What Was Bank Night?

Mary McMahon

Bank Night was a form of lottery used to promote the film industry in the 1930s, when the Great Depression made some consumers reluctant to spend money, especially on frivolities like movies. Although Bank Night was a short-lived tradition, some historians have suggested that it may have contributed significantly to the income of many movie theaters, allowing them to survive during the lean period of the Depression. By 1940, Bank Night had vanished entirely, thanks to Bank Night bans and shifting ideas about how to do business.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

On Bank Night, people could go to the theater and put their names in for a lottery of prizes. Technically, no purchase was necessary, but many people did buy movie tickets, especially since Bank Night events often took place during intermission. As names were pulled and called, people had to hustle up to the stage to claim their prizes, or risk forfeiting them. Prizes ranged from various consumer goods to cash.

The concept was developed by Charles Yaeger, who held the first Bank Night in 1931 in Colorado. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, many movie theaters tried to get in on the action, holding their own version. Yaeger established a franchise, however, allowing theaters to buy in to get official Bank Night equipment, swag, and films, and he protected his franchise aggressively, suing several theaters for holding Bank Nights of their own.

The structure of Bank Night was designed to work around the strict restrictions against playing the lottery which were present in many states. Because people didn't need to purchase anything, Bank Night wasn't subject to regulation, even though it was obviously a form of lottery. However, some theaters began to resist the idea, and Bank Night's popularity declined rapidly after its peak in 1936.

Today, Bank Night lives on primarily in the form of a side note to 1930s film history, explaining how some theaters survived when others struggled. For people in the troubled economic times of the 1930s, however, Bank Night would have been a very exciting event, especially in smaller towns, and it was often eagerly anticipated by residents. Sometimes the cash prizes could be quite large, creating a big incentive to show up on Bank Night.

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