Behind the Scenes: The Roadshow Conundrum

Widescreen – Cinemascope, Vistavision et al – had brought audiences back to the cinema in the 1950s so the next decade, with box office cratering, Hollywood doubled down on an even bigger concept, big-budget 70mm extravaganzas, sometimes with the added benefit of Cinerama, to be shown in separate performances (two shows a day rather than four or five) which challenged the prevalent continuous performance system of exhibition.

From an academic perspective the project appeared – with minor hiccups – a major success as Ben Hur (1959) gave way to West Side Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962)and from there to the solid gold box office of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago (both 1965). But there were obstacles to overcome.

Firstly, you needed the cinemas. The U.S. had little problem filling that need, exhibition was going through an explosion on a scale unseen since 1950. From 1961 work began on building 170 cinemas and 72 drive-ins and the rate of construction would scarcely abate for the rest of the decade, allowing plenty room for houses to decide to pitch their tent as roadshow cinemas. It was the oppsite situation in the United Kingdom, with hardly any cinemas beng planned. most of what were termed new cinemas little more than the converation of a giant cinema into two or three more screens. In Glasgow, for example, the Coliseum which revamped in a 70mm Cinerama house was nothing more than a redeployment of an existing cinema while the ABC2 towards the end of the decad was built by splitting the existing ABC Regal. In Britain roadshow capacity was constrained compared to the American experience.

Secondly, cinemas had to install the expensive 70mm projection equipment, though the prospect of increased ticket prices generally softened the blow of that outlay.

Thirdly, And then studios had to find enough cinemas willing to fall in with their concept and agree to hand over their houses for the long runs deemed essential to the success of these movie behemoths, often clocking in around the three-hour mark.

Follow the release of the roadshows in the world’s biggest cities like New York, London, Paris and Tokyo and you will find there was no shortage of cinemas willing to accommodate the grand plan. But go further afield, beyond areas where academics and historians usually pitch their tents, and you will find a different story.

Until recently, I had been one of the historians who accepted the notion that roadshow fitted seamlessly into the exhibition business, that 70mm pictures ran for months – if not years – at a time in countless venues worldwide. But when I started to examine the roadshow from the perspective of my home town of Glasgow, in Scotland –  the country’s biggest city and outside of London the one with the biggest appetite for movies – I found a different story. And I wonder if that experience was replicated all over the world rather than the previously accepted model.

At the start of the 1960s Glasgow – whose ten first run cinemas lay along two intersecting streets – boasted just one roadshow house, the Gaumont, which currently, and for the previous 18 months, had been showing South Pacific (1958). The Gaumont only scheduled nine shows a week, one per evening plus matinees on three days, rather than the 12 or 15 shows a week more likely in New York or London. One of the roadshow’s big selling points – films playing until demand ceased – was also its Achilles heel. A movie that performed as well as expected could not be shifted. So there was no room at the cinematic inn for the flurry of roadshows headed Glasgow’s way. There was going to be an unavoidable queue unless distributors did the unthinkable and skipped roadshow in favour of general release.

The situation wasn’t helped by the British deciding that movies not made with roadshow in mind such as The Nun’s Story (1959) should be given the separate performance increased price treatment.

For a time in Glasgow the ABC Regal in Sauchiehall St – along with the Odeon in Renfield St the city’s most dominant picture house – offered temporary relief. In fact it had already stepped into the breach for The Nun’s Story. But since the Regal was the jewel in the crown of the ABC chain’s distribution network in the West of Scotland that caused further release issues. Independent arthouse the Cosmo was also willing to step up to the plate, hosting the two-year-old Gigi (1958).

