The Multiplex is Born

Stanley H. Durwood
Stanley H. Durwood
The Midland Theater
The Midland Theater

On July 12, 1963, Stanley H. Durwood opened what is widely believed to be the first movie theater designed specifically as a twin multiplex. Located in the Ward Parkway Shopping Center of Kansas City, Missouri, Durwood's Parkway Theatres set a trend that eventually dominated America's movie house industry. Durwood himself went on to become one of the most prominent and award-winning entrepreneurs in the movie theater business.

Stanley Durwood was born in Kansas City on August 5, 1920. In that same year, his father, Edward Dubinsky, and uncles Maurice and Barney Dubinsky purchased the Regent Theater, which was one of the early movie houses in Kansas City. Starting in 1906, the three Dubinsky brothers had previously traveled the Midwest as melodrama performers in a tent show. They decided to settle down in Kansas City and changed their last names to Durwood. Their business, Durwood Theatres, thrived. After 12 years, it encompassed 40 theaters in Kansas and Missouri, making it one of the largest businesses of its kind in the Midwest.

Stanley therefore grew up with close ties to the movie industry, but he did not formally join the company until 1945. He attended Harvard before serving as a navigator for the Army Air Forces during World War II. After the war, he joined the business that his father and uncles had started. When his father died in 1960, Durwood assumed control of the company and experimented further. By then, Durwood had already begun to consider the concept of a multiplex theater concept, in which multiple screens could be housed in one movie theater, giving customers an option of what to view and ensuring increased ticket sales for each venue.

The need for the multiplex became apparent to Durwood in the 1950s, at a time when home televisions had begun to reduce the attendance at movie theaters, making it costly to operate the large movie houses then in existence. One of these was the Roxy Theater in downtown Kansas City, with a seating capacity of 600. Attendance was so low at times that Durwood had to close off the balcony so that they wouldn't have to pay an usher. In an interview for Variety magazine in 1998, he recalled; "I thought, 'If we could just run another so-so picture up in the balcony, we'd double our gross."

Even after this revelation, it took some time for Durwood to fully flesh out the concept of the multiplex. When trying to build another traditional theater in the Ward Parkway Shopping Center, Durwood discovered that the building's structure could not accommodate one large screen. Instead of building a traditional theater, then, Durwood opened the first twin multiplex specifically designed as such on July 12, 1963. The Parkway Twin, as it was called, opened with both screens showing "The Great Escape." Eventually Durwood displayed two different movies on the screens, so that the same facility could attract more customers in total. The theater remained in operation until it closed in 1978.

The new concept worked so well that Durwood realized he might soon have additional competition on his hands. "I figured I had about five years to run with the ball before the big guys would overtake me," he later said. Durwood aggressively expanded his company and continued innovating. He opened a four-plex in 1966 and a six-plex in 1969. Over time the concept expanded to multiplexes of more than two dozen screens in some cities. In 1968, he linked his company name with the multiplex by renaming Durwood Theatres to American Multi-Cinema. Later, the name changed to AMC Entertainment.

Durwood's accomplishments would have been memorable enough had he stopped with the multiplex, but he and his company continued to innovate over the next three decades. He is widely credited with installing the first arm-rest cup holders in his theaters. This, along with more comfortable seating, encouraged more customers to leave their homes and come to the movies. Less successful was his attempt to deliver popcorn to moviegoers in their seats, similar to hot dog delivery at baseball games. Instead of increasing customer convenience, the deliveries distracted viewers and did not pan out. In the mid-1990s, AMC Entertainment introduced stadium-style seating, an arrangement that increases the audience's viewing angles. This is now a widespread seating configuration of multiplexes. Today, AMC Entertainment, with 378 theaters and more than 5,000 screens, is the second largest movie theater chain in North America, behind the Regal Entertainment Group.

Stanley H. Durwood died at the age of 78 on July 14, 1999 in his Kansas City, Missouri home. Even beyond his accomplishments with AMC Entertainment, Durwood contributed to the vitality of Kansas City. Long concerned over the decline of urban centers, Durwood had emerged by the time of his death as one of the leading supporters of Kansas City's Power and Light District, a development project which would add shopping, restaurants and residential apartments, AMC movie screens, and other entertainment to downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Immediately after Durwood's death, the future of the project, without its lead proponent, was unclear. Nonetheless, development of the Power and Light District began six years later. It has since become one of the largest urban revitalization projects in the Midwest. Today the district features the AMC Mainstreet Theater, the first all-digital theater in the United States, which is housed in a historic vaudeville and movie house. For members of the film exhibition industry, Stanley Durwood's life was perhaps best summarized by Tom Sherak, then the chairman of 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group: "He was an icon to those of us growing up in the business. To us he was a legend, and his legend will not stop."

 

Learn about the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault at the Kansas City Public Library, funded by the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation. The facility is modeled after a mid-twentieth century movie theater and is located in an old vault in the Central Library, formerly the First National Bank building. Also view the schedule of movie screenings available to the public at the library.

 

Read biographical sketches of Stanley Durwood and relatives, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to Stanley Durwood that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following articles about Stanley Durwood, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

  • "KC Public Library Offers a Film Vault to Bank On," by Robert W. Butler, in The Kansas City Star, May 23, 2007.
  • "Stanley Durwood, 78, Inventor of Multiplex," by Diana B. Henriques, in The New York Times, July 16, 1999.
  • "Movie Theater Mogul Dies; Stanley Durwood Invented Multiplex," by Jennifer Mann, in The Kansas City Star, July 16, 1999.
  • "A Happy 30th Birthday to World's First Multiplex," by Robert W. Butler, in The Kansas City Star, July 18, 1993.

 

Continue researching Stanley Durwood using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Yael T. Abouhalkah, "Stanley H. Durwood," The Kansas City Star, July 19, 1999.

Robert W. Butler, "A Happy 30th Birthday to World's First Multiplex," The Kansas City Star, July 18, 1993.

Susan Jezak Ford, "Biography of Stanley Durwood (1921-1999), Inventor of the Movie Multiplex," the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library.

Richard W. Haines, The Moviegoing Experience, 1968-2001 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003), 87-89, 91, 159.

Diana B. Henriques, "Stanley Durwood, 78, Inventor of Multiplex," The New York Times, July 16, 1999.

Jennifer Mann, "Movie Theater Mogul Dies; Stanley Durwood Invented Multiplex," The Kansas City Star, July 16, 1999.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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