Lobby Cards: Dealing A Pack of Great Escapes

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David Cohea

During the mid- to late-years of the ’60s—while older neighbor kids on our block were getting drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, and demonstrators were marching at Northwestern University and hippies were smoking pot on the steps of the Art Institute and free-love enthusiasts were making big bucks in the original Playboy Mansion across State Stret, while racial tensions grew on the west side of Chicago and shadows lengthened inside my own home—while all that was going on any given Saturday, I was at the matinee at the Varsity Theater in Evanston.

All of that fermenting, fomenting chaos outside the plush red lobby of the Valencia was like rumbles of summer thunderstorms, buffered, as they had always been since the 1920’s, by the gilt interior of a movie palace built for great escapes.

As much as I might have been enthralled with that afternoon’s double-bill—a cornocopeia of cornball  Disney comedies, Hammer horror and main bill second-runs— what lay ahead was always more engaging to me than whatever was up on the big screen that day. Loading up on Chicklits and soda at the massive concession stand in the Valencia lobby, my eye always strayed to the lobby cards announcing coming attractions, imagining how much better those films would surely be.

Smaller than the 22”x28” main poster sheet,—usually they were 11”x14”—lobby cards came in sets of 8 (sometimes up to 16 for the biggest-budget productions) and offered the glimpses of the best scenes . (Some might have said that was false advertising for a less-than-average movie, but who was I to quibble? I was a dumb kid.)

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Lobby cards promoting upcoming movies in the lobby of the Allenby Cinema in Toronto, 1936

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The cards were printed in brilliant (usually lurid) colors on the brightest-white stock. Artwork bordering the images were hand-tinted using emerging print processes like photogelatin and heliotype.

Big studio weight was behind the production of these lobby cards, with execs and stars involved in their production throughout. And some great illustrators were brought in for the job—Norman Rockwell and Dan Sayre Groesbeck, George Petty and Vargas, Frank Frazetta and Peter Max.

But as movie theaters began fading from the cultural landscape, the great art of lobby cards came to an end in 1985 when the National Screen Service ceased printing most posters and lobby cards. Inventory that had been stored in its warehouses got into the hands of individual collectors, and film posters and cards became quite collectible. (The highest price for a single poster if $690,000 for a copy of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis.)

If you’re a sucker for these things as I am, there are also some great online resources. Turner Classic Movies has a great lobby card collection, and I found a Tumblr site that collects them too. Many of the ones appearing on this post are from those sources.

Now we can only imagine backward, and try to sense the wonder of some sugar-jacked theater-goer sipping on a Coke and reading lobby cards while waiting for the second feature to begin …

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Filed under Hollywood, Movieland, Vintage Illustration

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