But it wasn’t until September 19, 1960, that Ben-Hur (1959), considered the hottest picture on the planet, was given an opening at the Regal. That was good news and bad news. It ran for nine months which was great for the Regal but it caused a massive backlog in the ABC circuit which had to offload top product to rival cinemas. The Regal was clearly so crucial to the ABC operation that it didn’t dip its toes into roadshow waters for another year, for King of Kings (1961), but at Xmas rather than Easter which possibly accounted for its poor performance – only five weeks of a run. Before the ABC Coliseum reopened as a roadshow/Cinerama venue in September 1963 with MGM’s How the West Was Won (1962) – almost a year after its London opening – the only roadshow given screen-time at the Regal was Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) which ran for six weeks.

But with the Regal refusing to play ball most of the time, what happened to the rest of the industry’s roadshow releases? The Gaumont took what it could – Lawrence of Arabia (26 weeks), The Longest Day (23), Can-Can (18), Spartacus (15), West Side Story (14), The Alamo (13) and El Cid (13) the standouts, playing for a “season” or more. Exodus and Judgement at Nuremberg were poorly received, just three and two weeks respectively.

And that was the final flaw in the Hollywood grand notion. When these big roadshow movies hit a box office brick wall, the cinemas primed to receive the product had to find other movies to prop up the system. The idea of being just an occasional source for roadshow might work for the likes of the ABC Regal, but provided an unnecessary complication for the Gaumont, the city’s de facto roadshow house. It was helped out by movies made in 70mm  that American distributors quickly shuffled into general release such as Barabbas, which ran in Glasgow for seven weeks at the Gaumont.

To plug holes left by lack of audience interest in the likes of Exodus or Judgement at Nuremberg, the Gaumont simply improvised. Solomon and Sheba was not made with roadshow in mind but with big stars in Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida, a Biblical setting and healthy running time, it was deemed worthy of roadshow, running for nine weeks.

A less obvious contender for roadshow was The Guns of Navarone, but the excellent cast and British tub-thumping turned it into a contender and it ran for a quite astonishing 21 weeks, especially as that included more performances than usual, a matinee every day rather than three allocated days.

The appearance of Psycho at the Gaumont was a clever trick. Alfred Hitchcock had determined that the film, to maintain its shock value  and for the publicity value of such a move, must be shown out of the standard continuous performance system. To fulfil that obligation it ran as a separate performance number and at the only cinema in town known for regularly taking that exhibition route, so less of a shock to the public, but with three performances a day to meet demand. That as another nine weeks eaten up.

For the rest of the time, when the roadshow well was dry or failed to hit box office targets, Gaumont simply turned general releases into roadshow, 35mm and all. Song without End starring Dirk Bogarde ran for four weeks, Tunes of Glory with Alec Guinness and John Mills locking horns.  Some pictures, deemed too weak for roadshow, like Cimarron, Pepe and Gypsy were simply chucked into general release in Glasgow.

Once the production of roadshows hit its stride in the mid-60s, with both the Gaumont and Coliseum in play, most of the 70mm features found a home, the Regal called in occasionally to help out (as with My Fair Lady and Cheyenne Autumn)  although the British predilection for blowing up 35mm movies given a general release in the U.S. to fit the 70mm roadshow format (The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare the most notable) meant demand always outstripped supply.

The roadshow business also served to highlight differences between cities. The length of time a roadshow picture ran was never consistent and some of the difference were quite marked, a film that was a huge success in one city not quite as sterling a performer in another.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

5 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: The Roadshow Conundrum”

  1. I’ve really been enjoying your articles about the roadshow and widescreen era. What a fascinating time it must have been. I grew up just a few years too late to have any memories of this period and while the small Michigan city I lived in did have a lot of movie theaters and even one fair sized movie palace I doubt that any of them would have taken part in roadshow exhibitions. I do remember one theater with a massive curved screen and 70 mm projector where I saw “2001: a Space Odyssey” when it was rereleased in 1974 and that left an indelible impression on me. I’d love to see more of these pieces and appreciate the research you are putting into these stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve been tracking all the roadshow showings in my home town of Glasgow and they have come into view in other books I’ve written. If you are interested in the subject Kim R. Holston is your man – check out his book “Movie Roadshows.”


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