The iconic American pop-culture pastime of eating popcorn while watching movies was born in Kansas City during the 1920s, according to Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America, a new book by Andrew F. Smith.
Profiled in the Oct. 4th New York Times Magazine, Smith’s book claims a Kansas City widow named Julia Braden managed to talk the Linwood Theater into letting her set up a popcorn concession stand in its lobby. Braden eventually built a popcorn empire; by 1931, she owned stands in or near four movie theaters and pulled in more than $14,400 a year—about $336,000 today. Her business grew even in the midst of the Great Depression, while thousands of grandiloquent movie houses were going bust.
According to the book, it’s impossible to establish who sold the first box of movie popcorn. For decades, vendors operated out of wagons parked near theaters, circuses and ballparks, selling a variety of snacks. But Braden seems to have been among the first to set up concessions linked to movie houses—and to pioneer a new business strategy: The money was in popcorn, not ticket sales. Today, movie theaters reap as much as 85% of their profits from concession sales.
In the 1920s, movie palaces rose up around the country like so many portals into a glamorous world. After you bought a ticket, you might pass through gilded archways and ascend a grand staircase lighted by a crystal chandelier to find your velvet seat. Eating was not meant to be part of the experience, says Smith. Theater owners feared that audiences would strew popcorn and peanuts on those crimson carpets. They hung signs discouraging people from bringing in food from vendors parked outside and didn’t sell it themselves.
“In the mid-1930s, a manager named R. J. McKenna, who ran a chain of theaters in the West, caught on to this idea,” according to the New York Times article. “An old man selling popcorn outside one of McKenna’s movie houses amassed enough money to buy a house, a farm and a store. McKenna installed a popcorn machine in the lobby and collected the proceeds—as much as $200,000 in 1938. With that kind of money rolling in, who cared about the rugs?”
McKenna lowered the price of tickets just to draw more people to his concession stand. By the 1940s, most theaters had followed suit, and soon the smell of melted butter wafted through lobbies. One entrepreneur of the era offered the following advice: “Find a good popcorn location and build a theater around it.”