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.
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.”