How exactly did we form this cultural habit? Today, concessions are the lifeblood of the theater business: According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, they account for approximately 40 percent of theaters' net revenue. But it wasn't always this way....
But theater owners had yet to realize just how lucrative concessions could be. Far from embracing food sales, many were downright hostile toward them, particularly as nickelodeons gave way to the fancier movie houses of the teens and '20s. During those two decades, in an effort to enhance the moviegoing experience, ambitious showmen constructed opulent movie palaces, like Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, which opened in 1927. These palaces, some of which cost millions to build, could rival the sophistication of European opera houses. Appointed with expensive antiques, marble columns, bejeweled chandeliers, and even perfume sprayed into common spaces, they transported moviegoers to another world. Yet it was a world without munchies.
Movie theater owners wanted their venues to remain upscale, free from the chomping of snacks you'd find at burlesque shows. They also wanted their plush theaters garbage-free. But as in the nickelodeon days, entrepreneurial vendors sold snacks outside. Popcorn kernels and candy wrappers ended up littering theaters despite owners' best efforts to keep food out.
Then came the Great Depression. Squeezed like everyone else, palace owners sought new sources of revenue. Some deigned to install candy dispensers, and others leased lobby space to popcorn vendors....it wasn't long before theater owners recognized popcorn's lucrative promise and began selling it in-house. Early popcorn popping machines had created disagreeable, burning odors, but by the 1930s, the technology had improved. And because popcorn was so cheap—theaters could sell it for 10 cents a bag and still turn a nice profit—it was a treat that even cash-strapped Americans could manage to splurge on.
Eager to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors, theater builders of the 1930s constructed more humble neighborhood houses, and with concessions becoming a bigger part of the business, the candy counter became an architectural consideration. Theaters still hoping to appeal to highbrow customers offered homemade bonbons, chocolates, and candy apples, but as mass production grew more prevalent, an abundance of newer candies—Jujubes and Jujyfruits, Baby Ruths, Raisinets, Milk Duds, and others—emerged on the scene.
Candy suffered a setback during World War II, however, when sugar was rationed. Popcorn production, on the other hand, was given the go-ahead by the War Production Board because of its health benefits and popularity. Popcorn flourished, solidifying its hold over the concession stand.
After the war, in the mid- to late-1940s, theater owners grappled with another threat—television—that made it more important than ever to capitalize on snack sales. ... From 1948 to 1956, despite a 50 percent decrease in theater attendance, concession sales increased fortyfold. The end of the war meant a return to sugar...
[T]he old standbys are the real moneymakers. We may sigh when the kid behind the counter solicits that $9 for a small Coke and a medium popcorn, but traditional concessions are by now inextricably linked to the moviegoing experience. Not only is there the kid-in-a-candy-store excitement—here's one place where it's still safe to gorge on junk food—but the smell of popcorn that pervades every movie theater can bubble up nostalgia in even the most curmudgeonly customer. A trip to the concession stand might elicit memories of a first date—holding her hand, greasy with popcorn, in the dark theater, or the tug of your teeth on the licorice sticks you ordered as a kid, or the Good & Plenty your grandmother used to buy you on your Saturday trips to the movies. What's $9 for that?
Madison's new Sundance 608 theater complex has raised the local culinary stakes, although recent medical research suggests you won't want to make friends with anyone with greasy palms, or palm oil.