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How to Sell a Prison Movie in 1930s Chicago

A suburban Chicago movie theater takes movie marketing to a realistic and unnerving level

The Big House, Wikimedia Commons.

Picture it. It's 1930, and you have just purchased your 25-cent ticket to MGM’s prison drama The Big House, now playing at Aurora’s brand-new Tivoli Theatre.


You walk into the clean, lavish lobby and are greeted with ⁣⁣

  • two sawed-off shotguns⁣

  • two riot guns⁣

  • a convict suit⁣

  • a straight jacket⁣

  • a warden’s uniform ⁣

Movie poster
IMDb.com

But wait, there’s more! ⁣ Behind these terrifying items sit images from the movie you’re about to see, all of which are surrounded by makeshift prison bars and highlighted with an eerie green spotlight.


Yikes.⁣ In its September 1930 issue, Exhibitors Herald World reports that the Tivoli’s manager, Edwin Lewis, asked the warden of Old Joliet Prison if he could borrow the above equipment “to exploit in an effective way” MGM’s new moving picture The Big House. The warden obliged, and in return for “the courtesy,” he and some buddies scored free tickets to the movie. ⁣


Movie theater
Tivoli in Aurora, IL, cinematreasures.org.

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