Air Conditioning Debut

It’s a little known fact that Willis Carrier invented air conditioning not to cool people but to cool factories, to reduce humidity in factories where it was preventing machines from working properly. Only later did the idea of cooling human beings catch on.

The first public place to install “refrigeration,” as it was known, was the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, a movie theater whose advertisements boasted that the new system allowed “the manufacturing of ideal weather.” Here is an eyewitness account of the summer day in 1925 when the new Rivoli Theatre showed its first movie to an audience cooled by Carrier’s invention.

“. . . Typical of show business, the opening of the Rivoli was widely advertised and its air conditioning system heralded along Broadway. Long before the doors opened, people lined up at the box office – curious about ‘cool comfort’ as offered by the managers. It was like a World Series crowd waiting for bleacher seats. They were not only curious, but skeptical-all of the women and some of the men had fans-a standard accessory of that day. 

Patrons line up to enter the
Rivoli Theater

Among the spectators was Adolph Zukor. I recall how quiet and reserved he was when he walked in and took a seat in the balcony. Zukor may have come from California, but he was there to be shown!

Final adjustments delayed us in starting up the machine, so that the doors opened before the air conditioning system was turned on. The people poured in, filled all the seats, and stood seven deep in the back of the theater. We had more than we had bargained for and were plenty worried. From the wings we watched in dismay as two thousand fans fluttered. We felt that Mr. Zukor was watching the people instead of the picture-and saw all those waving fans!

It takes time to pull down the temperature in a quickly filled theater on a hot day, and a still longer time for a packed house. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. Only a few chronic fanners persisted, but soon they, too, ceased fanning. We had stopped them ‘cold’ and breathed a great sigh of relief.

We then went into the lobby and waited for Mr. Zukor to come downstairs. When he saw us, he did not wait for us to ask his opinion. He said tersely, ‘Yes, the people are going to like it.'”

Adolph Zukor, at about the age he was when he attended the first air-conditioned movie screening in 1925

Adolph Zukor makes an appearance in my second novel, Silver Screen Murders. Now that I know about his attendance at this event, I can work it into the story for my third, which I am currently writing. It takes place in the spring of 1925, and this air conditioning event took place in the summer, so the time frame is a little off. Maybe I’ll have him talking about it, planning to attend to see how the new invention works. 

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