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Audiences and Cultural Groups

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Ascertaining who watched the early motion-picture shows is a difficult task. One major factor was economics, and poorer members of the working class and the underclass rarely if ever saw films within an entertainment context (although in large urban areas they might see them in the form of commercial advertisements). From the outset, however, the cinema drew its audiences from across the working, middle, and elite classes. Vaudeville theaters and local opera houses offered a scale of prices that accommodated people of diverse financial status. 35 While Benjamin F. Keith’s theaters had a fee scale that ranged from twenty-five cents to a dollar fifty, Huber’s Museum in New York City, Austin & Stone’s in Boston, and Bradenburgh’s Ninth and Arch Museum in Philadelphia all charged ten cents. In Boston, the Nickelodeon Theater charged only five cents and showed films at least occasionally. In many other cities, as already noted, vaudeville played in “ten-twenty-thirty houses” that charged between ten and thirty cents. Traveling exhibitors visiting more rural areas usually charged between ten and fifty cents.

While motion pictures were still a novelty, they sometimes altered the makeup of a theater’s customary audience by attracting an elite clientele. With the cinématographe at Keith’s Bijou, “theatre parties and box parties take up almost all of the reserved section of the house,” the Philadelphia Record reported. “Gentlemen prominent in the professional and business life of the city bring their families to enjoy the clean, wholesome and high-class vaudeville entertainment provided.” 36 With dime museums, repertory companies, and storefronts offering motion pictures for as little as ten cents, the more prosperous members of the working class could afford to see the late-nineteenth-century novelty, too. Spectatorship was undoubtedly distributed unevenly through these different economic groups, but economic difference was only one of many factors that determined attendance. Geography, general accessibility to cultural events, age, sex and standing within one’s family, ethnic and racial background, religion, and personal tastes all affected the likelihood of seeing films.

Cultural differences weighed heavily in determining the composition of early film audiences. While cultural orientation was influenced by economic status, it remained a far more complex factor than most film historiography has acknowledged. Too often, scholars have seen frequenters of secular, commercial, urban-oriented amusement as the audience, but this was not the case. While venues that provided this sort of entertainment had a virtual monopoly on exhibition during the first months of public exhibition and continued to dominate the industry, two other cultural groups were very important: churchgoers (many of whom opposed commercial, secular amusements) and lovers of refined entertainments.

In addition, even commercial, urban amusements consisted of several subgroups with important differences. Keith’s and Poll’s, for example, emphasized the presentation of clean amusement. Sexual jokes that were too explicit or risqué did not receive the management’s approval, and some acts were designed to appeal to children. In contrast, burlesque houses commonly called their film shows the “tabasco-scope” or the “cinnimatograph” to suggest that their presentations were “spicy.” Some films were suitable only for adults, others only for men. With the press screening of the vitascope featuring films of women dancers, Edison purportedly "clapped his hands, and turning to one of his assistants, said: ‘That is good enough to warrant our establishing a bald-head row, and we will do it, too.’ " 37 Yet the assumption (conscious or unconscious) of a male audience could lead to unexpected contradictions. While scenes of a scantily clad Sandow were meant for male patrons interested in the manly physique, they must have held considerable erotic interest for women spectators. Thus, the very films that were meant to affirm the masculine, homosocial world of amusement often encouraged its breakdown. The original intent of such films was overturned by the unexpected conditions of their reception. Because of this dynamic quality even more than because of its size, the cinema of commercial amusement was of central concern to all involved with film. Its dynamism was indirectly acknowledged by contending cultural groups, all of which were compelled to situate themselves in relation to it.

