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Going to the Movies - The Theater, The Audience, The Show

picture theaters film

We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.

Marcus Loew

D uring the 1915–1928 period, the experience of viewing a film was far different from what it would be at any time before or since. Exhibitors considered themselves showmen, not film programmers. The feature motion picture was only one part of their evening’s entertainment, supplying about 68 percent of the total “attraction,” according to one 1922 exhibitors’ poll. Indeed, 24 percent of theater managers in this survey found that it made absolutely no difference at the box office whether the feature attraction was any good or not. Consequently, while exhibitors always hoped for a strong feature, they did not feel wholly dependent on that part of their show which arrived in a can. Nor were they above “improving” their film subject by any means at their disposal. 1

The Theater

In 1928 Harold Franklin, then president of West Coast Theatres, Inc., described the various categories of motion-picture theaters in operation at that time. Most impressive was “The Super,” seating thousands, the last word in architecture and decoration. The Roxy and the New York Paramount were his examples. “De Luxe First Run” houses were to be found more frequently, centrally located to cater to an entire metropolis, and probably offering a stage presentation along with the film. “Neighborhood Theatres” were located in residential areas, and their size and magnificence were determined entirely by the nature of the surrounding population. These usually played second-run films. After them were third-, fourth-, and fifth-run houses, whose service and standards were left undefined. “Vaudeville Picture Houses” ran a film with five or six acts of vaudeville but were distinct from straight vaudeville theaters, and "Double Feature Houses " offered their patrons two successive feature-length pictures (“like asking a person to read two novels in the same evening,” Franklin carped). Finally, one could still find those small-town legitimate houses which would present a film when the need arose. There were an estimated 20,500 screens across the United States. 2

Although the “picture palace” occupies an important position in the lore of the era, relatively few such theaters existed. The Film Daily Yearbook noted sixty-six major first-run houses in 1927, only seventeen of which grossed as much as $1 million Page 10  annually. It would appear that a great many Americans were still patronizing neighborhood and subsequent-run houses. 3

Despite the opening of such elaborate motion-picture theaters as John Kunsky’s Columbia in Detroit (1911) and the Regent in New York, designed by Thomas Lamb (1913), storefront theaters of three hundred seats were still being built in 1915. 4

Photoplay magazine offered the following costs for such a house:

Although Photoplay concluded that such theaters would no longer be economical because they were too small to take advantage of popular films, a large number apparently survived well into the 1920s. The Motion Picture News found that the average size of a 1916 movie house was 502 seats, a figure that had increased only to 507 by 1922, despite a boom in the construction of large theaters after the war. 6

In 1915, many movie theaters still wore the flashy nickelodeon-style ornamentation of an earlier day, bedecked with garish displays of electric lights and gaudy facades in cast iron or terra-cotta, ordered by catalogue from such dealers as the Decorators Supply Company of Chicago. The Architectural Record attacked such decorative schemes as “illiterate trashiness” and published a useful, no-frills essay on moving-picture theater design by John Klaber in the November 1915 issue. Sensibly, Klaber starts with the central problem of the booth and the screen. Projection booths should be fireproof, preferably of brick, terra-cotta blocks, or reinforced concrete. Three examples are given: a six-by-eight-foot booth with one projector, a nine-by-eight-foot booth with a projector and a stereopticon, and a twelve-by-eight-foot booth with two projectors and stereopticon. Each machine should have its own lens port and lookout port. The stereopticon projected illustrated song slides, local advertisements, and announcements of coming attractions, while the second projector had become necessary in the best houses to eliminate the waiting time between reel changes during multiple-reel films.

Klaber’s first choice for a screen is a plaster wall, finished with dull enamel or whiting, and tinted slightly blue. If the screen needs to be moved, muslin may be used, but this is not recommended, since it is not as brilliant, tends to become soiled, and wafts about in drafts. A dull-finished aluminum screen is also proposed, but for “the most brilliant effèct,” a frosted plate-glass mirror is suggested, available in sizes as large as 13½ by 18 feet. A screen image of 9 by 12 feet will give a clear and “approximately life size” picture for up to one hundred feet, but one should not place it too high off the floor, “in order that the figures may appear to walk on the ground and not in the air.”

Because of distortion, seats should not be placed too far to the side, and owing to the constant vibration of the image, none should be less than ten feet from the screen. In fact, the best seating will be about seventy to one hundred feet away, where this vibration is minimized. These seats should be not less than thirty-two inches from back to back, or less than twenty inches wide, but they need not be upholstered, “as the performances are usually short.” Nor is any elaborate decoration needed on the interior, since changes between reels are usually short, “and the audience has little time to admire the auditorium.”

