On Saturday at 3:00 p.m., the IU Cinema will screen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (dir. Mel Stuart, 1971) in its final CINEkids screening for the academic year. For several years now, the CINEkids International Children’s Film Series has featured a variety of kid-friendly films, from classic silents to modern favorites to new releases. The CINEkids tagline? “You’re never too young to develop a taste for foreign film.”
The history of children’s matinees is a bit more raucous than what you’ll find at our CINEkids screenings, though. In what were often called “kiddie matinees” by exhibitors, from about the 1930s through the 1960s kids flocked to their neighborhood theaters on Saturday for a block of movie programming that catered especially to them.
The Kids Go to the Movies
The idea of the kiddie matinee goes back at least as far as the 1910s and likely has roots in children’s matinees of theatrical productions in the pre-cinema era. But kiddie matinees didn’t really take off as an institutionalized phenomenon until the late-1920s, early-1930s, when a combination of the Great Depression and vertical integration (a business practice where the movie studios also owned the movie theaters where their films played) prompted a change in the cinema-going landscape.
About the Depression, historian Richard Butsch writes, “It halted the promotion of movie-going as an experience of luxury at the movie palace. In its place, price, comfort and distraction from worries became the selling point.” While not all movie theaters before 1930 were “luxury movie palaces,” it is true that in the 1930s, the movies were one of the most popular forms of recreation, especially among children. One report done during this period by British Instructional Films claimed that “more than 90 per cent” of elementary-aged children “visited the cinema at least once a week.” It was cheap and offered hours of entertainment.
At the same time, movie studios were trying out different strategies to cultivate audience loyalty, and this extended to children. Mickey Mouse clubs – which we’re now familiar with in connection with the long-running television franchise – formed in 1929 at Saturday movie matinees, where kids watched blocks of Disney animations and sometimes received door prizes. According to Butsch, “Loew’s and Warner Brothers circuits also organized children’s clubs, as did many local theater managers.”
Saturday morning and early afternoons were generally a low time for audience attendance, when theaters might have otherwise been closed, and the content of the screenings often tended to be movies that were cheaper for studios to produce and exhibitors could purchase programs economically in pre-packaged bundles. These kiddie matinees remained popular through the 1960s, even as movie theaters competed with television for kids’ attention.
Toons, Laughs, and Action
“What a bargain this was! For the astronimcal sum of twenty-five cents, you would get three to four hours of non-stop pre-pubescent entertainment…It was like a day-care run by Leonard Maltin.” – Scott Cherney in his memoir, In the Dark: A Life and Times in a Movie Theater
For some, like educator Ferrell Bolton, who advocated for children’s matinees in 1930, kiddie matinees were a good solution to the problem of kids getting exposed to inappropriate content at the movies. However, others were concerned, as Richard Butsch notes, about “the large numbers of children without adult chaperones at the movies.”
At many of these matinees, the kids were rowdy. In Tom Stempel’s book, American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, one woman reminisces: “The theatre was packed, nearly every seat filled with noisy, bratty kids eating sweets and popcorn and spilling them and sticky sodas on the floor, with hardly any adult supervision. It was a blast! We were in our element, our world, where we were king!” Multiple descriptions from the period make these matinees sound like the movie premiere scene in Ed Wood (dir. Tim Burton, 1994), with popcorn flying and youths yelling and general mayhem.
On the screen, kiddie matinee programs had a fairly set structure across the country. They frequently included a mix of cartoons, comedic live-action shorts, action-oriented serials, and a feature film. Depending on the decade, this might include Laurel & Hardy or The Three Stooges shorts, Jesse James serials (which ended on inevitable cliffhangers!), and a B-movie like The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. On top of that, theaters regularly offered prize giveaways, contests, and other novelties to get kids in the door.
Kiddie Matinees in Bloomington
Bloomington had its own kiddie matinees. In the introduction to Tom Stempel’s book, he reminisces about going to the movies when he was growing up in Bloomington in the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, two film theaters hosted kiddie matinees: the Harris Grande and the Roxy.
The Harris Grande was founded in 1907 as a vaudeville and opera house, and according to Stempel, it “was the classier of the two” theaters that offered kiddie matinees. It sat on the corner of Walnut and 7th and later became the Towne Cinema Theatre before finally closing.
The Roxy, on the other hand, dated back to 1933 and was located on North College between 6th and 7th where the Hilton now stands. Stempel says, “The Roxy was long and narrow, which caused it to go out of business after wide-screen movies appeared in the mid-fifties, simply because there was no room in the theatre for a wide screen.” The Roxy had two children’s matinee screenings every Saturday, the first of which started at 9:15am (a precursor, perhaps, to Saturday-morning cartoons).
Stempel remembers particularly liking the earlier screening, because it left plenty of time for play. He says “we could play cowboys on the way home, which took us through the central campus area of Indiana University, a wooded area of several acres that was the perfect place to play, especially cowboys.”
Wooded areas still run through campus. After the CINEkids screening, you might take your kids through the woods to play cowboys (or Willy Wonka) and be glad that they weren’t just yelling and throwing popcorn in the theater.
The series is made possible through the generous support of Brenda R. Weber and Gregory A. Waller and their CINEkids International Children’s Film Series Fund.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.