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The Normal Theater is seen here during its Nov. 19, 1937, grand opening. The Normal was the first movie house in the Twin Cities to open with an air conditioning system already installed. 

Air conditioning is one of those profound 20th century innovations that most of us take for granted.

Yet “refrigerated air” has utterly remade the United States. The rise of Houston, Texas, Phoenix, Ariz., and other infernal Sun Belt conurbations, for instance, would’ve been impossible without the advent of air conditioning.

Oscillating electric fans arrived in the early 20th century, and though they provided much relief they could only do so much, especially in large enclosed spaces crowded with people, such as movie houses.

In 1902, 25-year-old engineer Willis Carrier developed the first modern air conditioning system for use in a Brooklyn, N.Y., publishing house. His approach involved moving air through water-cooled coils. If Carrier’s name strikes a bell, it’s because the Carrier Engineering Corp., formed in 1915, has remained an industry leader in the manufacturing and distribution of heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

Motion pictures became popular in the 1910s, though theaters often suffered a steep downturn in ticket sales during summer’s sweltering stretches. Paper or folding fans were a necessity for summertime moviegoing, and a crowded theater in sticky weather would be in perpetual motion from the flurry of fluttering fans.

In 1925, Carrier installed an air conditioning system in the Rivoli Theater, Paramount Pictures’ showpiece on Times Square in Manhattan. The naysayers were ready to pillory Carrier and his contraption, and many in the audience brought fans. The trial run, however, was a great success, and over the next five years Carrier installed air conditioning systems in some 300 theaters in the United States.

By the 1930s, two Bloomington companies, Williams Oil-O-Matic and P.H. MaGirl Foundry and Furnace Works, manufactured air conditioning units. MaGirl, located on the 400 block of East Oakland Avenue, made commercial systems under the name National. By 1936, MaGirl claimed its National air conditioners were found in “thousands of schools, churches, theaters, factories and public buildings throughout the United States and Canada.” (The MaGirl factory is still standing and today serves as home to Peoria-based Connor Co., wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating and cooling supplies.)

Not surprisingly, the Irvin Theater, the community’s premier movie house, became the first local theater to install air conditioning. Located on the 200 block of East Jefferson Street (it’s a surface parking lot today), the Irvin opened in 1915. Billed as a “modern photo-play house,” it was the first theater in Bloomington specifically built for motion pictures. Although the theater predated air conditioning, when it opened promoters emphasized its “double fan ventilating system” with a capacity to exchange air every two minutes.

Finally, in the summer of 1934, workers put in a “mammoth refrigerating cooling plant” in the 19-year-old Irvin Theater. On Sunday, July 1, 1934, moviegoers reveled in comfy coolness for the first time, although whether anyone was there to see the main feature — the musical-mystery “Murder at the Vanities” — was another matter!

Irvin movie listings contained the tag line “Always Cool Here” with the word “cool” in a typeface of ice and snow. “Irvin” was spelled out in similarly styled snow-draped lettering.

The timing was good, as the summer of 1934 was a scorcher. There was no residential air conditioning at the time, though some well-off residents set up electric fans to blow air over fast-melting mounds of ice, a desperate if not a particularly efficient way to keep cool.

Ninety-three-year-old Joseph Fifer, the former Illinois governor who made his home on the east side of Franklin Park, was coping with the heat just fine. Fifer, reported The Pantagraph, “fitted up a combination sleeping and living room and library” in his basement, which was 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the house.

Although home air conditioning would not become widespread until the 1960s, some businesses began following the lead of movie theaters. On July 22, 1934, by way of illustration, Wahl’s Cafe in Chenoa touted the recent installation of a Williams Oil-O-Matic “air cooling plant.”

The Alton Railroad debuted air conditioned passenger service in May 1936. The installation of the equipment and conversion of the passenger cars occurred at the Alton Shops on Bloomington’s west side. By this time air conditioning was “considered standard for all first class passenger trains,” noted H.A. Harris, general car foreman at the Shops.

Opened on Nov. 19, 1937, the Normal Theater in uptown (or what used to be called downtown) Normal was the first movie theater in the Twin Cities built for sound, as the Irvin and Castle dated to the silent era and were later retrofitted for the “talkies.” Likewise, the Normal was the first local theater built with air conditioning.

P.H. MaGirl Foundry and Furnace Works manufactured and installed the air conditioning system. The Normalite newspaper declared it “among the most modern and best equipped in Illinois” with air “as perfect as modern science can make it.”

The last of the “big three” movie houses in the Twin Cities to offer air conditioning was the Castle. Located on the 200 block of East Washington Street (it’s a lively music venue today), it opened way back in January 1916. The installation of air conditioning occurred in the spring 1938 and was likely prodded by the opening of the Normal Theater late the previous year. The addition of a second air-conditioned competitor put the Castle in an untenable situation, dollar-wise.

In addition to air conditioning, the theater underwent extensive remodeling, including the relocation of the box office to the center of the lobby, new restrooms, and seats upholstered in coral plush and brown leather.

The Castle closed after the last show on April 10, and didn’t reopen until late the following month. Kroeschell Engineering Co. of Chicago (now Arlington Heights) received the contract to install the air conditioning system. The Castle staged a gala reopening on June 28, 1938, with Laurel and Hardy’s “Swiss Miss” and the long-forgotten Paramount weeper “Stolen Heaven.” 

“The crowd that went to the opening shows during the afternoon found the seats upholstered — the first time the Castle seats have been cushioned — and the temperature comfortably cool,” noted The Pantagraph. The words “air conditioned” in the requisite snow-covered lettering now appeared atop Castle advertisements.

Back in July 1934, the same month that the Irvin became Bloomington’s first air conditioned theater, Depression-era gangster John Dillinger was shot dead by federal agents in Chicago.

What does Dillinger’s demise have to do with the subject at hand? Well, he was leaving the Biograph Theater on the city’s north side when gunned down. It’s said that Dillinger bought a ticket to the Clark Gable feature “Manhattan Melodrama” in order to seek relief from the sizzling summer heat.

At the time of Dillinger’s death, the Biograph Theater marquee lured moviegoers inside with the promise of “Iced Fresh Air” that was “Cooled by Refrigeration.”

Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.

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