The long and narrow design Klaber seems to favor is best illustrated by the Victoria in Philadelphia, which contained over eight hundred seats arranged in forty-three rows of nineteen or less, with two aisles, all squeezed into a 48-by-200-foot structure. Considering that he is writing a year after the opening of Thomas Lamb’s elegant Strand in New York, Klaber’s suggestions seem positively primitive. Yet it should be remembered that the average house of the period was far nearer Klaber’s designs than Lamb’s.

By 1919 short performances with time-consuming reel changes were relegated to the most remote situations. A good-sized town like Toledo, Ohio, boasted forty-five movie theaters with an average seating capacity of 811 (considerably higher than the national average reported by the Motion Picture News, since this was an urban situation). According to a study of Toledo’s theaters conducted by John Phelan, a graduate student at Toledo University, while the city’s population had been increasing (it was then 250,000), the number of theaters had fallen over the past five years, indicating a shaking out of some older and smaller houses. Of the town’s total seating capacity of 55,132, the fourteen largest theaters accounted for 20,000 seats. Only four out of forty-five theaters had both an orchestra and an organist, but two of those housed elaborate $20,000 pipe organs. Attendance in Toledo averaged 45,000 per day for a six-reel show, at a price ranging from seven to thirty-nine cents with fifteen cents the average. The six downtown theaters alone drew 75,000 patrons per week. Phelan figured that annual movie admissions in Toledo averaged $10 per capita, or some sixty-seven visits per year for every citizen. The theaters’ annual advertising expenses for newspapers, billboards, posters, and other media totaled $166,000, or $3 per seat per year. Ticket sellers, ushers, attendants, and cleaners were paid an average of $15 weekly, but projectionists earned $18 to $35. Four film exchanges in town employed fifteen people. Profit margins for these theaters, he calculated, ran between 60 and 100 percent annually, with small risk.

Health and safety were perceived as real issues. Each theater had an average of three fire exits and five fire extinguishers. Thirty-nine projection booths were all metal, although three were only metal-lined. Nine theaters were dangerously heated by gas or coal stoves, the remainder with steam or hot water. Phelan noted that many of the theaters were located in the vicinity of saloons and dance halls, and that at least six “make a specialty of catering to the questionable and suggestive phases of life.” This observation led him into a discussion of the low moral tone and nudity in many films, especially those that purported to attack social vices: “They contain so much portrayal of the vice itself and portray it with such lingering detail that the spectacles, instead of making immorality disgusting, defeat their avowed purpose by arousing either morbid curiosity or downright passion.” 8

A comparative survey of theater sizes across the country in 1919 was provided by H. D. H. Connick in a report to the investment firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Here the   nation’s fifteen thousand theaters were divided according to admission prices and seating capacity: 9

The increasing unprofitability of small houses in the immediate postwar years was graphically demonstrated by theater owner Frank J. Rembusch, who compared operating costs at one of his small Indiana theaters in February 1922 with the same house’s record exactly ten years earlier (table 2.1). With seventeen years in the business, Rembusch complained that "the times are the toughest in my experience. "

The year 1922 was a poor one for other theater owners as well, with nearly three-fourths of the exhibitors reporting worse business than in 1919, 1920, or 1921. This slump was documented by an extensive survey conducted by the Babson Statistical Organization for the Motion Picture News, with the cooperation of Columbia University’s Department of Photoplay Production. Questionnaires were sent to ten thousand of the nation’s estimated fourteen thousand exhibitors, although no figure was ever given on the number of questionnaires returned. Nevertheless, this sampling is the most detailed we are likely to find for this period (table 2.2). The poll also discovered that 52 percent of theaters had no exhibitor competition—they were the only film show around. Despite this fact, nearly one-third had been forced to lower prices recently. Small theaters continued to provide the backbone of national film exhibition. Nearly 64 percent of all theaters seated five hundred or less, while not even 9 percent seated over a thousand. While 62 percent were open for more or less the entire week, 30 percent did business only on three days or less. When the hot weather arrived, business evaporated.

In 1923 the New York Times reported that while one-third of the population was concentrated in 190 large cities, these cities contained only one-fourth of the country’s motion-picture theaters. Although the average size of the country theaters was smaller (city theaters were found to have an average seating capacity of 750, against a national average of around 500), their preponderant numbers still provided the bulk of the nation’s seating. 10

Even at the time, little attention was paid to this silent majority of picture houses. When F. H. Richardson reported on the status of “village theaters” to the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, he sketched a sorry story, but one, he implied, that was of merely local significance.

