Big Roadshows of the ’50s and ’60s (mostly the ’60s)

When I was a child, and well into my adolescence, big, expensive movies played theatrically in a special, spectacular way that disappeared almost 50 years ago. A major motion picture would play in only one, very large theater per major city. The ticket prices were higher, but you got something out of it.

When you bought that high-priced ticket, you got a reserved seat. The films were screened in large formats, mostly 70mm. That meant better picture and sound. The projectionists knew what they were doing. You could buy a souvenir booklet in the lobby. The movie started with an overture – no picture, just music. At some point around the middle of the movie, there was an intermission, which was followed by another musical interlude. After the last fadeout, there was more music as you left the theater. Roadshow films tended to be long. The shorter ones ran about two and a half hours. A few came in over four hours.

Advertising a big road show

There’s something regal and special about showing a film that way. It’s like going to a live stage play. The best roadshow movies might stay in that one theater per city for more than a year. Of course, many roadshow movies were bloated, overdone, and boring. Those ones didn’t last as long.

After the exclusive engagement, a movie would get a second run at regular theaters at “popular prices.” The movies would often be shortened through the months or years it played, resulting in many official runtimes. While researching this article, I discovered three runtimes for Cleopatra: 251 minutes (, 243 minutes (Wikipedia), and 192 (IMDb).

I consider Cleopatra the ultimate roadshow movie, not because it’s exceptionally good (it’s kind of mediocre), but because it’s more roadshow than any other roadshow. These movies tended to be expensive to make, and Cleopatra was the most expensive movie of the decade. It was longer than any other film of that time. It featured three major stars, huge, spectacular sets, and dancing girls. People waited years to see it. And it was a historical, sword-and-sandal epic – a common genre for roadshows.

Elizabeth Tayler as Cleopatra

The best ’60s roadshow epic of the period was Lawrence of Arabia (no swords or sandals here). One of my all-time favorites, it uses huge vistas, crowds of extras, and a long runtime to tell a great story and to study a fascinating character. Some of the best roadshow historical epics of the time include Spartacus, Dr. Zhivago, Patton, and Ben-Hur.

The worst included Nicholas and Alexandra, Hawaii (which I loved as a teenager), Khartoum, El Cid, and the worst of the worst, The Greatest Story Ever Told (which would be more accurately named The Most Boring Movie Ever Made.) You may notice that Charlton Heston was in several of these.

Lawrence of Arabia

Another popular roadshow genre of the time was musicals – especially adaptations of Broadway shows. Of the ten Best Picture winners of the 1960s, four (almost half) were roadshow adaptations of Broadway musicals: West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! None of these is a masterpiece (although West Side Story comes close). The Sound of Music is still loved by many, but I find it as dull as Wonder Bread. I loved The Music Man when I was a kid, and still like it.

Of course, there were musical stinkers. Of any list of famous flops, you must include Doctor Doolittle – the version starring Rex Harrison. Unlike most of the big music movies of the decade, it was not based on a stage play. It’s unbelievably awful.

And then there were the big, bloated comedies. These included Around the World in 80 Days, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Great Race, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. I loved all of them when I was a kid. I revisited all but Magnificent Men in recent years, and while I enjoyed most of them (Mad World was the exception), I was not overwhelmed.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

There were at least three roadshow westerns in the 60s. How the West was Won was the last film shot in three-strip Cinerama – the large format system that started the big screen roadshow era. If you ever get a chance to see West was Won in Cinerama (unlikely; only three theaters in the world can run the format), you’ll have a good time. Otherwise, the movie’s not worth watching. John Ford’s final western, Cheyenne Autumn, is a disappointment. I’ve never seen the only roadshow western comedy, The Hallelujah Trail.

The strangest of all the roadshows was one of the best, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s science fiction – a genre associated then with low-budget, puerile matinee fodder. But it was like nothing else. It has no conventional plot. The ending leaves you wondering what the hell you just saw. And yet, it was a big commercial hit and is unquestionably a masterpiece.

2001: A Space Odyssey

By the late ’60s and early 70s, baby boomers (the main ticket buyers) wanted edgy films. Hollywood, smelling a trend that happily didn’t require big budgets, moved away from long and expensive movies. Then The Godfather proved that people would sit for a three-hour movie without an intermission.

As far as I can tell, Fiddler on the Roof was the last true roadshow. It’s appropriate, since it is both an adaptation of a Broadway musical and a historical epic. After that, very few new films had intermissions – Barry Lyndon, Gandhi, The Hateful Eight, and probably a few others. But they didn’t have reserved seats, one theater per city, overtures (except Hateful Eight), or any of the other things that made the roadshow experience special.

Fiddler on the Roof was the last of a tradition

2 thoughts on “Big Roadshows of the ’50s and ’60s (mostly the ’60s)

  1. Thanks for the memories, Lincoln. I remember some of those roadshow films. Attending them was an event. You dressed up a little for them, and looked forward to the experience.
    -And, 2001 was an oddity, in many ways. The film makers may have been unaware of their potential audience, but the distributors certainly were. When I first saw it, in LA, it was considered de rigueur to see it stoned, preferably on psychedelics. This meant that the house staff was, I’m sure, briefed on how to handle people who might be having trouble finding their way to and from their seats. I’m sure the concessions bar did a land office business during the show, for those who could find their way to the lobby. And, of course, everyone was waiting for the psychedelic “light show” at the end. Good memories!

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