the cost of going to the movies back then and right now

A WHILE AGO, I responded to a post on my Facebook thread about going the movies these days, including the price of tickets and concessions, excessive sound systems, rude viewers, etc. I am now a senior, so the price of tickets seem too high, and I haven’t shelled out a cent for obscenely overpriced candy, popcorn, and soft-drinks in decades! But I remember “back then,” when I was a kid and things were a lot different.

In the ’60s, my mother would give us a quarter each and drop us off at the movies at 10:30AM and not have to worry about us until dinner time seven hours later!

I remember going to theaters in Pennsylvania when I was kid; they were old venues, built back in the ’30s. They had class (sorely lacking in the giant cinaplexes) and the seats were more comfortable. Our favorites were the Forty Fort Theater in Forty Fort and the Roosevelt in Swoyersville.

We occasionally hit the places in Luzerne and Wyoming but Mom considered Pittston or to the Hart and Shawnee theaters in Wilkes-Barre to be too long a drive to leave her kids. 1

My mother used to drop me and my brother Charlie and our best friend Donnie Flynn off at one of many of these old theaters at 11:00 AM every Saturday morning.

She gave us each a quarter (that’s all folks, a mere 25¢) and then she went back home, knowing she had the rest of the day to herself.

Back in the early ’60s, those theaters charged 15¢ for admission to their Saturday matinees. What could we possibly do with the remaining 10¢? Boxes of candy—and they were relatively BIG boxes—such as Black Crows, Milk Duds, Junior Mints, Jujubes, Dots, and the filling-remover, Bonomo Turkish Taffy were 5¢ each.

The 15¢ admission was a reflection of better times and quickly jumped up to 25¢, although the cost of candy remained reasonably stable until 1968 or so. This still meant that Mom had to fork over a couple of extra dimes each week!

Back Then: poster for the 1956 movie EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS.

The movies we watched back then

These matinees usually included two feature-length films: the main features played first and third, sandwiching the second-billed movie. The main feature might have been an ‘old’ Jerry Lewis or Elvis movie, while the B-movie could have been just about anything.

Immensely popular was double-bills of old science fiction movies (almost all from the ’50s because they really didn’t make to many sf movies in the ’30s and ’40s), and monster movies. With the latter, it was not possible to show classic titles from the Golden Age of Monster Movies, the 1930s. We watched Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and Lon Cheney over and over.

The Hammer horror movies that came out of England in the ’50s were also big, as they were more ‘realistic.’ So it was that we got to know Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. In the States, Roger Corman and American International Pictures made Vincent Price a household name—at least to we kids

Female actresses had very little to do with these genres: in monster and horror movies they were almost always the victim of the monster/ In science fiction, they were either the victim or the girlfriend of the hero who saves Earth from the alien things.

Back Then: poster for the 1958 movie THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

The extras we watched back then

Each double-feature opened and closed with cartoons, mostly classic Warner Brothers shorts by such great directors as Fred “Tex” Avery, Bob Clampett, Fritz Freleng, and Chuck Jones.

There were also tons of trailers for movies that would be appearing in the future. They would come on the screen in the order in which they would be coming to the theater, from “Coming soon” (next week?) to simply “Coming” (next month? this year?).

To fill in the time—and most of us kids stayed until dinner time, which was often 6:00 PM, so there was seven hours of screen time—many of these theaters showed old serials (notably Buck Rogers with Buster Crabbe) and even old Movietone News newsreels (I don’t know how many times I watched Germany invade Poland).

Back Then: poster for the 1961 movie THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.

Going to the movies today

With other things going, so is my hearing. But I still find myself the today’s movie soundtracks and the theater sound systems to be unnecessarily loud! Who has not been to a cinaplex and heard movies so loud that they bleed through the walls from the theater next door?

As for ticket prices: some people make the argument that they haven’t gone up when adjusted for real-life inflation. Agreed, but that does not take into account the fact that wages for real-life workers have not followed that line of inflation. That is, workers may be paid more now than they were then, but due to inflation, it buys them less now than it did then.

In the early ’70s, I could take a girl to the movies, stop at a bar for a couple of drinks, and tip the bartender for less than $10!

In the early ’70s, I could take a girl on a date that included going to the movies and having popcorn, stopping at a bar afterwards for a couple of drinks (that’s two well drinks for each of us), and tip the bartender all for less than $10! That was five hours of work at minimum wage minus taxes.

Such a date today would cost approximately $60-80 (prices vary from state to state and region to region), or the equivalent of at least ten hours of work at minimum wage minus taxes. Like almost everything else that affects our daily lives—except computers, of course—almost everything has inflated at a much greater rate then what most of us are paid for our jobs. 2

Back Then: poster for 1963 movie THE NUTTY PROFESSOR.

Going to a matinee today

Fortunately, there are still matinee movies available throughout the United States. According to the Regal Cinemas website, ticket prices for matinees are:

Children: $10.00-13.00
Adults: $11.50-13.00
Seniors: $10.00-13.00

You want to do the math on the inflation? Using the 25¢ admission that we paid during most of the ’60s and the minimum $10 price today, that would be a 4,000% increase over five decades.

And you don’t get the cartoons or Buster Crabbe or Hitler sending Europe reeling into war . . .

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of the lobby of the Paramount Theater before the Susquehanna River added fourteen feet of water to downtown Wilkes-Barre in June 1972. This was what it was like to walk into many of the bigger, better movie houses in the day. It might be 100 feet from the huge glass doors to the concession stand.

As you walked into the theater and through the lobby, the walls on both sides usually had one-sheet posters of previous hit movies or upcoming titles. Palaces such as this often had a downstairs where the restrooms were located, and there were chairs to sit an enjoy a cigarette during intermission.


1   While most off these buildings survived the Great Flood of Ought-72 and are still standing, I’m not certain if any of them are movie houses anymore. Our beloved Forty Forth Theater is now home to several offices.

2   My friend Brian volunteered this observation that reinforces my basic argument regarding inflation and ticket prices:

“In 1965, my neighbor bought a new Corvette convertible right off the showroom floor. He was in his early thirties, single, making about $10,000 a year as a public school teacher, and preparing to start his career at the about-to-open Bellevue Community College. The car cost $3,200, or 32% of his yearly salary.

In 2013, the cheapest new 2014 Corvette convertible you can buy right off the showroom floor starts at $56,000—and that’s before any options are added. So to make the equation similar, an early-career teacher (less than ten years on the job) would have to be making more than $175,000 a year for the same ratio to apply.

I’ll save you the suspense—no public school teacher anywhere is making that kind of salary no matter how long they’ve been on the job.”