Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T

The Nickelodeon

picture moving theaters films

The Nickel Madness; the Amazing Spread of a New Kind of Amusement Enterprise Which Is Making Fortunes for Its Projectors.

—Headlines in Harper’s Weekly, 24 August 1907

I t was a time before there were World Wars, but only just before. The Second International Peace Congress was held at The Hague in 1907, and the third one was scheduled for 1915. People were talking about Peace, Rights for Women, Prohibition, Labor Relations, Child Welfare, and Moving Pictures. What had appeared at first as the “moving-picture craze” was bigger than anyone had anticipated. The reactions were bewildered and confused. Many feared the worst: this was getting out of control. America was confronting for the first time the phenomenon known as mass communication. Newspapers and magazines were part of it too, but they did not share in the excitement and apprehension that surrounded the moving image.

All across the country the little store shows known as nickelodeons were doing a gold-rush business in the midst of the economic recession of 1907. In downtown entertainment districts the nickel shows congregated in the same blocks with the herd instincts of overdue city buses. The shows ran continuously from morning to evening. Enterprising young men who could scrape together a little cash to invest in a picture show were getting rich, opening one nickelodeon after another, establishing theater chains or rental exchanges. The warning about the proverbial goose that provided the golden eggs, frequently heard in those days, fitted the situation rather well.

Upper and middle-class people did not frequent these shows, or if they did, they Loped not to be seen there. At least this was the situation reported a couple of years Later. At the beginning of 1909, with change in the wind, a trade periodical editor remembered, “During the past three or four years … any person of refinement looked around to see if [he were] likely to be recognized by anyone before entering the doors.” 1

This does not mean that respectable people in 1907 could not see moving pictures if they wanted. For one thing, they could see them at the high-class vaudeville show, since few variety shows lacked a reel or two of moving pictures. They could see them in museums of curiosities, such as the Eden Musee in New York City, patronized by the “upper classes,” or in the town halls, or in legitimate theaters between the acts of plays or as Sunday-evening “concerts.” They could even see them in churches. In the country or the smallest towns, they had to wait for the touring show to book into the local opera house, or the grange hall, or YMCA, or await the arrival of the old-style black-tent show, which still followed the route of country fairs or circuses, showing Page 2  films inside its darkened canvas walls. By 1908 or 1909, only the very smallest towns lacked a moving-picture theater of some sort. Where the population was not big enough to support a permanent theater, an exhibitor would do a circuit of several towns, showing films one night a week in each. As one exhibitor wrote to the Moving Picture World: “I know a party who makes out well with a circuit of five small towns about the size [six to seven hundred people] you mention. He shows twice a week in the largest one and once a week in the others, does his own singing and entertaining and employs only one expert operator.” In many towns, when the first permanent moving-picture show opened, even if it were a nickel house, all classes of people attended. 2

For the millions of urban working-class people and new immigrants, going to the movies represented not only an affordable amusement but an extraordinary fascination. It is possible that motion pictures have never had such a devoted and enthusiastic audience since these early years. People went night after night, or from one show to another. Frank Howard, a prominent New England exchange man, defined a motion-picture fan as “one that attends one theatre every day, at least once a day, if not two or three times.” In 1907 the nickel show was still usually only about half an hour, although competition was already pushing it to greater lengths in some areas. Usually, there was plenty of time to go from one to the next. 3

Workers in Willimantic, Connecticut, a factory village “where hundreds sleep in cold and cheerless furnished rooms,” found warmth and social life at the moving-picture show instead of the saloon. “Men not often seen in the company of their wives on the streets were now taking whole families to the motion pictures night after night,” reported the Willimantic Journal. The reference to the saloon was no joke in those days of the “Wets” and the “Drys.” The saloon provided a gathering place, a social life, and a political center for the blue-collar working man, the foreign-born, and the non-Protestant. It did not escape the attention of the Protestant upper-class reformers that the nickelodeons cut a significant amount of time from that spent in saloons. Nickelodeons were even credited or blamed, depending on the point of view, for putting some of the saloons out of business. 4

