Spectacle and silent film went hand in hand. This is obvious in the films of D.W. Griffith and the Fox super productions featuring Theda Bara, but that spectacle wasn’t only reserved for the screen. Theater owners decorated entrances and lobbies according to the theme of the films they were showing. Some even expanded that theme to specially dressed ushers and lobby girls.
When Thomas Ince released Civilization in 1916, Chicago’s Grand Opera House saw an opportunity to promote the film through specially dressed usher girls. The girls not only donned their costumes while in the theater, they also wore them to a movie ball held at the Sherman Hotel to promote the film and the theater. One of the girls, Gertrude Jacobs, helped coach and lead the girls with her cousin Victorine McNeill. Although the promotion itself was a successful one-off promotion, Jacobs managed to turn it into a career.
After leaving the Grand Opera House, she joined Chicago’s Colonial Theater as an usher and lobby girl. D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance had been running at the theater since November of 1916, but when the film finally closed its run in March of 1917, the theater made sure it went out with a bang. Up until closing night, the Colonial decorated its entrance and lobby to promote the run. The interior included props inspired by the four time periods covered in the film, with lobby girls dressed in period clothing and costumes used during the making of the movie. Upon entering, eager moviegoers were greeted by the lovely ushers (including Jacobs) and by harp and violin musical accompaniment drifting through the lobby. When D.W. Griffith himself visited the theater, one of the lobby girls, Helen Ketchum, reportedly made such an impression on him that he offered her a contract. Although it was reported that she accepted the offer, there’s no evidence that she ever followed him west. In fact, she remained with the Colonial for its next promotion.
Following Intolerance, the Colonial began running Joan the Woman. To promote it, the Colonial’s four lobby girls -- Ketchum, Jacobs, Frances Burton and Elizabeth Walters -- dressed in armor like Geraldine Farrar in Joan. The lobby was decorated like a luxurious marble hall, with reproductions of old world art, oil paintings of Farrar and other Joan cast members, and French and American flags. To promote enlistment and Joan the Woman, the lobby girls even took to the streets. Courtesy of an arrangement with Captain F.R. Kenney, the chief recruiting officer for the U.S. Army, the girls toured the Loop in their Joan of Arc costumes and distributed enlistment literature.
The following week, the girls donned their costumes once again, and targeted couples seeking marriage licenses. They encouraged the grooms to enlist and become “war bridegrooms” and follow Joan of Arc’s lead -- she loved a man, but loved her country better.
The Colonial Theater continued to bring spectacle to its pre-show productions. When the Selig Polyscope film The Garden of Allah opened in the fall of 1917, the entrance and lobby were once again decorated according to the theme. An illuminated cutout of a scene from the film was put on display, and Arabic music was wafted through the theater. A singer and dance in Arabic dress even took to the stage prior to the film, performing a song and kneeling as if in prayer. A camel and driver even took to the streets of Chicago to promote the film.
Although the promotions continued, the lobby girls themselves took a smaller role in them. Gertrude Jacobs continued as an usher, but Helen Ketchum, rumored to be D.W. Griffith’s newest find, never made her way to Hollywood and appears to have left the theater industry altogether.