These “theaters” eké out a precarious existence for the most part by renting the very cheapest possible junk service, paying small attention to decoration, the comfort of their patrons, or to ventilation. Some man or boy with little knowledge or experience is hired to “operate” old, worn out projectors, using the minimum possible screen illumination. … As a rule their projection equipment is antiquated, badly worn, and very thoroughly inefficient. The screen very often is basically very poor, and usually its surface is more or less dirty with the accumulations of months, if not years. Ventilation is largely a matter of imagination. The music is supplied by a girl who drums on a decrepit old piano, apparently with the idea of creating as much noise as possible. The films are rainy, battered old junk (“Importance of the Village Theatre,” Transactions of the SMPE 23 [October 1925], p. 85).

Projection problems were so widespread that only specialists bothered to take note of them. While small exhibitors loaded the pages of the Exhibitor’s Herald with complaints about the films they were forced to show, few admitted their own shortcomings. The editor of American Projectionist visited the booth of a small suburban theater in 1926 by climbing up a steep wooden ladder through an eighteen-inch trap door. The room was nine feet square and six feet high, lined in sheet metal. Unglazed projection ports twelve inches square and observation ports five inches square (set at the same level) provided the ventilation and a small fan the only air circulation. The ceiling was ten inches above the lamp housing and covered with a layer of white ash. The projectors were held together with baling wire, cords, and rubber bands, since the management would not invest in spare parts. The show had broken down four times that week, and audiences were screaming to replace the projectionist, an apparent “tubercular case” who had taken the job because there was nothing else available. 11

Although the job might be boring, unhealthy, and dangerous, working as a projectionist seemed to many an easy way to break into the movies. While some unscrupulous “schools” graduated scenario writers and cinematographers, others targeted the exhibition end of the business. One victim reported paying $50 for a four-week course with a guaranteed job. His “school” featured poor equipment and worse instructors, but by memorizing the questions he was able to pass the required test. The guaranteed job was at a fleapit theater whose run-down equipment he was unable to operate, and he was promptly fired. This situation proved to be a setup between the school and the theater manager. Protesting through the union was no help because it already had one hundred members out of work. Only after studying a projection manual he found in the public library did he succeed in locating a job in a small country theater. While incompetent graduates of cinematography schools were unlikely to get the chance to spoil the photography of a real film, projectionists with similar qualifications were regularly turned loose on unsuspecting audiences. 12

With such working conditions, one wonders how the number of catastrophic fires were kept as low as they seem to have been, since a great deal of professional care was needed when handling the inflammable nitrocellulose film. Once started, such conflagrations were hard to control. On 22 May 1923 overheated film caused a fire in a Mexicala theater, which resulted in fourteen deaths, $2 million in property damage, and one thousand people losing their homes. 13

The end of the silent period was marked by a surge in theater construction involving modest houses as well as picture palaces. The 1928 Film Daily Yearbook reported 967 theaters erected in 1926, nearly all of them film theaters, and offered a financial plan for a typical 1,000-seat house (see table 2.3). One has only to compare these figures with the sorry statistics offered by Rembusch five years earlier to see why the boom in theater construction extended beyond the operation of downtown showplaces. The greater profitability of the 1927 example comes not just from the added nickel charged but from the 40 percent rise in weekly attendance that occurred in the five-year interval.

Still, the most visible mark of this boom was unquestionably the select number of downtown showplaces, the picture palaces that left so strong an impression on several generations of American filmgoers. “The United States in the twenties was dotted with a thousand Xanadus,” wrote theater historian Ben Hall.

Decreed by some local (or chain-owning) Kubla Khan, these pleasure domes gave expression to the most secret and polychrome dreams of a whole group of architects who might otherwise have gone through life doomed to turning out churches, hotels, banks, and high schools. The architecture of the movie palaces was a triumph of suppressed desire and its practitioners ranged in style from the purely classic to a wildly abandoned eclectic that could only have come from men who, like the Khan himself, “on honeydew had fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise” (The Best Remaining Seats [New York: Bramhall House, 1961], p. 93).

