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Sweets Sweepstakes

by Thomas M. Pryor

The New York Times, February 23, 1947 page II 5

"Is popcorn here to stay?" That's the $64 question being bounced back and forth by the nations motion picture theatre operators at the moment. Some say yes, some say no and some say maybe. But whether popcorn stays or goes, the fact is that the sale of the crunchy stuff in movie houses has reached astronomical proportions. Exactly how much theatres are earning in "extra profits" is anybody's guess, but no one denies that the total runs into many millions and that the returns on popcorn are far out ahead of those on candy and soft drinks. The last two are, however, steadily increasing in sales volume.

Approximately 85 per cent of the nation's 16,000 movie houses, from the modest little places in the backwoods to the glittering palaces in the big cities, are keeping their customers happily stuffed with sweets. In fact, some theatre men say that they make bigger profits on such sales than they do by showing Hollywood's celluloid corn. The weekly gross in popcorn and candy sales--some theatres also offer peanuts and ice cream-- ranges all the way from a modest $50 for a hole-in-the-wall theatre to several thousand dollars in larger and more ornate establishments. For instance, the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, a 5,000-seater, reportedly averages $4,000 a week on its sweet-tooth customers.

According to a spokesman for a theatre chain, who has kept close tabs on the situation, few houses gross less than $100 a week on popcorn and candy. "Multiply $100 by 16,000 theatres," he said, "and what do you get?--$1,600,00 per week. Now multiply that by fifty-two weeks. That gives you $83,200,000, a very conservative estimate," he said airily.


The lion's share of the "take" is from popcorn sales, since the return on the corn is at least 50 per cent. Candy, it is estimated, leaves a margin of from 30 to 40 per cent for the theatre and soft drinks just about the same, depending on whether a theatre serves fountain or bottle drinks. Of course, operating costs must be deducted, but there is no possible way of setting an average, since it develops that investment by theatres in display counters runs all the way from a few dollars to more than $7,000.

Out in the Midwest and along the Pacific Coast the candy displays and service counters in theatres are said to be especially lavish affairs, complete with neon tubing lights. According to reports, some of these sweet treat bars cost considerably more than $7,000. In one large circuit of Western theatres the management holds "sweet treat" intermissions. After each performance the house lights are turned up and pretty candy butchers, dressed in evening gowns, pass up and down the aisles. They don't hawk their wares, however, as the white-coated butchers used to do in nickelodeon days.

Up to about five years ago popcorn had no place in movie house operations and candy was obtainable mostly from vending machines, operated by concessionaires. Some of the enlarged candy display stands in theatre lobbies today are still operated on a commission basis. However, the trend now is to push the concessionaires out. The Fox West Coast Circuit, the Paramount Circuit and the Balaban & Katz theatre chain in Chicago are among the larger theatre circuits now running their own popcorn and candy business.

Popping Corn

Film trade journals are crammed with advertisements for corn poppers and warmers. Quite a number of houses pop their own corn right where the customers may observe the operation; other theatres take "popped" corn from jobbers and merely warm it up before serving. The popping of corn in theatres is a ticklish undertaking since the poppers give off considerable odor, and of course, a lot of folks are sensitive to the smell of hot cottonseed oil.

Some theatre men hold popcorn will eventually drive more people out of movie houses than Hollywood's best pictures will be able to drag in. Already there are signs of revolt. Loew's houses in St. Louis have banned popcorn in recent weeks and in Kansas and Indianapolis some theatres have instituted checking services for patrons bringing packages of corn. Moreover, popcorn and candy sales are producing legal headaches for theatre owners. In Louisville a landlord has filed suit against a tenant, claiming that candy sales should be included in the "gross receipts" of the theatre in computing the rent due under the terms of the lease.

Public Service

While popcorn is decried by some theatre managers as a source of annoyance to patrons who have little or no taste for the fodder, all appear to agree that candy goes hand-in-hand with ones enjoyment of a picture. "People like to eat sweets," they argue. "By making candy available in the theatre we are adding an extra measure of enjoyment for our patrons." Anyway, the candy manufacturers are highly in favor of the idea, for it is estimated that this means of merchandising chocolates has increased the industry's sales by more than $30,000,000 annually. A representative of the Association of Manufacturers of Confectionery and Chocolate allowed that the figure didn't sound "unreasonable," though he added that he had no accurate statistics available.

The latest wrinkle in the search for "extra profits," however, has been supplied by the Century Circuit, which has opened a doughnut shoppe next to one of its theatres in Brooklyn. Next thing you know, you'll be able to get anything from toothpaste to inner tubes in a movie theatre--just like in drug stores.

© 1947 The New York Times

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