The nickelodeon audience was neither monolithic nor immutable. Perceptions of this audience were mythic even in 1907, and it is difficult to get a precise picture of its constituents. Most discussions of it have centered around the little store show in the entertainment districts of the big cities. When Joseph Medill Patterson, known as “the young millionaire Socialist” in the golden years of American socialism, tells us in the often-cited Saturday Evening Post article of 1907 that a third of the spectators were children, we can give some credence to his claim because there are sufficient confirming accounts. Children continued to make up large portions of the audience despite all the efforts of reformers to keep them out and despite the legislation in many cities ruling that an adult must accompany each child. For example, in New York in May 1909 a visitor to the evening show at the Bronx Theater (at Wendover and Park Avenue in the Bronx), located in a working-class neighborhood, found the audience largely composed of children, plus a few adults and a uniformed officer whose job it was to keep order. The children saw Selig’s RIP VAN WINKLE with Humanoscope (actors speaking lines from behind the screen) and other pictures, and a lady singing with song slides. At the end of 1910 in a Connecticut mill town, a survey of 350 schoolchildren ten to fourteen years old showed that all but 34 of them attended movies, 183 once a week, 130 twice a week, and 9 every day. Of those 9 Page 3  daily filmgoers, 6 of them attended an average of 6 days a week, while 3 were there because they had jobs in nickelodeons. Of the 316 who attended the movies, 130 did so without adults, and only 20 went only in the afternoon. There were 75 children who attended on Sunday evenings. 5

However, I have some doubts about Patterson’s statement that “for some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.” In the afternoon, it might have been true that few young women were seen in the nickelodeons, for they were now flocking to the workplace, in nothing like the numbers of today, of course, but in large enough quantities to bring with them the winds of change. They worked not only in the mills and the factories and the sweatshops, but in the more refined atmosphere of offices, where they filled positions as telephone switchboard operators, typists, and telegraphists. In the new moving-picture industry itself there were to be many positions open to them. The New Woman was enjoying her newfound freedom, and that would have included dropping in at the cafes, dance halls, and nickelodeons after the day’s work was done. To be sure, the more refined or conservative young ladies would not be found in such places, but there were a sufficient number of young women present to alarm the guardians of morality. 6

Patterson continued:

In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them, can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures. As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.

When Patterson speaks of sailors, this indicates that he probably visited nickelodeons catering to transient audiences. Yet if he had observed the nickelodeons on the Lower East Side of New York or Halstead Street in Chicago, he would have found a very high attendance by Jews. H. F. Hoffman reported that Pathé Frères’ films were particularly popular in the Jewish ghetto of Chicago because they usually had few subtitles, which could not be read by this audience. The same was true, he said, in Polish and Slavic neighborhoods. 7

A suburban exhibitor, who appears to have been a considerable snob, complained that the New York exchanges bought films only according to the demands of their best customers, the Lower East Side theaters. They demanded blood-and-thunder melodrama, while exhibitors in Stamford, Connecticut, or Rutherford, New Jersey, or even on 116th Street in Manhattan, could not get the films suitable for their more literate audiences. “The other night,” he wrote, “I made an excursion to the vicinity of Essex and Rivington streets, in the very heart and thick of the tenement district.” He admitted seeing one scenic film, in poor condition, in this nickelodeon:

The audience also sat still for one or two high-class films without any fuss, although we are sure they didn’t understand what they were looking at any more than they would a Chinese opera…. I would have been more comfortable on board a cattle train than where I sat. There were five Page 4  hundred smells combined in one. One young lady fainted and had to be carried out of the theater. I can forgive that, all right, as people with sensitive noses should not go slumming. But what is hardest to swallow is that the tastes of this seething mass of human cattle are the tastes that have dominated, or at least set, the standard of American moving pictures ( Moving Picture World, 23 September, 1910, p. 658).

However, another nickelodeon in the same neighborhood was described by another observer in a 1908 article entitled “Where They Play Shakespeare for Five Cents”:

The Herr Professor was telling the story of Romeo and Juliet. Standing beside the screen at one end of a long room, fitted up with its metallic ceiling and its rows upon rows of benches, he looked like a veritable Jewish Balzac. The Herr Professor is eager to make of his five-cent theater an educational center among the children and grown people of the lower East Side, and to judge by the manner in which the crowds are flocking through the gaily painted entrance, and by the overflow left standing on the sidewalk waiting for the next performance, there is no doubt that the Herr Professor is meeting with success. He is a graduate of two foreign universities, and has good ideas, no matter how much he may be limited by the business conditions of the moving picture world. The Herr Professor is a theater manager. Evening after evening he receives the tin rolls of films containing the melodrama or classical play that is to form the half-hour’s amusement.

