Off Beat: As moviegoers' waistlines expand, theaters' seating capacity shrinks

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There is one area where a historically faithful theater renovation cannot remain behind the times.

It's theater seating.

We recently reported that Kiggins Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places, after it was restored as a showcase of the 1930s Art Deco style.

"I did it as true to the original as I could," owner Bill Leigh told The Columbian. He did have to replace the original seats, though.

"People are wider. New seats are two inches wider, but the rows also have 18 inches more leg room," Leigh said. "We went from 540 seats to 340."

Another historic movie house, the Liberty Theatre in Camas, underwent a similar restoration. While managing director Rand Thornsley wasn't part of the most recent remodel -- that happened years ago -- "I would say we did lose seating," he said.

"An original newspaper article in 1927 said theater seating was 800. Today, it's 348," Thornsley said.

There might be other factors: A few rows were lost when the lobby expanded, and some seats along the sides were eliminated. Still, seating is less than half the original capacity.

The expanding moviegoer is a significant factor in the theater business. A consulting company, Theatre Projects, published a 2010 report on the trend.

From the late 19th century to the 1970s, the average height of adult American males increased from about 5 foot 5 to about 5 foot 10.

That's leveled off in the last 40 years, but average weights have climbed for both men (165 pounds to 190) and women (140 pounds to 165), according to the report.

Theater seats followed the trend: A 19-inch-wide seat was standard in 1900. It expanded to 21 inches in 1979, and now it's 22 inches.

"Some are as wide as 24 inches," Thornsley noted.

Leg room also has expanded. The space between rows went from 24 inches in the late 1800s to 33 inches in 1990 to 38 inches now.

One chart shows how a space for 20 theater chairs in 1900 now accommodates 10. The chart calls it seating density … or you just might call it the bottom line.-- Tom Vogt

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.