Grand Illusions

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In the 1920s the film industry specialized in spectacle. While the movies fed America’s craving for lavish romance and adventure, a new kind of theater surrounded audiences with fantasies as compelling as anything on the screen.

John Eberson—architect, showman, and entrepreneur—was among the era’s most adventurous and prolific designers. With an exuberant disdain for architectural consistency, he combined styles, motifs, and materials to bring all outdoors inside what he called his atmospheric theaters. Each auditorium was topped by the Eberson trademark: a Mediterranean sky, punctuated by a firmament of tiny electric lights and covered with a layer of moving clouds—an effect provided by Brenograph projectors hidden in the walls. His goal, Eberson said, was to suggest “a magnificent amphitheater under a glorious moonlit sky, . . . an Italian garden, a Persian court, a Spanish patio, or a mystic Egyptian templeyard . . . where friendly stars twinkled and wisps of clouds drifted.”

Born in Austria in 1875, Eberson began his formal training in Dresden before moving to Vienna to complete his studies in electrical engineering. In 1901 he emigrated to the United States (with “seven dollars in my pockets and nothing more,” he said later) and settled in the German community of St. Louis. Soon he joined the Johnston Theatrical Firm, where he learned the principles of theater design and construction. During the years that followed he traveled through the Midwest, building a series of attractive small theaters and a reputation as “Opera House John.” In 1904 he visited the St. Louis world’s fair and was fascinated by the fairground architecture, with its fanciful yet inexpensive structures. That same year he established his own firm in St. Louis.

Eberson conjured up a Tuscan villa in Louisville and an Andalusian castle in Tampa.

Eventually Eberson became bored by the conventional, academic styles of theater design, and in 1923 he tried something new. The Houston Majestic was a blend of Italian Renaissance and Classical Greek architecture. On one side of the proscenium arch the facade of a palazzo concealed the theater organ; on the other, Eberson placed a colonnade roofed with a conical dome. The lobby held copies of Greek and Roman statuary surrounded by doorheads inspired by St. Peter’s and topped with a copy of the ceiling of the Villa Cambiaso.

This extravagant fantasy was such an immense and immediate success that it set Eberson off on a career that eventually brought scores of such oases of exotica to towns across the country. Working now from Chicago, Eberson conjured up a sort of Tuscan villa in Louisville, Kentucky, an Andalusian castle in Tampa, Florida, and, in Chicago, a Persian palace that delighted audiences with its elaborate mosaic walls and gurgling “bridal fountain.”

The Italian Renaissance served as inspiration for one of Eberson’s most ambitious creations, Loew’s Paradise, in the Bronx. The theater’s lobby was a stylized version of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, with vaulted ceilings and gallerias. In the auditorium, surrounded by cherubim, seraphim, and garlands, a statue of Lorenzo de’ Medici watched the stage from a niche on the wall.

Eberson was as consciously picturesque as his theaters. His daughter, Elsa, said, “His clothes were all custom-made and designed by him: black velvet vests with jet buttons and white piqué edging on the lapels, a brown cape with velvet collar, black homburg and flowing artist’s tie.”

Hundreds of light bulbs were dipped in pink paint to give the theaters the proper Eberson glow.

Like the architect’s clothes, Eberson’s theaters were always dramatic. The architect would execute preliminary sketches and then turn them over to a team of Hungarian draftsmen, who enlarged and refined his schemes, creating massive sets of working drawings on linen sheets. As Drew Eberson, the architect’s son and partner, recalls, “Just those drawings took about two months to complete, with forty or fifty people working on them.”

Once the building was under way, Eberson brought in a group of specialists to assemble the interiors. This thirty-member team moved from theater to theater, installing the plasterwork, trees, birds, and other details and painting the walls. The ornamentation for the walls and ceilings was produced in plaster from clay molds by the Schmidt firm in Chicago, then shipped to the construction sites in two- and three-foot sections. Hundreds of bulbs were dipped in pink paint to achieve the proper glow for Eberson’s lighting fixtures, while his wife and daughter made the banners for the auditoriums. The furnishings, many of them real antiques, came from around the world. Drew Eberson coordinated the various elements as they arrived at the sites, and as the installations progressed, he also placed the statuary and mapped out the stars.

If all went well, it took just over a year to complete an Eberson theater. For all their seeming extravagance, these theaters were, surprisingly, less expensive to build than their more mundane counterparts. The architect had learned his lessons well at St. Louis, and the massive, ancient carved-stone walls of his movie houses were in fact made of staff, a mixture of plaster and straw developed for fairground architecture. In an age when many theaters were designed in the grand style of European opera houses, with red plush carpeting, marble staircases, and crystal chandeliers, Eberson’s plaster casts and Brenograph special effects were cheap by comparison.

More and more people have now become aware of Eberson’s flamboyant legacy.

But they were not cheap enough to weather the Depression. San Antonio’s New Majestic Theater, which opened in 1929 (“Matchless in Beauty and Comfort,” said the San Antonio Express , “Is Beacon of Progress and Symbol of All That Is Worthy and Fine”), was one of the last atmospheric theaters ever built. Their demise did not end John Eberson’s career. The architect quickly mastered the Deco style, though he thought it too severe for his inventive spirit, and continued to build movie houses until his death in 1954. By that time many of his atmospheric theaters had begun to decay, and some had already been torn down.

In recent years more and more people have become aware of Eberson’s flamboyant architectural legacy, and his surviving theaters are beginning to be taken up by preservation groups. In 1989 investors spent $5.1 million restoring the San Antonio Majestic to its former splendor. Now a new generation can sit beneath the twinkling electric stars and drifting clouds and experience the Eberson magic.

FROM BEAUX ARTS . . .
. . . TO DECO

The Silver in Washington, D.C., shows that Eberson was fluent in the Moderne style even if he didn’t like it as much. The 1938 tropical-Deco movie house is listed in the National Register.