Sometimes relying on his own voice, he will fill the hall with his stentorian tones. At other times, fagged out by the constant repetition of the story, he will resort to the megaphone. The audience that flocks to the Herr Professor’s Theatre is an interesting mixture of foreigners of all classes. Girls drop in alone, a fact that speaks well for the moral condition of that quarter of town. Boys come in squads. A mother and father and their children count upon an evening’s entertainment. But perhaps the most interesting part of this human spectacle is the audience of wan and curious little people who stand outside, unable to afford the luxury costing five cents (Montrose J. Moses, Theater Magazine, September 1908, p. 264). 8

It would be impossible to count accurately the number of nickelodeons existing at any one time. They were constantly going out of business and springing up anew. Most of the available figures do not distinguish true nickel showplaces from every other place where motion pictures were exhibited. Even in the years when the Motion Picture Patents Company extracted a weekly two-dollar fee from each licensed exhibitor, it was difficult to keep track precisely, owing to the constant changes in status of the movie houses. Variety’s “conservative estimate” was 2,500 nickelodeons for the entire country at the beginning of 1907. In May 1907, the Moving Picture World said there were 2,500 to 3,000, and in November, the figure cited by Patterson was “between four and five thousand.” By July 1908, an approximate figure of 8,000 was given by an Oakland, California, newspaper. 9

Does this reflect the real growth, or only the variance in estimates? The figures indicate a kind of peak about the end of 1908. Even though many store shows were to go out of business in the following year, there were as many new ones, according to figures supplied by the Motion Picture Patents Company in May 1909. The Patents Company claimed six thousand licensed theaters and two thousand independent, for a total of eight thousand in the United States. The roundness of the figures shows them to be approximate. It is also evident from this information that eight thousand moving-picture theaters included all the kinds of exhibition places, since the Patents Company would have issued licenses to any theater, nickelodeon or not, that wished to use its films. By 1910, the numbers were growing again: the Patents Company records show ten thousand theaters of all kinds in that year. At the same time the population of the United States was about ninety million, or a national average of nine thousand persons for each moving-picture show. By 1914, the figure given by Frank L. Dyer of the Patents Company was about fourteen thousand moving picture theaters in the United States. By this time, the nickelodeon era was over, despite the fact that many nickelodeons still existed. 10

Perhaps we can get a better feel for these numbers and rates of growth by looking at some individual cities or towns. In Indianapolis, for example, there were twentyone nickelodeons and three ten-cent theaters in 1908, only three years after the first nickelodeon had appeared there. Each nickelodeon in this city gave a show consisting of one reel of film, which might contain two or three different subjects, and an illustrated song, with the show taking twenty to twenty-five minutes—"except when there is a crowd waiting, then it is speeded up to 15 to 17 minutes." The shows in Indianapolis were open from nine in the morning till eleven at night, which allowed about twenty to thirty shows each day. If you could afford ten cents, you could go to one of the three high-class theaters and get an evening of three or four reels of pictures with live entertainment consisting of illustrated songs, vaudeville acts, and slide lectures lasting from one to one-and-a-half hours. By 1911, the number had increased to seventy-six motion-picture theaters alone, not including regular theaters that changed over to movies during the summer. However, only fifteen of the movie houses remained downtown in 1911, because of the high rents. 11

In 1908 there were fifteen nickelodeons in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the exchange that supplied most of them thought this was too many. To survive, they depended on spectators who attended day after day. In 1909 Philadelphia had about 184 “picture parlors,” and on Girard Avenue there were five shows in four blocks, the patronage drawn mostly from “poor working class people.” However, in September 1908 Sigmund Lubin had opened a high-class theater on Market Street in Philadelphia, which he modestly called “Lubin’s Palace,” “unquestionably the largest and most elaborate moving picture theater in the world,” seating eight hundred spectators. In 1909, Rochester, New York, had seventeen shows for a population of 200,000. 12

Chicago, probably the biggest moviegoing town of all in those days, had 407 picture houses in 1909 for a population of slightly over two million, or approximately one nickelodeon or theater for each 5,350 people. In New York City there was one for each 11,250 people. By October 1912, there were said to be 732 exhibitors in Chicago, 650 of them showing moving pictures exclusively. At the end of 1913, however, the Chicago License Bureau listed only 550 moving-picture theaters. 13

The number supplied by the Moving Picture World for New York City in 1908 was 300 to 400, for a population of over 4.5 million people. Robert Allen found only 123 motion-picture exhibitions listed in Trow’s Business Directory for Manhattan in the 1908 edition, exclusive of the vaudeville theaters. The large numbers of nickelodeons clustered in the borough of Brooklyn may account in part for the discrepancy, and the World’s figures may have included all types of exhibition places. It is also very likely that some store shows never got listed in Trow’s, as they were a very fly-by-night business in 1908. Coney Island saloons, with no show license, gave film shows for free and gained their profits from the sale of drinks.

City ordinances similar to those in New York governing the size of nickelodeons existed in many other cities, but somehow in New York they were more restrictive or took longer to change. Film historians have mistakenly understood the New York City limit of 299 seats as a regulation of the common show license under which nickelodeons operated (the trade press of the time made the same error), but in fact this was a condition of the building codes and fire laws. The March 1911 report of Raymond B. Fosdick to Mayor Gaynor made it clear: “Licenses for picture houses may be of two kinds, dependent not upon the seating capacity, but wholly upon the kind of performances.” The ordinance was changed in 1913 to permit movie theaters to have 600 seats according to changes in the building codes.

