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Since I was a little boy, whenever my family would take me to the movies, we would arrive at the theater at least 10 minutes before showtime. This way, we could all run to the bathroom, get our seats, and most importantly, wait in the ever-expanding concession stand line to buy some popcorn and still have time to catch all of the previews. The bucket of popcorn never lasted past the previews and as the designated trailer time expanded, so did the number of refills on the bucket. As I got older, and lost access to my parent’s credit cards, every time I went to the theater, I would promise myself that this time, I would pass on the popcorn. Yet, upon entering the theater lobby and smelling that salted-buttery goodness, it was impossible to ignore the seemingly perfect movie treat. Throw in a Blue Raspberry ICEE (or Cherry if I’m feeling adventurous) and potentially a box of Mike & Ike’s,  and I have everything I need. It’s hard to imagine a movie theater without popcorn or candy-filled concession stands. If it weren’t for some crafty street vendors and persistent movie-goers, however, our movie theatre experience may have been quite different.

Way back during the beginning of the movie theater era, cinemas aspired to be classy establishments, extensions of the regular theaters which already existed. Snacks like popcorn didn’t fit this mold. They had strong scents, made lots of noise when eating, and ruined the beautiful carpets and rugs that covered the theater floors. Movie theaters actually banned popcorn and other messy snacks during this time, hoping to maintain their status as high-class establishments.

At the same time, the popularity of popcorn was on the rise. In 1885, Charles Cretor created the first steam-powered popcorn maker.  This invention allowed popcorn to be mass-produced on the streets. Vendors roamed around making popcorn in their mobile machines, tempting people with its strong smell and loud popping sounds. Similar to Nuts 4 Nuts today, popcorn was just too enticing for people to pass up.

In 1927, with the addition of sound, the movie industry completely changed. No longer did people have to be literate to enjoy a movie, greatly expanding the number of moviegoers every year. Theaters began to lose their status as luxury establishments and instead became the affordable night out for the masses. By the time the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, going to the movies was more popular than ever. At the same time, people wanted something to snack on while watching the film. With money being tight, popcorn was the perfect compliment to the movies. It was cheap, widely available, and just small enough to hide in their coats while entering the theaters.

Initially the cinemas themselves were skeptical of the increased popularity of popcorn at the theaters. Although no longer considered a luxury, theaters still wanted to maintain some of their high-class status. While theaters were not ready to take advantage of the snack, street vendors saw a great opportunity to make money. Vendors would sell to moviegoers as they entered the cinemas. Popcorn became so popular that theaters literally hung signs in their lobbies, telling people to leave the popcorn in the coat rack.

Eventually theaters gave in, seeing a potential to greatly increase profits. Although lacking the proper accommodations needed to make popcorn themselves (there was limited ventilation), they began to allow street vendors into the lobby or in front of the theater for a fee. In the mid-1930s, cinemas finally realized that they could just get rid of the middleman and make the popcorn themselves.

Not every theater was willing to adapt, however. Some misguided theaters believed they could still profit without selling snacks. Those that refused to adapt saw major declines in profit while theaters that added concession stands were making more money than ever. By the end of the 1930s, most cinemas had either adapted or were forced to close down.

By 1945, over half of all popcorn consumed in America was at a movie theater. Although it has had its ups and downs, this trend hasn’t changed too much since then. In ensuing years, more and more items were added to the concession stands including drinks and candy. As more items were included, the prices got higher and higher. Today,  movie theaters make an estimated 46 percent of their overall profit from concession sales.

For better or for worse (definitely for better!) popcorn and concessions in general have become synonymous with the movie -going experience. Even as the prices increase, there is still nothing that beats freshly-popped buttered popcorn while enjoying the newest flicks at the theatre.

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