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Marketing the Movies

Marketing the movies to audiences in South Carolina between 1920 and 1960 required creativity and effort. The larger cities had several theaters competing for patrons. In 1945, Columbia had ten active movie theaters. In the days before television, you had to go to a movie theater to see a movie.

For a small admission price, you were escorted to your seat by an usher in a crisp uniform, walked on a plush bright carpet, sat in a soft padded seat, ate fresh popcorn, and watched a program that included the feature, a short subject, newsreel, coming attractions, and a cartoon. Even smaller towns like Belton, Beaufort, Chester, Hartsville, and Greer had at least two movie theaters. To get people to come to their theaters, the managers had to find clever ways to market the movies.

The large posters that hung inside and outside the theater were the most obvious way to promote a film. In the example at the right, the usher is wearing a bright sash promoting the next attraction, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru. The newspapers contained large advertisements for each film and often promoted the quality of the sound and image as well as the comfort of the theater. But, that was only the beginning of marketing the movies.

Our profound thanks go to David Suggs of Blythewood for sharing these examples of marketing pieces which were produced under the direction of his father, Malcolm Samuel Suggs, City Manager of the seven Columbia theaters in the Wilby-Kincey Theatre Chain.


Usher at the Palmetto Theatre in Columbia - 1949
(Click on the image to see it larger)

Photo from the collection of Malcolm Samuel Suggs, City Manager of the seven Columbia Theatres in the Wilby-Kincey Theatre Chain - Charlotte, NC.

One of the more interesting ways of marketing the movies was called the "Ballyhoo." A Ballyhoo was a flamboyant decoration used at the theater entrance to draw attention to the movie. All of these Ballyhoos are from the Palmetto Theatre in Columbia. See our web page on the Palmetto Theatre which has Ballyhoos for "The Wizard of Oz" and "Tarzan Finds a Son."

This Ballyhoo promoted "Out West with the Hardy's" released in 1938 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring Mickey Rooney.

"Sweethearts" released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1938, starred Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
"Kentucky" released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1938, starred Loretta Young and Richard Green.

My favorite marketing practice was the "Sidewalk Specialty" In the example to the left, a "Jackass" sits atop a tall ladder in front of the Palmetto Theater to promote "Hellzapoppin" starring the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson. The sign on the ladder reads, "I may be a Jackass but I'm not coming down until Helzapoppin' with Olsen and Johnson opens." The film was released in 1941 by Universal Pictures.

Co-author of this website, Mark Tiedje, was an usher at the Daytona Beach Theatre in the late 1950's. One of his least-fond memories is being assigned to a "Sidewalk Specialty" called "The Box." He had to sit in a large closed box in front of the theater. When anyone walked by the box, he loudly scratched the sides and top and made the scariest, most fiendish noises he could. This was to promote the horror movie "The Fly" released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1958.

Even today, this technique is sometimes used by smaller alternative theaters and campus cinemas. The film "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was recently promoted by Bloomsburg University by writing the date, time, and location of the show on campus sidewalks in brightly colored sidewalk chalk.

That's pretty tame compared to the creative ways the theater managers marketed the movies with "Sidewalk Specialties" in the 1940's and 1950's.

Down the street from the Palmetto Theatre in Columbia was the Kress 5¢ - 10¢ - 25¢ Store, commonly called the "Five and Dime." These stores were on Main Street in nearly every town, alongside the drug store and barber shop. The Five and Dime usually had discount prices on a wide variety of goods including meals at their famous lunch counters.

In this image, the Palmetto Theater and Kress are using a window poster to cross-promote Disney's film "Dumbo" at the theater and a variety of Disney toys and books at Kress' toy counter.

Door Hangers and tags  

This promotional tag encouraged patrons to see "Treasure Island" starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. If you brought the tag to the lobby, you could see if your key unlocked a treasure chest containing valuable prizes.

This door hanger promoted "Strange Interlude" released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932, starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.

This tag promoted a late showing of "A Night In Casablanca" with the Marx Brothers. It was designed for people attending the Duke vs. Carolina game in Columbia.

See four colorful small posters from films of 1930. Next Page

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