The Making of Signs and Posters for Moving Picture Theaters in 1909

Gem Moving Picture Theatre, 1909
Gem Moving Picture Theatre, 1909 from Whitby Online Historic Photographs Collection

Advertising has become so general that it is needless to dwell upon the necessity of publicity in any line of business. But while all agree in this estimate of its value, few know how to apply it to their particular requirements.

Take, for example, moving pictures – a form of amusement that has earned the applause, respect and support of the general public. The strides this industry has made within the past few years have astonished the pleasure-loving world. It is not my purpose to go into discussion or history of the business. We know that the moving picture theater is here to stay, and it is up to the manager to attract the public to his house.

As the demand for this class of entertainment has grown, so has the supply of theaters increased. Competition has become so strong that the manager must be  constantly on the qui vive in order to keep the public interested. Here is where the man with ideas, originality, push, energy and a knowledge of advertising forges the front.

From time to time I may offer suggestions in this column on the general methods of advertising a moving picture theater. But what I wish to impress upon the moving picture theater owner now, is the necessity of a good front and artistic signs and posters. This is the most essential part of the theater.

With the exception of a few of the larger theaters in every town, which have secured the services of professional letterers, the front of the average nickelodeon resembles a meat market or cheap grocery store.

I have also discovered, through personal investigations, that the inferiority of the signs is not due to a deficiency of competent sign writers, but rather to the desire on the part of the exhibitor to save a few dollars each week.

Mr. Exhibitor, stop and think a moment. Your house may be beautifully decorated, your programme well selected, your help courteous, everything may be run in shipshape style, but it will avail you nothing if the public is not properly apprised of what is going on inside. You have to get the people inside by your exterior.

During the past ten years or so I have been obliged so often to answer that idiotic and silly argument, “Oh, any old sign will do, as long as the people can read it,” that I will not offend you by insinuating that it is necessary to answer the argument here.

Take a walk through your streets and observe the signs of any moving picture theater. The color schemes are usually incongruous, the lettering amateurish and in many cases almost illegible.

If any kind of signs will do, why do the larger houses hire permanent sign writers by the week when some porter or usher could scrawl the announcements? If a small house can save two or three dollars a week on signs, a larger concern of, say, ten times the size, can naturally save twenty or thirty dollars per week by using cheap signs. This is plain arithmetic. But the answer is simple. As soon as a man’s interests increase, his scope broadens in the same ratio.

In emulating the methods of successful business men, do not neglect the minutest detail. The public appreciates art. The first impression the passer-by receives is from the signs. They should be clear, neat and artistic, but devoid of  “ginger-bread,” so that he who runs may read. The main thing to remember is, that the general effect is what counts.

If you cannot afford to hire a good letterer permanently, make some agreement with the best sign painter in your locality, whose reputation for artistic workmanship is without question. Arrange to have him do your work for a certain specified sum, and if he is fair minded and anxious to please, you will be the gainer. Don’t haggle over a few dollars. Make it interesting for him to use his brains as well as his paints and brushes.

Above all take an interest in the work yourself and remember that a cheap man in any capacity is always the most expensive in the end.

William I. Sackheim (The Moving Picture World, May 22, 1909)