New York remained far behind the rest of the country in building new and more expensive moving-picture theaters, as well as in upgrading other exhibition conditions. The dominant theatrical interests were a likely factor in holding back growth. The Motion Picture Patents Company said in May 1909 that there were then only half as many motion-picture theaters in New York as had existed the previous December. If these rather startling figures are accurate, it must have been the Patents Company itself that was responsible for cutting down its own potential market by threatened or actual litigation against the use of unlicensed projection machines. There were a lot of Patents Company replevin suits in the first months of 1909, whereby licensed films in unlicensed theaters were seized. By 1910, however, the Moving Picture World reported about six hundred picture shows in Greater New York. 14

It seems no city can be taken as typical. New England was different from both the Midwest and New York. In every region and every major city there were slightly different situations that still have to be studied before we have a comprehensive picture of the nickelodeon era.

Russell Merritt’s study of Boston nickelodeons and Robert Allen’s research on Manhattan store shows, together with the contemporary accounts in periodicals, newspapers, and the trade press, reveal some of the variants in locations and trace the expansion. In large cities nickelodeons tended to group themselves at first in the already-established amusement districts, right next door to the high-class vaudeville and legitimate theaters in many cases, and expanded into higher-class residential areas and suburbs as time went on, moving away from the overcrowded tenement districts that at first provided the largest source of customers. 15

The Boston situation studied by Russell Merritt differed in several ways from that found in other major cities. Boston was then still considered the cultural capital of the country and tended to look down its patrician nose at common amusements. The census figures of 1910 show almost three-quarters of a million people, yet in that year Boston had just twenty moving-picture theaters, or one for approximately each 33,500 Page 8  persons, compared to New York’s 11,250 and Chicago’s 5,350. Nor were these nickelodeons in the sense of the admission price, as almost all of them charged ten cents from the day of their opening. Russell Merritt concludes that “nickelodeons were seldom a nickel,” but in fact, elsewhere in the country they almost always were, until the little store show finally vanished in the mists of time. Intense competition held the admission at a nickel even though the length of the show kept increasing, including more films and more vaudeville acts. When theaters were built with greater seating capacity, they often retained the five-cent admission because they could give fewer shows during a day but still make the same income at the box office. This situation eventually contributed to driving the small theaters, dependent on rapid turnover, out of business. Regular vaudeville theaters charged much more than the nickelodeons, and moving-picture exhibitors tried to increase admission prices when they increased the number of films and vaudeville acts in their programs. But it was not easy to do that if the local competition offered the same for five cents. In Denver, for example, known as “the Nickel City of the West,” exhibitors were still trying to raise prices with only partial success at the end of 1914. Small theaters in the mountain district of Tennessee, open only one or two nights a week and still charging five cents in 1915, were being forced to close because they could not pay the war tax when it was increased from $25 to $50 a year. 16

Lary May, in his study of social changes reflected in the movies, Screening Out the Past, begins by remembering Henry Seidel Canby’s The Age of Confidence, in which Canby “saw one apt symbol for that change in his home town, the center of local society, the opera house, had been turned into a movie theater open to all.” 17 The idea of movies as a potent device for the democratization of American society was extremely popular with social theorists: in their view, the movies were going to teach the foreign-born to adopt the values of the established social system of native-born white Protestant culture. That meant order, discipline, hard work, responsibility for others, and strict sexual control. It meant preserving the family.

There was some selection, before 1909, of high-class films for the shows catering to the middle-class and the refined: scenic films and educational films sprinkled judiciously with comedies and the classics of literature. As Charles Musser has discovered, the lecture tours of Lyman Howe and Burton Holmes were approved, and in the case of Howe even supported, by church people who considered amusements frivolous or immoral, because these kinds of shows were deemed educational. In fact, the same films were being shown in both kinds of exhibition places, with the most vulgar subjects omitted in the higher-class halls and a reduced amount of educational films selected for the nickelodeons. The propriety of moving-picture shows had more to do with exhibition venues and methods than the moral quality of the films being shown. The reformers and uplifters tried to increase the educational value of films in the nickelodeon after 1908, but as we will see in chapter 3, audiences often rejected such films. 18

The trend was for these two exhibition systems, serving the high-class theaters and the nickelodeon, to come closer together. Within a few years just about everybody outside the large cities was going to the same theaters, seeing the same films, and sharing in the communal experience: people of all classes, and the whole family. As Canby had observed, the opera house was once the place for high society, the well-to-do, and the upward-striving middle class. Now, the opera house was turned into a movie theater and the whole town attended. To be sure, they did not always mix in the same sections within the theater (wherever moving picture theaters were large enough to have “sections”). A variety of admission prices ensured a separation of classes, as in the legitimate theaters. The division of audiences into separate theaters may have lasted longer in cities, where the little neighborhood theater and the movie palace downtown charged different admission prices.

