Tuesday, September 27, 2005
A Short History of Popcorn at the Movies
Ever stop to wonder why we eat popcorn at the movies? I did some research. In the United States, popcorn was a popular snack at many entertainment venues as early as the 1890s (when street vendors would follow crowds around, pushing steam or gas-powered popcorn poppers through fairs, parks and expositions). During the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, five and 10 cent bags of popcorn were one of the few treats struggling families were able to afford. Soon, people started taking this low-cost snack with them to enjoy while going to the cinema. But it was Samuel M. Rubin who made popcorn synonymous with going to the movies. Even though popcorn became a staple snack at movie theaters during the Great Depression, Rubin was one of the first to actually sell fresh popcorn inside the theaters. He introduced the snack to New York City movie theaters after seeing it served at a theater in Oklahoma City in 1930. When he returned to New York he began selling popcorn at the concessions stands he ran at the Empire State Building, Central Park and the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. At first, movie theater owners resisted having popcorn machines in the theaters proper because of the smell and mess it made. So Rubin created a popcorn popping factory that bagged the popcorn and delivered it to moviehouses. During World War II, when sugar was rationed to send overseas to troops, it left little stateside to make candy. As a result, popcorn sales surged, and Americans ate three times as much popcorn as usual. Soon, theater owners began to appreciate the benefit of popping the corn in the theater, thinking now that the aroma would entice patrons to buy. For the next 60 years, Rubin (who would become known as "Sam, the Popcorn Man") and his partner, Marty Winter, provided concession stand refreshments (including popcorn) to many of the major movie chains in the New York metropolitan area, including RKO, Brandt and Loews. Today, to offset the cost of movie rentals (and payments to movie studios), theater chains sell gigantic buckets of popcorn (and cups of soda) at outrageous prices -- a far cry from the once affordable snack that "Sam, the Popcorn Man" popularized at moviehouses more than 75 years ago.