During the 1890s, religious groups, particularly Protestant ones, commonly sponsored film programs. While the Methodist-Episcopal Church had reaffirmed its ban on commercial theatrical amusements in May 1896, it offered alternate forms of officially sponsored entertainment to its faithful through the Epworth League. Founded in 1889, the league rapidly grew to include more than eight thousand chapters, and by the late 1890s it was enjoying its greatest success. One of its main purposes was to blunt the threat posed by the urban amusements that were penetrating into the smaller cities and towns. As the church ceased to be the center of the community’s cultural life, the Epworth League embarked on counter-revolution. Other denominations had equivalent organizations, and the nondenominational Young Men’s Christian Association served similar goals. Organized sports, meetings, and classes were meant to fill the independent males’ leisure time and keep them out of the saloons. Many YMCA’s had lecture halls, which they used for their own entertainments or rented out to acceptable religious and civic groups.

The “entertainments” offered by these religious organizations regularly incorporated sanitized elements of popular culture. At the same time, they raised money that could be used for other programs and for building expenses. For the sponsoring groups, who had frequently offered screen entertainments in the past, moving pictures were acceptable and logical extensions of established practices. This phenomenon is evidenced, for example, by Lyman Howe’s first two seasons as a motion-picture exhibitor: out of thirty-seven well-documented engagements, twenty-five were sponsored by church groups, including eight Methodist (five being local Epworth chapters), seven Baptist, two Congregational, two Lutheran, and two Presbyterian. Six others were sponsored by quasi-religious organizations, including four YMCA’s. Only the remaining six engagements were sponsored by civic groups, and a third of these exhibitions actually took place in churches.

Exhibitors who addressed audiences under church sponsorship showed many of the same 35-mm films as commercial theaters. Dancing girls and fight films were generally absent—although Lyman Howe did show a hand-tinted film of a serpentine dance by Annabelle, a bullfight scene, and THE MAY IRWIN KISS . Serious opposition rarely arose within a congregation, although older, more conservative members of the Methodist-Episcopal Church did occasionally resent the incursions. Exhibitors had to gauge their sponsors, making their programs as enticing as possible without alienating their constituency. The potentially sinful quality of these pictures was perhaps somewhat mitigated by the obvious financial compensation that such events generated. Whether or not this was a pact with the devil, church members could see a wide selection of films but in a sanctioned setting and presented by exhibitors who knew how to appeal to their sensibilities. Religious, morally conservative groups who saw themselves opposed to commercial amusements were thus leading users of films.

Lovers of refined culture sometimes saw moving pictures as part of lecture series, particularly those focusing on travel. Thus the Lumière cinématographe made an early though limited appearance on the American lecture circuit under the auspices of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science (which, it will be recalled, had provided Edison with the first public forum for his peephole kinetoscope in 1893). In hopes of pursuing its members’ long-standing interest in animated photography, a trustee and one of the institute’s organizers went to Koster & Bial’s Music Hall to look at the vitascope. This pair, neither of whom had previously ventured into a vaudeville theater, were disappointed and soon found themselves at Hammerstein’s Olympia, but the eidoloscope was not to their liking, either, and so they eventually secured the French machine for an exhibition on 27 November 1896. The cinématographe, with subjects designed for a similarly sophisticated bourgeois audience in Europe, was conveniently (and not coincidentally) located across the street from the institute’s main gathering spot, Association Hall. So the machine was easily moved across the street. Although Alexander Black was scheduled to introduce the opening program,he was replaced by the lecturer Franklin W. Hooper, who commented on the films. The evening was filled out with Hooper’s lecture on glaciers in Switzerland, which utilized color photographic slides. This combination of color and animated photography thus paralleled the Lumières’ early lectures in France, described in chapter 5. Since the color slides were sensitive to heat and could only be shown using gaslight as an illuminant, they proved somewhat of a disappointment. The exhibit as a whole, however, was enthusiastically received.