The “democratization of America” was not all that easy. In many parts of the country, blacks had to sit up in the balcony. A brave “colored woman” who refused to sit in the balcony of the Victoria Theater in Rochester, New York, in 1913 lost her suit to defend her civil rights. It should be noted that “Italians and the rougher element” were also expected to sit in the balcony in that theater. “In the South the colored brother is given to understand that he must flock by himself or there will be trouble, but in the North the case is different and every now and then there seems to be an organized effort on the part of the negroes to make as much trouble as possible.” The Moving Picture World editor who reported this reminisced about his own experiences:

In Washington a number of years ago we broke into the theatrical business as usher in the balcony of one of the theaters. There they had a Section D for the colored patrons, and the box office man sold D to all colored applicants, but now and then a negro would hire a white boy to buy his tickets for him and turn up with seats in the white sections. In such a case the usher was instructed to drop the tickets on the floor and use a couple of D tickets with which he was provided. It was not strictly Page 10  honest, perhaps, but it met guile with guile, and something of that sort was necessary in a low-price house (Moving Picture World, 4 October 1913, p. 147).

Despite the efforts of Progressives, some of them former Abolitionists, working to integrate the former slaves and their offspring into American society, and some black Americans struggling for equality, the unconscious, easy acceptance of prejudice and its stereotypes by the majority of Americans can be seen in hundreds of films throughout the whole period of silent film, including the most famous example, T HE B IRTH OF A N ATION , in 1915.

There were certainly some communities where the races mixed freely. There were also theaters wholly owned by blacks and catering to the black clientele, 214 of them in America in 1913, according to the head of the black-owned and -operated Foster Photoplay Company of Chicago, William Foster. 19

By 1907, there were enough of the cheapest, shabbiest kind of nickelodeon to alarm the responsible citizens and social reformers. They knew something unusual was going on, even if they didn’t know they were confronting a small social revolution. Many of the inner-city nickelodeons, such as those on “Motion Picture Row” on East Fourteenth Street in New York City and on Halstead Street in Chicago, were undeniably dark and smelly and crowded and noisy. The audiences were loud and enthusiastic. The Jewish and Catholic immigrants from eastern and southern Europe showed less restraint in their emotions than the native-born white Protestants, and they jabbered in languages that were strange to Anglo-Saxons. There was the odor of poverty and the unwashed, to which was added, on damp days, the smell of wet wool. The “hawker” called out to the passersby, mechanical music blared out, and the manager-owner would lounge around the entrance, counting his nickels, watching the competition next door or across the street. The moving pictures would run from two to ten minutes each, and there would be several films on the program. If there were a crowd out front waiting to spend its nickels, the manager might decide to shorten the program, either by speeding up the cranking of the projector or by dropping a film from the program.

According to the alarmists, pimps and white slavers waited outside the nickelodeons to offer to pay the way in for young women: perhaps this did happen sometime, somewhere, but it is difficult to separate the hysteria of the yellow press from the self-protecting statements of the moving-picture trade. The fear is symptomatic of the changing lifestyles of young women, no longer totally under the control of the Victorian family structure. Films about white slavery enjoyed a vogue, in the name of reform, but their exploitative nature was soon recognized, and in the end they added to the pressure for censorship.

In fact, the darkness inside and the enthusiasm of the unwashed poor who made up the patronage was something unknown and fearful to those outside. However, the high-minded idealists of the time saw instead the potential for uplifting the masses in these stygian holes. The unsightly conditions existed chiefly in the slum areas. Even in 1907, some of the store shows, in other parts of the city, and especially in small towns, were entirely respectable.

Who were the people running the profitable nickelodeon business? Nickelodeon owners and managers came primarily from the same kind of background as the majority of the spectators; the blue-collar workers, the immigrants, large numbers of them Jewish.

Many of them did not share the middle-class Protestant culture of the producers in the pre-1907 era. (Sigmund Lubin, the successful Philadelphia producer, was the exception: the single Jewish immigrant among the heads of the Motion Picture Patents Company.) These nickelodeon owners and distributors were to form the nucleus of the independent movement against the licensed producers, and eventually, the same people founded the new production companies that would dominate the industry: William Fox, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Marcus Loew, the Warner Brothers.

