John Eberson (1875 – 1954) was an american designer who was known for his cinema décors. One of his earliest, the 1923 Majestic Theatre in Houston, Texas, was a loosely recreated garden of a late-Renaissance palazzo in Italy. Through his workshop Michelangelo Studios, he was was successful at producing elaborate plasterwork for his theatre décors in Spanish, Moorish, Dutch, Chinese and other styles.
Over the course of his 50-year career, he designed over 500 theatres. He earned the moniker “Father of Atmospheric Theatre.”
John Eberson was born in Bukovina, Romania in 1875 and studied at the University of Vienna in 1893 and immigrated to the United States in 1901.
“We visualise and dream magnificent amphitheater, an Italian Garden, a Persian Court, a Spanish patio, or an Egyptian templyard, all canopied by a soft moonlight sky.”
Eberson settled in St Louis Missouri, where he learned theater design while working for the Johnston Theatrical firm. Upon gaining knowledge of all facets of theatre building he moved to Hamilton, Ohio, in 1904, where he continued his architectural practice.
The Atmospheric Theatre
While he also planned conventional theatres, he was best known for the unique concept of atmospheric design. He provided theatre audiences with a romantic fantasy escape, an outrageously diverse architectural tradition. His work took on four basic atmospheric styles: Moorish, Persian Courtyards, Italian Gardens and Egyptian Temples.
While other designers hung elaborate chandeliers Eberson created simple Mediterranean blue evening skies with wispy clouds and twinkling lights simulating stars, which brought his design costs to 25% less than other builders of the day.
The Atmospheric Theatre – the experience
An atmospheric theatre recreated the sensation of being in an exotic outdoor setting, typically a Mediterranean courtyard or garden, with an azure sky overhead. The introduction of new technology in the form of the Brenograph projector resulted in wispy clouds drifting lazily across cerulean heavens, which were actually a domed plaster ceiling resembling that of a planterium. As the film began, the illusion of a sunset began, gradually deepening to a deep velvet mauve. Twinkling lights in constellation patterns became visible as the ceiling was revealed.
Eberson’s goal was to bring the outside in. His nine “P” motto was: Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses – Please Patrons – Pay Profits.
With the 1923 opening of The Majestic in Houston, Texas, Eberson’s first atmospheric theatre came the demand for the more of the same. He built in many different parts of the United States as well as overseas. But, as quickly as the birth of the atmospheric theatre arrived, it departed. In just seven short years, with the arrival of the Great Depression came the death of the boom of Eberson’s atmospherics.
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.
Naylor, D. (1981). American picture palaces: the architecture of fantasy. Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Williams, C. M., & Froehlich, D. E. (n.d.). In Contribution and Confusion: Architecture and the Influence of other Fields of Inquiry = 2003 ACSA International Conference. https://www.acsa-arch.org/proceedings/International%20Proceedings/ACSA.Intl.2003/ACSA.Intl.2003.80.pdf.
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