of Mrs. Sheehan—the Porch of the Maidens. Arbutus trailed all over everything, and a stuffed peacock or two paused to be admired atop the organ grilles. The proscenium arch, done like a huge gateway, had a real tile roof. And everybody was too dazzled by the plaster firmament with its electric stars and magic-lantern clouds to notice the fans at the edge of the balcony.

John Eberson’s slogan was, “Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses—Please Patrons—Pay Profits,” and he lived up to his word, and then some. He designed nearly one hundred atmospheric theaters before the Depression called a halt to most construction not blessed by the WPA. Regardless of the lilting alliteration of Eberson’s “nine little P’s,” to call lush and imaginative theaters “pretty playhouses” was to do them a great disservice. But they did please patrons, and they did pay profits.

For, with all their Persian-carpeted flights of fancy, they cost about one-fourth as much to build and maintain as the standard crystal-and-damask models. The simple plaster dome of the ceiling, with its Brenograph-projected clouds and sprinkling of low-wattage stars, was economical in comparison with orthodox domes and vaultings, ornamental lacunars, and stupendous chandeliers. Most of Eberson’s decorative architectural forms—gazebos, trellises, columns, arches, and cherubs—were made of cast plaster. And many stock models of these details (supplied by Michelangelo Studios, John Eberson, Proprietor), popped up time after time in atmospherics around the country, differing only in the peacocks they supported or the amount of wisteria that entwined them. The popularity of the atmospheric theater with movie-palace operators was not so much a matter of aesthetics as of hard cash.

But, by 1930 or thereabouts, dust began to settle on the garden walls, and by the time prosperity had chased the Depression back around the corner, the public’s appreciation for fanciful architecture had vanished in a hard-bitten new maturity of popular taste. The few movie houses that were built in the midthirties bore a tedious resemblance to the Hall of Transport and Travel at the Chicago World’s Fair. Suddenly everything was blue mirrors and chromium stair rails; light fixtures were shards of jagged frosted glass, and cubism was espoused by the carpetmakers.