The “operators,” as projectionists were then called, were the first segment of the new industry to organize into unions. It is hardly surprising that they did so quickly, because the new entrepreneurs of show business, the nickelodeon managers, were often hiring young, untrained boys at low wages to work seven days a week where Sunday-closing laws permitted, from early morning to late at night, at a trade that required hard work and professional skill. They, the bosses, were among the last of the various components of the industry to organize in order to control competition and bring some order to their business. They were intensely competitive, struggling to get a foothold and survive.

In many cases, the owner of a nickelodeon had started out as a one-man show, running the projection machine himself as well as collecting the nickels and delivering narrations for the films and singing between the reels. But competition (and after 1908, uplift movements) demanded something more of the performance. The operator had to crank the machine by hand all day long, keeping an eye on the varying speed, the focus, and the amount of light, and nurse the worn and torn perforations through the sprockets. He had to trim his carbon lights, make repairs and cuts to the film, and display slides for the singer or the lecturer, or announcement slides, which he sometimes made himself. To be good at his profession, he needed to have an understanding of electricity and the laws of optics, and he needed to be a mechanic, in order to repair the projection machine when it broke down. Often he was expected to go and pick up the reels for each day’s show, either at the film exchange or at the railway station, returning the ones already used, and he had to see that the day’s show was in good enough repair to go through the machine twenty or more times. An underpaid projectionist in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, complained:

I will say that all they asked of me was to get the films from the express office, put out the advertising matter, sweep out, dust the theater, and once a week wash off the tile front; build the fires and see that everything was ready for the show; meet the vaudeville people when we had them, and wait on them; ship back the films and do any electrical work required about the place, as well as operate the machine…. The requirements here are to run one reel of film and then an illustrated song; another reel and a second song without stopping. The operator is required to thread the machine while running the song slides and they even wanted me to re-wind the first reel while running the second, so as to stop only one minute to adjust the carbons at the close of the show…. For this work they paid me the handsome sum of $12 per week, but as the theater changed hands April 1, I was dismissed in favor of an $8 eighteen-year-old boy, who never ran a machine in his life until last year, and then only as a helper (Moving Picture World, 29 April 1911, p. 953).

It was due to the operator’s grave responsibility in case of fire that cities began to require licensing of projectionists. Fire was always a danger when films were released on highly flammable nitrate stock, and before fire safety regulations were enacted and enforced, there were many disasters or near-disasters. In New York, the new law of 1910 licensing projectionists required applicants to be U.S. citizens, which promptly threw out of work a lot of immigrants who had already become highly skilled. After considerable agitation, that part of the law was finally revised, but by that time many of the foreign-born projectionists had moved to other cities. 20

The music of the nickelodeons was performed by live musicians as well as by all kinds of wondrous mechanical pianos, organs, and orchestras, such as “The Wurlitzer Automatic Orchestra” or “The Piano-Orchestra.” Musicians or mechanical substitutes entertained at intermissions and usually performed simultaneously with the pictures, very often with little relevance to what was on the screen. There is evidence of a few nickelodeons without any music at all, but these existed only for lack of means to employ a pianist or even a scratchy phonograph, except for an occasional place where a manager preferred to hear just the sound of his own voice explaining the pictures. From Evansville, Indiana, in 1911, Thomas Bedding reported that “the manager of the Lyric does not seem to believe in music, but he lectures while the picture is on the screen.” The New England reporter for the Moving Picture World, known as “Henry,” claimed that after visiting theaters in his part of the country from 1907 to 1910, he had never heard a self-playing piano in use in any of them: “The houses now are using, as they did since their opening, a pianist and trap-drummer, while a few have full orchestras.” In this as in other ways, New England’s practice was not typical of the whole country. Elsewhere, mechanical music-players were very popular. In 1912, when the musicians began to organize into unions and had to strike to get recognition, mechanical music-makers were more welcome than ever to the managers. 21

Accounts of attending the nickelodeons are filled with stories of inappropriate ragtime that accompanied the tender love scene or the melancholy death scene. Ragtime, much used in the variety show, was all very well in the days when films were either actualities or comedies, as almost all films were before 1907, but the feeling of discordance grew as the melodrama gained ground. The use of ragtime was also deplored by the reformers, because it was not considered respectable music for the middle class. In practical terms, after 1907, the distribution system made it nearly impossible for a musician to be prepared for what he or she was to play. Where there was a daily change and a continuous show, the first show of the day must have been quite different from the last ones, when the accompanist had become familiar through repetition with the task at hand.

