A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from March 12, 2009
Popcorn at the movies

Eating popcorn at a movie theater is a popular tradition now, but popcorn wasn’t always served at the movies. Samuel M. Rubin ("Sam the Popcorn Man,” who died in 2004 at age 85) is said to have introduced popcorn to New York City movie theaters in the 1950s. New York City was late to serve popcorn at the movies; it’s more probable that Rubin was a major New York City popcorn distributor, but was not New York’s first popcorn distributor.

It’s not clear when or where the tradition of popcorn at the movies began. In a 1920s newspaper advertisement (below), people were urged to stop at a stand to buy popcorn to take to the movies. In the early 1940s, many articles were written about popcorn-eating at the movies—including two “Mind Your Manners” columns about movie theater etiquette. A 1940 column said that it was not good manners to eat popcorn at a movie!  Popcorn was originally eaten out of noisy bags, annoying other movie patrons.

Movie popcorn printed citations are lacking from the 1930s. However, because of the May 1940 and August 1940 citations (below), it appears that movie popcorn distribution began in most theaters by the late 1930s.


Wikipedia: Popcorn
Popcorn or popping corn is a type of corn, which explodes from the kernel and puffs up when heated. Corn popping was originally discovered by Native Americans, but became popular as a snack food during the United States Great Depression.
(...)
Popcorn is a popular snack at sporting events and in cinemas, where it has been served since 1912.

Encyclopedia Popcornica: Recent Popcorn History
During the Depression, popcorn at 5 or 10 cents a bag was one of the few luxuries down-and-out families could afford. While other businesses failed, the popcorn business thrived. An Oklahoma banker who went broke when his bank failed bought a popcorn machine and started a business in a small store near a theater. After a couple years, his popcorn business made enough money to buy back three of the farms he’d lost.

Popcorn Poppin’ Month: Popcorn and the Movies
The “talking picture” solidified the presence of movie theaters in the U.S. in the late 1920’s. Many theatre owners refused to sell popcorn in their theaters because they felt it was too messy. Industrious vendors set up popcorn poppers or rented storefront space next to theatres and sold popcorn to patrons on their way into the theatre. Eventually, theatre owners began installing popcorn poppers inside their theatres; those who refused to sell popcorn quickly went out of business. During the depression, 5 and 10 cent bags of popcorn were one of the few luxuries families could afford. Unlike other confections, popcorn sales increased throughout the Depression. A major reason for this increase was the introduction of popcorn into movie theatres. One businessman actually lowered the price of his theatre tickets and added a popcorn machine. He soon saw huge profits.

23 December 1920, Mitford (Iowa) Mail, pg. 3, col. 1 ad:
Popcorn, Peanuts and Candy
Sioux City—Des Moines, Daily Papers

on your way to the movies or going home, stop at my stand for your fresh popped corn, etc.
Nels Jensen’s Stand
1st door north of May’s store

11 May 1940, Iowa City (Iowa) Press-Citizen, pg. 6, col. 7:
Theater men say that popcorn has become an important part of the movie business throughout the country, some of the chain exhibitors, owning several theaters, hiring a man whose sole job is looking after the popcorn end of it, even to going into the popcorn belt and buying the corn in carload lots.

6 August 1940, Sheboygan (WI) Journal, “Mind Your Manners,” pg. 10, cols. 2-3:
2. Is it good manners to eat popcorn in a movie?
No.

30 October 1941, San Antonio (TX) Express, “Mind Your Manners,” pg. 4B, col. 3:
3. Is it good manners to rattle a paper sack in which you have candy or popcorn at a movie?
No. It is better not to eat in a movie, but if you do, try to be as quiet as possible.

24 July 1945, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Leeside” by Lee Shippey, pg. A4:
Ray A. Collins has a peeve against those movie theaters in which popcorn and candy bars are vended.

24 February 1946, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “From an Army Wife” by Mrs. Ruth Massey, section 3, pg. 15:
We’re talking about the motion picture theaters. Now there are some good pictures playing and most of them are produced for adult enjoyment. yet one finds, upon paying one’s fee and entering the darkened chambers, that little people inhabit the theater: Little people who eat popcorn and peanuts out of noisy bags and popping wrappers,...

6 July 1946, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Farmers Market...WIth Fred Beck,” pg. 2:
Of course it is almost impossible to get tickets to anything--and too much popcorn eating goes on at the movies.

