Some traditions may seem to have been around forever, but they had to be new at some point. So it was with movie popcorn.

In its July 25,1949 issue, LIFE ran a story headlined Popcorn Bonanza. The story declared, “The single greatest attraction at any U.S. movie theater last week was not Clark Gable, Jane Russell or even Danny Kaye. It was popcorn.” The story included several pages of photos that proved their buttery point.

In the earliest days of cinema, movie theaters owners shied away from selling popcorn, hoping that movie theaters would be as tony as their stage show forebears. But as the Great Depression hit and the movie business got tougher, selling snacks became a means of survival, with popcorn proving to be an inexpensive and popular treat. The theaters that survived the tough economic times were the ones who had room to install popcorn machines.

Popcorn’s place as the king of movie snacks was cemented during World War II, when sugar became scarce and salty snacks took over the counter.

The 1949 LIFE story drove home just how important popcorn was to the movie business, saying “Fans are eating movie exhibitors out of the red.” LIFE’s photographers paid due respect to all the concessions that movie theaters had to offer. But the story made clear that popcorn and movies were the winning combo. Part of the story was shot in Fresno, California, during a screening of Canadian Pacific, a Western featuring Randolph Scott, one of the stalwart stars of the genre. No one in the LIFE story used the modern coinage “popcorn movie,” but one theater owner gave voice to the idea by saying that he had started choosing movies based on which ones would draw the most popcorn eaters. “By this new ratings, Abbott and Costello are the champs,” LIFE said. “Their comedies sell more popcorn than anybody.”

You can practically hear The Age of Ultron taking shape.

Sonny Frost and his friends in Fresno shoved popcorn into their mouths while keeping their eyes on the screen during the movie “Canadian Pacific”.

Photo by J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

This movie fan readied to watch a Western at a Fresno, Calif. movie theater, 1949.

J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Sonny Frost didn’t wait to get to his seat to start eating his popcorn in Fresno, Calif., 1949.

J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Movie goers hit the snack counter at a Dallas theater, 1949.

Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Fun at the movie snack bar in Fresno, California, 1949.

J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

The snack bar at a Dallas theater, 1949.

Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

The snack bar at a Dallas movie theater, 1949.

Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

The snack bar at a Dallas movie theater, 1949.

Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

A movie theater in Fresno, Calif., 1949.

J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

The movie popcorn phenomenon, 1949.

Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

An attendant added salt to the movie popcorn, 1949.

J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Movie popcorn as it became the standard theater snack, 1949.

Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Patrons enjoyed the western movie “Canadian Pacific” in Fresno, Calif., 1949.

J.R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

The snack surge left this custodian with plenty to clean after a Saturday show in Muncie, Ind., 1949.

Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Walter St. Clair, a popcorn producer who supplied many theaters, ate his own salty treats from five gallon can while reading in his Indianapolis home, 1949.

Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

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