The high-class show houses and the touring exhibitors such as Lyman Howe had well-rehearsed teams of people behind the screen, making sounds, and mechanical sound-effect devices, but in the little nickelodeon sometimes the most that could be afforded was the pianist. The drummer with his set of traps providing sound effects was generally the next employed after the pianist, if the budget allowed for two musicians. Both of them, but especially the drummer, soon found they could amuse themselves and the audience by providing deliberately inappropriate sound effects and drum rolls, making comedies out of heavy melodramas. Tender love scenes and tragic death scenes could easily be made to provoke laughter with a drum roll, a falling body could become slapstick with a sound effect, and a kiss could be emphasized with smacking sounds. Probably many of the films deserved this treatment, but once they started on this course, the musicians could also ruin a very good film and frequently did. The critics, who in those days more frequently saw films with audiences than at private screenings, reported the totally different effect the same films could have when seen with or without competent and appropriate accompaniment. 22

The lone musician, or the piano player together with the drummer, could, with some practice, improvise for each new film that came along. They soon learned to anticipate the love scene, the comic chase, the death scene, or the race to the rescue. But how did the hardy band of musicians known as the orchestra in the bigger theaters manage to improvise? Not very well, according to some accounts.

Vitagraph began to send out prepared music scores with its “films de luxe” in October 1909, and the Edison Kinetogram began to give suggestions for music for some specific films in the same month. It was not until 1911 that regular columns of advice for musicians appeared in trade periodicals. 23

It was a poor show house that did not supply a singer between the reels, while the projectionist threaded up the one projector. The tradition of singing with illustrative slides was much older than the nickelodeon: it was a popular part of the variety show. There were businesses devoted to producing the slides, much like the ones producing the moving pictures. Fred J. Balshofer “posed the players and photographed illustrated slides for … popular songs of the day” for the Shields Lantern Slide Company in New York City before going to work for Sigmund Lubin in 1905. The young Norma Talmadge posed for song slides before she went to Vitagraph and became a movie star, as did some others. 24

While other non-film elements of the performance changed or faded away, the illustrated-song slides remained in most theaters as late as 1913, and even later in some. Only with the rise of the feature film did the performances begin to disappear, or rather, to be subsumed in the song film, which continued into the twenties and thirties with the “bouncing ball” audience-participation films. Bigger magazines on projection machines, or in the better houses, two projection machines, made it possible to avoid the waits for changing the reel, and filling these blanks in the program while the reel was changed had been the practical function of the singer.

There were other reasons, too, for the illustrated song performance to last as long as it did. Music publishers paid for singers to appear in the nickelodeons in order to promote their latest songs. This entertainment was often free for the exhibitor, at least in larger cities. There were also many popular song artists available from the touring variety shows, which offered a rapidly shrinking market for their talent in the face of the advancing motion-picture theater. In small towns, there was also a pool of home-style talent to draw on, not only singers, but pianists and other musicians. In the days before radio and television, family music performances were more frequently a part of home entertainment, and refined middle-class sons and daughters were taught to perform at home and at church and community gatherings as part of their social graces. When the singer at the motion-picture show sang the chorus, the audience was frequently invited to join in and happily did so. They were accustomed to being asked during the old variety show and they continued to participate in the community singing long after the song slides were replaced by the song film. The communal factor was always to be an important element of the moviegoing experience. 25

So ubiquitous was the singer with slides that it was common for new theaters during the period or older ones undergoing renovation to install elaborate little alcoves on either side of the screen for the singer to stand in while performing. As the period 1908-1913 was dominated by the practice of the “daily change”—a new show every day—the music publishers complained that it was impossible to have song “hits.” A song, like the pictures, was apt to be presented for just one day at any one theater before moving on to another. By October 1912, the Moving Picture World reported that while the illustrated song was holding on in popularity, the supply of songs and slides was being too quickly exhausted; there was always the danger, warned the writer, that in such a case vulgarity might creep into the show. 26

The vaudeville act was not quite as ubiquitous as the illustrated song, but in some sections and during some periods nearly all nickelodeons included it.

There must have been an enormous quantity of unemployed performers available, because the nickelodeons had taken much of the audience away from the low-priced variety shows. On the other hand, a stage manager noted in 1911 that while there was scarcely a one-night-stand theater in America making a profit, the motion picture, “which has emptied the galleries and balconies, has driven the medium-priced companies off the road, has established vaudeville houses in towns that could not otherwise support them.” The storefront shows did not have stages or space for elaborate scenery, so the vaudeville they offered had to be simple acts with one or two performers and not much in the way of scenery and props. This was the type known as “small-time vaudeville.” The acts were of the kind that, in big-time vaudeville, were played in front of the curtain while the more elaborate sets were changed. Only the theaters and opera houses and halls where variety shows had played across the country since the eighties (many of which were soon to be turned into motion-picture theaters) could provide the facilities for big-time vaudeville and an audience used to paying higher admission prices. Later on, the existence of these theaters provided a venue for motion-picture road shows and special showings of the long feature film, outside the normal exhibition system. 27

In nickelodeon days, where rapid turnover of the audience was important, the variety acts had to perform over and over again at very frequent intervals. It was an even harder life than these performers had lived in the old days, playing “two a day.” Although at the height of the “daily change” fever for movies the variety act was often held over for as much as a week, it would rarely stay in the same place longer than that. Managers who insisted they had customers coming back every day never quite explained why their public had to see a new film but were willing to see the variety act several times.