Many times during 1897 speakers associated with the Brooklyn Institute gave illustrated lectures that incorporated motion pictures. On 13 January Alexander Black presented his well-known talk “Ourselves as Others See Us,” which was “illustrated by Cinematographe, Chromograph and Stereopticon.” 38 On 11 February Professor Henry Evans Northrop gave the first of several lectures entitled “An Evening with the Cinematographe,” which included slides and at least thirty films. By March it had been retitled “A Bicycle Trip Through Europe” and included a collection of his own stills interspersed with Lumière films of various European scenes. This shifting back and forth between slides and film may have been awkwardly handled, for one critic remarked that while the pictures were “excellent” and the cinématographe views “especially interesting,” the lecture itself “was not on a par with the pictorial part of the entertainment because Professor Northrop is not, in the sense of the word, a lecturer. He is not cut out for stage work, and should either follow a carefully written text in describing his pictures or engage someone else to do the talking.” 39

As the case of Brooklyn demonstrates, the unified enthusiasm that first greeted motion pictures was disintegrating as exhibitors increasingly appealed to distinct cultural groups with specific kinds of films. With its strong emphasis on cultural refinement, Brooklyn differed from the general pattern of exhibition found in most other large American cities during the first year. The institute lecturers who incorporated films into their lantern-slide programs seemingly had no immediate counterparts elsewhere in the country, and indeed, when Northrop and Black traveled outside their home city, they went without the cinématographe views. Even the Lumière storefront show appealed to the more elite elements of the populace, and if films were also shown in Brooklyn churches, they were rarely shown in theatrical venues. At the same time, Brooklyn was host to one of the most dynamic and controversial sites of commercial popular culture in the nation, Coney Island, which often served as a target for conservative groups. When the Biograph Company scattered its mutoscopes throughout the resort, outrage from religious elements was not far behind. In July 1897 the Reverend Frederick Bruce Russell personally raided a number of Coney Island locales in order to halt the showing of pictures. Those that fell under the ban of the reformer’s eye were entitled WHAT THE GIRLS DID WITH WILLIE’S HAT (KICKING WILLIE’S HAT , No. 219) and FUN IN A BOARDING HOUSE (GIRLS’ BOARDING SCHOOL , No. 220). 40

During cinema’s first year of success, motion pictures enjoyed the status of a novelty. This very concept or category served to address the problem of managing change within a rapidly industrializing society: novelties typically introduced the public to important technological innovations within a reassuring context that permitted spectators to take pleasure in the discontinuties and dislocations. While technological change created uncertainty and anxiety, “novelty” always embodied significant elements of familiarity, including the very genre of novelty itself. In the case of cinema, greater verisimilitude was initially emphasized at the expense of narrative. But if the American public responded positively—typically enjoying their initial experience of projected motion pictures—the dynamic of novelty was such that film companies had to quickly move beyond the simple task of dispersing a technological innovation through large sectors of society. As a result, film practice under-went a radical and extensive reorganization that made it different from other novelties before it, even the peephole kinetoscope. The novelty year soon saw the development of narrative through both the elaboration of brief skits (primarily comedies like LOVE’S YOUNG DREAM ) and the sequencing of shots by the exhibitor. Though not totally replaced, the endless-band technique of exhibition, typified by the vitascope, gave way to a more linear, singular unfolding of the film through the projector.

During this year-long period cinema’s industrial organization changed as well, moving from self-sufficient and closely held companies, each with its own distinctive technological system, to an industry where the technology or hardware was readily available at an affordable price. The initial potpourri of formats thinned, and 35-mm-gauge film with Edison-type perforations came to be widely used, while the Lathams’ format and the Lumières’ perforations had reached their zenith and were being phased out. Only the Biograph Company, which sponsored the last of the four major formats to appear, retained the vertically integrated organizational structure that characterized these initial efforts. The use and even the development of unique formats were not ending, but they now occurred within the technological framework of a widely accepted 35-mm standard. Likewise, equipment had improved to the point where exhibitors had much greater flexibility. Finally, within the 35-mm branch of the industry, producers generally sold films and equipment to anyone who wished to buy, without restrictions on their use (other than that of copyright). Thus the novelty period involved dispersion outward from the motion-picture industry’s centers (New York City and to a lesser extent Chicago and Philadelphia) and transformation within these centers.

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