Posted by Susan Doll on October 20, 2008
I’ll bet as soon as you read the title for this post and saw the dancing box of popcorn, the tune from this famous snack-bar ad began running through your head. Expect it to stay there for a few days! I have been singing “Let’s all go to the lobby . . .” for a week, ever since I ran across an article about the making of this famous bit of Americana. I discovered that the ad was produced by a Chicago company called Filmack Studios, and puffed up with hometown pride, I decided to investigate.
“Let’s All Go to the Lobby” ( “LAGTTL” ) is probably the most famous example of a theater “snipe.” In exhibition lingo, a snipe is anything other than a trailer that plays before the feature, so commercials, cell-phone warnings, and snack-bar reminders are examples of snipes. An older definition of the term from the world of advertising and marketing refers to any additional sticker that is placed over an existing poster or announcement to add more or updated information. I love learning trade jargon for various industries, and when I found out about snipes, I was hooked on learning more about “LAGTTL.”
The exact date for the debut of this famous snipe is a mystery. Robert Mack, who currently runs Filmack, knows the trailer was being sold as early as 1957, so that date is often used as its release date. However, “LAGTTL” may have been produced as early as 1953, at least according Bijou Bob on his blog site “Matinee at the Bijou.” Irving Mack, owner of Filmack Studios, hired Dave Fleischer of Fleischer Brothers fame (Betty Boop, Popeye, Koko the Clown) to help him with “LAGTTL.” Together, Mack, Fleischer, and some of the staff animators produced the 37-second Technicolor ad, with its crowd-pleasing figures of the dancing popcorn, soda cup, candy box, and hot dog. Most forget that the ad features another image, that of a 1950s-style family selecting their goodies at the snack bar as the background singers harmonize “The sparkling drinks are just dandy . . . the chocolate bars and the candy.” The old-fashioned charm of the innocent imagery perfectly matches its simple, upbeat jingle. The animation is colorful, and the figures are rendered in a pleasant style, while the mood is joyous and lively.
Irving Mack, who had been a newspaperman, opened Filmack Studios on South Wabash in Chicago around 1919, because he realized there would be a big opportunity for advertising and promotional gimmicks before and after the showing of the main movie. He began making stock trailers and theater ads for movie theaters, with increasing success. Filmack grew to become the main distributor of snipes, trailers, and snack-bar ads. Filmack, which is still owned and operated by the Mack family on West Erie in Chicago, continues to produce rolling stock trailers, ads, and public service announcements for theater circuits, though the animation is now done on computers and the final product is produced through digital technology.
During Irving’s heyday, he sent out a colorful monthly catalogue to theater managers, which not only showcased his trailers and snipes but also offered a glimpse at Irving’s personality. The 10-to-14 page catalogue was titled Inspiration, and it was truly a memorable piece of marketing literature. Apparently, Mack liked to pepper the catalogue with corny jokes whenever there was need for filler. He even had his own column called “Mackaroons,” which featured even more jokes as well as other bits and pieces of Mack-based wisdom. An example of his down-to-earth observations still seems relevant today: “It isn’t what young girls know that bothers parents, it’s how they find out,” though what this has to do with movie exhibition is a mystery.
According to J. Theakston on his blog “The Central Theater, “LAGTTL” was a big success. It must have been, because it was used in so many theater and drive-ins across America that it has become a familiar icon of 1950s and 1960s popular culture. Singing the “LAGTTL” jingle is akin to knowing the theme song to The Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, and Batman for most baby boomers. Apparently, those singing and dancing snacks proved irresistible in luring movie-goers to the concession stand, which was a big deal for theater owners during the 1950s.
The concession stand has always meant extra money for theaters, but “LAGTTL” was produced in a period of trauma and transition for the movie industry, and theater owners became increasingly dependent on recouping money at the snack bar during that time. In the late 1940s, two major events occurred that forever changed the film industry – the Paramount Decree and television. The former is not discussed as often as the latter, but this Supreme Court decision probably had more adverse effect on the industry than the coming of television ever did. I think it is easier to talk about television and its effect on the film industry, so its impact has been exaggerated and distorted, while a court case involving monopolistic business practices is more difficult to understand and not as fun to write about. In a nutshell, the Paramount Decree forced the major studios to sell their theaters. During the Golden Age, most of the majors owned their own distribution companies as well as their own theater chains. After a lengthy court battle, the Supreme Court declared this to be monopolistic and ordered the studios to sell off their theaters. The studios lost a source of cash flow, and they immediately began to downsize and change their production strategies, while thousands of theaters across the country changed hands, making the exhibition end of the film industry vulnerable as well.
During this time, the rapid popularity of television among the public created competition for Hollywood by luring away the family audience. Like I said, the feud between film and television has been exaggerated and mythologized, but for the first few years of the 1950s, the studios did try hard to win back their dwindling audiences by adopting splashier technologies, such as widescreen, stereo sound, 3-D, and a more widespread use of color.
But, it wasn’t only the studios that were trying to win back movie fans. Exhibitors – who were now on their own after years of being controlled by the major studios – were also scrambling to entice audiences back into the theaters. Jumping into the thick of the situation were food manufacturers and distributors who promised theater owners “salvation through concessions,” a phrase I borrowed from J. Theakston that really expresses how seriously everyone was taking their snack bars. Some of the new and improved snacks that food distributors made available to theater owners suggest the desperation of the times. The Rutherford Food Corp. offered “Chili in a Cracker Cone,” which was exactly what it sounds like-thick chili served in a cone that looked like an ice-cream cone. According to Rutherford’s ad, the cone, which was salty instead of sweet, was tested for over five years before it was ready to hold the “firm, meaty chili.” I can’t imagine what the smell in the theater would be like if several patrons had hankerings for “Chili in a Cracker Cone.” Maybe it was developed with drive-ins in mind, as was “Chick-n-Basket,” a generous portion of pre-cooked fried chicken served in a decorative plastic basket. Other more reasonable snacks that were offered included milk shakes, brightly colored orange drinks, and Jujyfruits (like Jujubes except molded into the shapes of different foods, like pineapples, asparagus, and peapods). [For a thorough look at the concession gimmicks of the period, search for Theakston's article on his blog "The Central Theater."]
But, it’s not enough to offer “Chili in a Cracker Cone,” you have to lure customers to the concession stand to buy it. And, if a dancing hot dog persuaded movie-goers to pony up to the snack bar, then theater owners willingly shelled out $11.25 for “LAGTTL.” It proved to be worth every penny.
In 2000, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, alongside Apocalypse Now, Five Easy Pieces, and Little Caesar, among others. I’m sure there were many who scratched their heads at its inclusion, thinking it a quaint bit of Americana at best. But, I discovered it was more than that; this little 37-second snipe did its part to keep movie theaters in the black during a turbulent time in the industry.
It’s no surprise that Filmack still sells 35mm prints of “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” to theaters around the country – that jingle running through my head makes me want to go get a snack right now.
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