At first, many of the great film palaces drew on the examples of such elaborate turn-of-the-century spectacle theaters as the New York Hippodrome. This monstrous hall, opened in 1905, combined the most modern stage equipment with interior decoration of rare opulence—at a cost of nearly $4 million to its backer, John “Bet a Million” Gates. But unlike New York’s Metropolitan Opera House or Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, the Hippodrome was not designed to serve an elite audience. Instead, it hoped to fill its 5,200 seats by attracting a huge and continuing volume of patrons. As we have seen, as early as 1915 statistics indicated that the small theater was an essentially uneconomical proposition. Simple economic pressures impelled a move to larger and larger playhouses, which soon grew to rival the Hippodrome itself in scale, and surpass it in decoration. 14

The sudden emergence of lavish motion-picture houses in the mid-teens was a shock to patrons of the legitimate stage. In April 1914 New York Times theater critic Victor Watson covered the glittering opening of the Strand, Broadway’s first lavish picture house: “If anyone had told me two years ago that the time would come when the finest looking people in town would be going to the biggest and newest theater on Broadway for the purpose of seeing motion pictures, I would have sent them down to my friend, Dr. Minas Gregory, at Bellevue Hospital. The doctor runs the city’s bughouse, you know.” 15

These picture palaces soon differentiated themselves from earlier legitimate houses, as well as from the modest film theaters described by John Klaber in 1915. Their large and distinctive facades (remotely descended from the nickelodeons) served to announce their special form of entertainment with elaborate marquees and bursts of electrical signage. Unlike large opera houses or concert halls, their performances tended to be continuous, so arrangements needed to be made for handling waiting multitudes. This situation led to the design of vast lobbies, often more opulent and intriguing than the auditorium interiors themselves. A few of the new design features of the picture palaces were more prosaic, such as the placement of the projection booth. For best effect, these could not simply be tucked into a disused balcony, a lesson some were still learning as late as 1926. That year, MGM staged the Los Angeles premier of B EN -H UR at the Biltmore, a legitimate house, with the projectors hanging in the second balcony. The steep angle of projection caused so much distortion that "the elongated heads and necks of our screen favorites is [ sic ] indeed horrible to behold. " 16

In the absence of reserved seating, crowd-control devices were ingenious. Each seat at the Roxy was wired to a central console, so the house staff could immediately direct patrons to new vacancies. If there were still no seats available, customers could pass the time in comfortable lounges, decorated with imported antiques, or the reconstructed interiors of millionaires’ mansions. It was not unusual for a very elegant house to offer a fully staffed nursery, or even a hospital. 17

The trademark of the picture palace, especially in the silent era, was the elaborate theater organ known as “the Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra,” or more commonly, “the mighty Wurlitzer.” This instrument had the ability to multiply the octave pitches of each rank of pipes, and as theaters vied with one another for the most splendid console, audiences often found themselves blown out of their seats. Some of these theaters were staffed with orchestras of over one hundred pieces, rivaling the size of the finest symphonies, but only at a picture palace could a theatergoer hear Jesse Crawford play the Wurlitzer. 18

Among the most significant innovations in these large picture houses was something that appealed to neither eye nor ear. According to one historian, Balaban and Katz were able to dominate the Chicago film scene largely through the introduction of air conditioning in their theaters beginning in 1921. This convenience allowed them to operate throughout the summer, negating the seasonal attendance swings suffered by their rivals (see table 2.2). 19

The design of most of these houses was in the hands of a small group of specialized firms. Some tended to work for specific chains, others became known for their signature design treatments, and a few came to dominate theater construction in entire cities or territories. Thomas Lamb was among the first widely recognized picture-palace designers. Often working in the tradition of Robert Adam, Lamb was responsible for such important New York houses as the Regent (1913), the Strand (1914), the Rialto (1916), the Rivoli (1917), and the Capitol (1919). “Lamb softened formal classicism by coating nearly every surface with delicate floral bas-relief,” wrote historian David Naylor. The great classicist of picture-palace designers, he ultimately came to design most of the houses in the Loew’s chain. 20

The firm of Rapp and Rapp was just as closely associated with Chicago and the Balaban and Katz circuit. Their Chicago Theatre (1921) was the flagship of the chain, although its French Renaissance decor was probably surpassed by the Tivoli, which they built on the South Side of town the same year. Renowned for their “Sun King style,” Rapp and Rapp were among the first to reflect the great size (and cost) of their houses by increasing the scope and scale of decorative ornamentation. The New York Paramount (1926) was probably their best-known eastern house. 21