The Progressives who wanted to uplift the industry and educate the masses in attendance at the nickelodeon deplored the vulgarity of the variety show and campaigned actively to get rid of it. From their point of view, all these distractions had to be removed from the motion-picture theater if the picture was to really influence its audience. The motion-picture producers shared their mission, but did not articulate their other major objection, namely that vaudeville stood in the way of expanding the market, because the exhibitor who used it needed fewer films to fill his program. However, reformers and producers alike encouraged the educational lecture in the nickelodeon as uplift for the lower classes and as an attraction for the “better classes.” The educational lecture appealed to American notions of higher Page 19  culture, and there was a long-standing tradition of attending lectures on all kind of subjects: literary, historical, philosophical, and most popular of all, travel topics, with slides. Even in New York’s Lower East Side ghetto, the weary tenementdwelling immigrants, exhausted from long hours of labor in the sweatshops, dragged themselves to evening lectures they only half understood in the hope of improving themselves. 28 Thus Herr Professor in the Lower East Side nickelodeon in New York City lecturing on Shakespeare was to be praised for his efforts. He also served as manager of the theater and therefore did not demand an extra salary. The poorer nickelodeons could not afford to hire a lecturer, either for the purpose of educating the audience or to speak along with the film to explain what was going on. Some lecturers in the moving-picture theaters had a high reputation and were billed as an attraction on the posters out front. Some doubled as the “talker” with the film.

By 1907, the convergence of the nickelodeon’s demand for product, the popularity of the story film, and the new immigrant audiences from different cultures that now filled the nickelodeons in major cities resulted in a crisis in film narrative. Earlier methods of narration were inadequate for the growing complexity of the stories that producers were attempting to relate. There were complaints about a lack of clarity. One way in which this crisis (to be discussed in more detail in chapter 4) manifested itself was in a renewed demand for someone talking along with the film to explain what was going on: the “showman-narrator,” or lecturer. For the same reason, there were new experiments with mechanical synchronization of sound with film. The Cameraphone opened in Baltimore on 27 April 1908. In May the Theatrephone was announced: this was said to be a device to synchronize disks with moving pictures, which was going to be used to present Hamlet and other plays and operas. The French company Gaumont sent its new "talking and singing " motion-picture machine to Savannah, Georgia, in the summer of 1908, along with two technicians to install it. This was called the Chronophone, and by October it was playing New York. A month later, there were three mechanical sound systems on the market: Gaumont’s Chronophone, the Cameraphone, and the Synchroscope, which was something Carl Laemmle was promoting. Troupes of actors, such as the one called Actologue, traveled with films on the road, speaking the lines from behind the screen, for films such as COLLEGE CHUMS , THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO , and EAST LYNNE. Another such troupe appeared under the name of Humanovo, organized by Adolph Zukor, future founder of Paramount Pictures. 29

Both the sound systems and the professional actors as “talkers” behind the screen were expensive, of course, and appeared only in vaudeville houses, opera houses, or the bigger theaters, not with the small storefront show. In the smaller operations, the owner, his wife or his child, or the singer, or the piano player could be pressed into service to talk along with the film. Managers without the means to hire a “talker” would post in the lobby the synopses sent out by the film’s producers in the form of printed bulletins. For this reason, Biograph’s one-page Bulletin was considered more desirable than the other companies’ multiple-page house organs, and eventually the others followed Biograph’s example. Similar demands for aids in understanding films would be renewed in 1913, when the arrival of the multireel feature film again created a crisis in film form. The silent film was very rarely silent, and a kind of search to replace the missing sounds continued throughout this period in the form of Page 20  talkers, lecturers, synchronized records, live or canned music, or live or mechanical sound effects. The search for visual equivalents of speech and sound led to new styles of film construction, as described in chapter 4.

As long as vaudeville remained a part of the presentation, the varied program of the nickelodeon reflected the pre-1907 concept of the “show.” This concept never really disappeared throughout the silent period, in the sense that live playlets and ballets and pantomimes preceded the main feature in the biggest movie theaters through the twenties. But the time came when these extras, the illustrated song, the vaudeville act, and the educational lecture, were dropped in the nickelodeon and the ordinary theater. This was the time when the motion picture assumed its new role as the carrier of dreams and illusions of reality.

The Night Rider [next] [back] The New, Original Wonder Woman

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or