Time Machine: Air Conditioning and the Cinema

June 12, 2000
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In 1925, Willis Carrier installed a "refrigerating plant" in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, ushering in an era of air conditioned summer entertainment.
In the early days of movies, the promise of “air conditioned comfort” helped many 1920s theater owners improve summertime box office receipts. Prior to air conditioning, however, crowds typically shunned hot theaters for cooler pleasures.

According to Carrier Corp., “The world started to become aware of air conditioned theaters when Carrier brought a centrifugal chiller to the Rivoli Theater in New York’s Times Square in 1925.”

The Rivoli was located on Broadway. Carrier founder Willis Carrier knew that success in New York City could lead to almost instant recognition and reward.

Unfortunately, the opposite was also true.

Timing is Everything

The system debuted on Memorial Day, 1925. Due to some last-minute adjustments, however, the cooling machine was late in starting, and the theater was hot when the crowd filed in. Among these patrons was Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures.

Engineers were worried as they watched patrons’ cardboard fans flutter. Zukor was watching the people and the waving fans instead of the picture.

But the temperature gradually dropped, and the patrons put their fans away. In the lobby at the end of the film, Zukor pronounced that “Yes, the people are going to like it.”

By 1930, more than 300 theaters hung banners from their marquees advertising, “Cooled by Refrigeration.”

This event ushered in an era of air conditioned summer entertainment and started a trend in the movie theater business, attracting people to come inside and get cool.

As an early ad for the Rivoli touted, “We have invested over $100,000 in a refrigeration plant to keep you cool and comfortable when the world is sweltering.”

Make ’Em Laugh, Keep ’Em Cool

Air conditioning systems also played a role in the development of “talkies” that would be shown in those theaters.

The new Hollywood sound studios could keep doors and windows closed, eliminating objectionable outside noise while keeping actors cool despite the intense heat of the powerful klieg lights and Southern California’s climate.

Now when we go to the movies in the hottest months of the year, we simply expect to be cool and comfortable. It’s safe to say that there would be no “summer blockbusters” if it weren’t for the advent of air conditioning.

To celebrate this Memorial Day anniversary, Carrier Corp. took children from several New York City youth organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, McBurney YMCA, and Global Kids, to see Dinosaur at Clearview’s Chelsea Cinema, in New York.

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