Vitaphone View: How Talkies Changed Movie Snacks

How Talkies Changed Movie Snacks

It has long been recognized that the transition from silent films to talkies was truly a massive revolution, and occurred over a very short period.  In early 1926 every Hollywood film was silent.  By the end of 1929, every short and feature talked.

The revolution required studios to build soundstages and equip them with soundproofing and recording equipment. Complicated logistics were developed to press and then ship tens of thousands of soundtrack disks to theatres and then retrieve them after a film was exhibited. Studios made major changes in their star roster. And over 25,000 theatres nationwide had to pay for wiring their theatres for sound — usually for both the Vitaphone disk and Movietone sound-on-film formats — or else go out of business.

A part of this revolutionary upheaval that is often missed is how talkies changed the snacking habits of theatre patrons. That’s right, snacks!

Vintage coin operated popcorn vending machine, 1947Vintage coin operated popcorn vending machine, 1947 (Life Magazine)

During the silent era, the snacks of choice sold at theatre concessions were peanuts in the shell and hard candy. These posed no problem when there was no dialog emanating from the screen. But talking picture audiences would not tolerate the munching and shell cracking sounds, especially when the larger theatres could hold 3000 or more talkie fans.

In February of 1929, the National Theatre Supply Company introduced its Peerless popcorn and peanut (shell-less) machines. Before long, theatre concession stands installed their own popcorn machines and a new revenue stream was created.

Concession income was very important to theatres then, as it still is today. In many cases, the income derived from popcorn and candy is significantly higher than that from ticket sales (after the studio’s cut is deducted).

Vitaphone Shorts Rental AgreementVitaphone Shorts Rental Agreement

Little has been written about how much each theatre had to pay the studios in order to exhibit a film. The eventually outlawed “block booking” practice forced a theatre to buy a studio’s entire output — clunkers and all — in order to get their “specials” with top stars and assured income.  For those “specials”, the studio would extract a percentage from each ticket sold, in addition to the daily rental charge. As the accompanying photo of a Vitaphone shorts rental agreement shows, a short might rent for $5 a day. Features could cost $25/day plus a percentage of the ticket price. All the more reason that concession income was the lifeblood of most theatres.

So we can thank the dawn of sound for many things, including popcorn and the high cholesterol contributions to society from its alleged “butter”.


–Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Ron’s Vitaphone View articles here.

Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has  been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.

And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon:



This entry was posted in Posts by Ron Hutchinson, Vitaphone View. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Vitaphone View: How Talkies Changed Movie Snacks

  1. “Alleged butter”! I’ll be chuckling about that all day.

    The change in snacks makes perfect sense, but isn’t something I had considered. Fascinating history.

  2. Philip says:

    Kinda sad with prices so high but with the rewards I get I will never pass up a chance to get a free large popcorn with butter and salt.

  3. J.T. says:

    Very interesting article. Typically it has seemed that that movie theaters have had similar refreshment offerings to that of a sporting event. Obviously the options have increased over the years. If you’re eating something crunchy watching television, it can be hard for the person eating to hear.

    Having a theater full of folks crunching away or crinkling a bag would be distracting/frustrating. Imagine missing out on all of the classic quotables because the person next to you has the munchies. It also makes since why candy is in box as opposed to a bag at a theater. Not only the types of food, but the packaging could make all of the difference in the world to a fellow moviegoer’s audio experience.

  4. Pingback: A Big Thank You from CMH: “Give a Gift, Get a Gift” Holiday Contest Promotion… | Classic Movie Hub Blog

  5. David Hollingsworth says:

    I do like my snacks, but they can be pretty distracting when you’re trying to enjoy a movie. I just thought that snacks were snacks; I didn’t really the history behind them. You learn something knew everyday.

  6. Brett Doze says:

    I find it really cool to learn the origins of how popcorn became synonymous with seeing a movie. There are plenty of moviegoers today that find it flat-out wrong to not get popcorn when seeing a movie. While I often avoid concessions to save money, I always appreciate the smell and sound of popcorn machines running when I enter a theater.

  7. Thanks for this piece of history. I never really thought about the logistics of changing movie theater snacks to be more audience friendly. It would make sense. I too would be annoyed having to hear people munching on loud food.

  8. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    My daughters were limited to “opera mints” with their un-crackling wrappings at live performances when they were little. Nobody starved. And, really, the alternative choice was, “We’ll eat later”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.