6 October 1946, New York (NY) Times, “Better Than Perfect,” pg. SM34:
IN CHICAGO, a man invented a noiseless paper bag to permit movie patrons to eat popcorn silently during performances.

17 November 1946, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Standing Room Only” by Groucho Marz, pg. C16:
MANY people are living in the balconies of movie theaters. The loges are ideal for sleeping and so are most of the pictures. In the lobby, you can purchase popcorn, Sen-Sen, chocolate bars and peanuts.

20 November 1946, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “The Lighter Side” by Henry McLemore, pg. 12:
I have friends who speak just as knowingly of the popcorn at the Empire, the candy at the Cameo, and the chocolate crackers at the Bijou as world travelers used to discuss the pheasant at Hoercher’s in Berlin, the venison at Lippert’s in Prague, and the steak and kidney pie at the Colony in New York.

23 December 1946, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Popcorn and the Movies” by John H. Nash, pg. A4:
Popcorn is an American institution. So are the movies. The combination of both is the latest in public entertainment. Quite a few theaters feature in their lounge the sale of fresh popcorn.

New York (NY) Times
Samuel M. Rubin, Vendor, Dies at 85; Put Fresh Popcorn in Theaters
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: February 9, 2004
Samuel M. Rubin, who was known as “Sam the Popcorn Man” for making popcorn almost as popular in New York City movie theaters as jokes and kisses, died on Thursday. He was 85.

He died in Boynton Beach, Fla., his daughter, Karen Rubin, said.

Movies had prospered without popcorn until the Great Depression, when theater owners scrambled to make up for reduced ticket prices by turning to “audible edibles.” The appetite of moviegoers was so great that from 1934 to 1940, the nation’s annual popcorn harvest grew from 5 million to 100 million pounds.

Marty Winter, who worked for Mr. Rubin and in turn employed him over their careers of more than 60 years in the movie concession business, recalled that Mr. Rubin saw popcorn being made in Oklahoma City on a visit around 1930 and started selling it at concessions he controlled when he returned to New York.

But Mr. Rubin’s daughter and another longtime business colleague, Carl Levine, said it was not until the early 1950’s that Mr. Rubin began to sell popcorn in a major way. At the time, his company, ABC Consolidated, now part of the Ogden Corporation, had the refreshments concession for major movie chains in the New York metropolitan area, including RKO, Brandt and Loews.

Andrew F. Smith, the author of “Popped Culture: The Social History of Popcorn in America,” said New York theaters were among the last to embrace popcorn, because it had a small profit margin, popping machines were a fire hazard and the snack seemed a bit déclassé. Charles Cretors, the president of C. Cretors & Company, which has made popping machines since 1885, agreed that New York was late to the popping game and suggested that part of the reason may have been that early popping oils contained lard, which is not kosher.

Mr. Smith said that popcorn was being sold in some New York theaters by the 1940’s and that if Mr. Rubin began selling it in earnest in the early 1950’s, he “was certainly not the first.”

But Mr. Rubin was very likely the first to pop corn in machines on a widespread basis in theaters. He had begun by popping the kernels in Long Island City and trucking the result to theaters, but quickly realized that the smell of popping corn would not exactly hurt sales. Improvements in machines had lessened the fire danger.

A spokeswoman for the Popcorn Board in Chicago confirmed that ABC was a very large buyer of popcorn in the 1950’s.

Cinema Treasures
Movie Popcorn Creator Dies
posted by Patrick Crowley on February 10, 2004 am29 6:05am
BOYNTON BEACH, FL — Samuel M. Rubin, who was the first movie concession stand operator to incorporate popcorn into his product line, — and, thus, the creator of the decades-long tradition of popcorn at the movies — has died at the age of 85, according to a report on Yahoo! News.

Before concession stands, movie theaters were commonly equipped with automated vending machines. But, one day, in a pinch, a young Rubin began selling candy from the top of a broken vending machine, an early predecessor of today’s concession stand.

A few years later, on a trip to Oklahoma City, Rubin witnessed popcorn in action. When he returned to the New York City area, he began selling popcorn to audiences at various RKO, Brandt, and Loews theaters. The product caught on like wildfire, filling the coffers of popcorn suppliers and landing the concessionaire the nickname of “Sam the Popcorn Man.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (0) Comments • Thursday, March 12, 2009 • Permalink