Presence Examples

The atmospheric style of theater design


From the web site of The Akron Civic Theatre, formerly the Loew's Theatre
(http://www.neo.rr.com/Civic/html/john_eberson.html); the passage originally appeared in a master's thesis titled "A History of Loew's Theatre of Akron, Ohio: 1929 to 1965" by Sister Christine Mendiola, O.P. (University of Akron, 1974); a listing of 145 movie theaters in the atmospheric style, with links and commentary, can be found at the Cinema Treasures web site, http://cinematreasures.org/style/5/; posted to the presence-l listserv January 6, 2005

Akron Civic Theater: John Eberson

For the new Loew's Theatre of Akron, Marcus Loew chose John Eberson who became renowned in 1923, when he designed the Holblitzelle's Majestic Theatre in Houston Texas, the world's first "atmospheric theatre." The word "Atmospheric" refers to Eberson's new concept in design and decor of making the interior of a theatre like an elegant garden. Some of the most outstanding atmospheric theatres include The Paramount, The Poncan Theatre, The Palace and The Capitol.

Eberson was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 2, 1875, almost five years after the birth of Marcus Loew. As a young man he studied in Vienna, Austria, and in Dresden, Germany, earning two degrees, one in architecture and the other in chemical engineering. In 1903, he moved to the United States. His first job consisted of designing a porch for Mrs. Sheehan of Hamilton, Ohio. It proved to be "a three sided Ionic affair tacked on to her Victorian dwelling." For his initial design, Eberson received twenty dollars. A few years later, as a neophyte architect, he began designing small-town opera houses, achieving such success that he became known as "Opera House John." However, simply designing a place for entertainment was not enough for Eberson. He felt there was a need for creating an environment of illusion for Americans to distract them from life's problems and provide them with an atmosphere of rest and beauty. Eberson was aware of the extravagance of the standard of "hard-top" school of theatre architecture begun in opera and vaudeville houses and continuing with movie palaces. The architect Thomas W. Lamb was the principal proponent of the "standard" style.

But Eberson decided to bring a breath of fresh air into the whole overstuffed concept of theatre design. Thus he created the atmospheric or "stars-clouds" school of thought, borrowing from nature to convey his original idea of freshness. Ben Hall described it this way:

"We visualize and dream a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky in an Italian garden, in a Persian court, in a Spanish patio, or in a mystic Egyptian temple-yard, all canopied by a soft moonlit sky....We credit the deep azure blue of the Mediterranean sky with a therapeutic value, soothing the nerves and calming perturbing thoughts."

To describe his works, Eberson coined his own slogan with a flair for alliteration, "Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses--Please Patrons--Pay Profits." Theatres were successful undertakings because people, desiring to escape into the world of fantasy, willingly patronized them, challenging the architect to transfer the patrons into an exotic or peaceful environment.

Americans in the 1920's were faced with problems of the uncertainty of the development of industry and the stability of the economy--problems that culminated in the world-wide Depression of 1929. It was this world of uncertainty and frustration that Eberson had to overcome in his designs of beautiful outdoor gardens with starlit sky of polychromatic walls, and of exquisite and interesting art objects, in order that people could sit in a romantic and colorful atmosphere and forget reality.

Eberson's theatres not only were appealing to the aesthetic sense of the people but were also profitable. The original cost of his theatres was about one-fourth less than a design for the standard type because

"The simple plaster bault of the ceilings, with its projected clouds and handful of low-wattage stars, was economical in comparison wtih classic domes, ornamental beams, stupendous chandeliers. Most of Eberson's decorative details--gazebos, trellises, columns, arches, cherubim and seraphim were made of cast-plaster. " (Ben M. Hall, The Best Remaining Seats New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1961)

John Eberson personally designed each theatre and selected the furnishings. Often he travelled to Italy, Spain, France, or to cities in the United States, like New Orleans, Louisana to purchase statues, paintings, spears and swords, vases, furniture, and other artistic ornaments and furnishings. To help him execute the decorating of the theatres, especially when construction of them became numerous, Eberson founded the Michaelangelo Studios of Chicago, Illinois, and engaged a husband and wife team of artists, Mr. and Mrs. William Hartman to assist him in his work. His young son, Drew Eberson, licensed in 1927 as an architect, also aided his father.

John Eberson had many imitators, but "none had quite the same air of midsummer's night in dreamland as Eberson's originals." He was call archeologist, weather man and landscape gardener rolled into one and the combination made wonderful box office.

In March of 1955, in his seventy-ninth year, John Eberson died with the distinction of having designed about five hundred theatres.