More fantastic still was John Eberson, whose “imitations of exotic environments” were the most fanciful and individualistic of picture palaces. These “atmospheric” theaters were not simply developments of some historical style but witty concoctions of fantasy and reality that borrowed freely from any and all traditions. The Houston Majestic (1923) was the first of these, a theater built to represent an ancient Italian garden, with a ceiling made to look like an open sky across which traveled stars and cloud formations. Eberson was at his best in the Chicago Capitol (1925) and the Miami Olympic (1926), and few who visited it would forget his Loew’s Paradise (1929), with its surreal treatment of the Italian Renaissance. 22

There were others, notably B. Marcus Priteca, designer for the Pantages chain on the West Coast, and C. Howard Crane, a prolific worker who hit his stride at the end of the silent era with theaters like the United Artists in Los Angeles. But most houses simply echoed the neoclassical, baroque, or atmospheric styles developed by the top firms. Exotic theaters in less fashionable modes, like Grauman’s Egyptian (1922) and Chinese (1927), San Antonio’s Aztec (1926), or the Navajo-inspired Kimo in Albuquerque (1927), offered occasional variants on the traditional revival approach. A theater designed in a contemporary style, like the art deco Carthay Circle in Los Angeles (1926), was almost unheard of.

The greatest of silent picture palaces was unquestionably the Roxy in New York, the 6,214-seat “cathedral of the motion picture,” which opened just in time to see the end of the silent cinema. Unlike most of its great rivals, the Roxy was not intended as part of a chain. Instead, it was a promotion successfully floated by Herbert Lubin, a failed motion-picture producer. Lubin conceived the idea of the world’s largest theater, raised the initial financing, and enticed S. L. “Roxy” Rothapfel (sometimes “Rothafel”), the most prominent showman in pictures, to come over from the Capitol. (One week before the opening Lubin sold his interest to William Fox, who was looking for a New York flagship for his chain.) Rothapfel worked closely with the architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager, and the designer, Harold W. Rambusch, to ensure that the building set a standard for opulence. Ben Hall characterized this standard as “an exuberant grafting of Renaissance details on Gothic forms with fanciful Moorish overtones.” The exterior suggested the cathedral of Valladolid, and the interior “the inside of a great bronze bowl.” Patrons who were not intimidated by a trip under the massive, five-story tall rotunda faced a squadron of ushers drilled by a retired Marine Corps captain. The statuary, the carpeting, the mural decorations, all worked together to create an effect of overwhelming grandeur, but the frame had grown far more important than any picture. This was no accident, but the conscious plan of the theater’s manager and owners. 23

According to the director of the Publix Theatre Managers Training School:

People come to the motion picture theater to live an hour or two in the land of romance. They seek escape there from the humdrum existence of daily life. Civilization has crowded from their lives other places where formerly they could get mental rest and imaginative release…. How ever, people realize with gratitude that for a small charge they can be picked up on a magic carpet and set down in a dream city amidst palatial surroundings where worry and care can never enter, where pleasure hides in every colored shadow and music scents the air (John F. Barry, “The Motion Picture Theatre,” quoted in Theatre Historical Society Annual 3 1976, p. 3).

He might have mentioned that they could also see a film, but to the showmen of the era this fact was hardly an indispensable part of the evening’s entertainment. As John Grierson wrote in 1926, with only a touch of irony:

I think the big theaters have dislocated the cinema world for the moment, and I have a mind to say that the pictures are not good enough for the theaters. Too often I have been ushered into one of these palaces like a princelet, and mounted the great staircase like a modern Jacob, only to find the picture so trivial that I had to unusher myself and descend five minutes after. The hospitality was excellent, the meal terrible. The mountain was laboring hugely and giving birth to mice (“The Industry at a Parting of the Ways,” Motion Picture News , 13 November 1926, p. 1842).

The Audience

Unfortunately, we have better information on the location of theaters and the makeup of theater programs than on the audiences who patronized them. Even in the crudest terms, estimates of the number of paid admissions are not reliable before 1922. Prior to this date, most figures given are extrapolations from federal admissions-tax receipts, which lump together all forms of entertainment. The standard figures provided by the Film Daily show a rising curve that begins to climb sharply after 1925 (fig. 2.1).

Who were these people? By 1919 theater men and sociologists alike had begun conducting their own surveys, although for very different ends. The attendance of children at motion-picture shows had been a concern of reformers since nickelodeon days, and studies by non-industry groups tended to center on the impact of films on this sector of the population. Within the industry, exhibitors were most concerned to poll audience preferences, hoping to use the information to help them in programming or in negotiating with their suppliers.

The Phelan study in Toledo suggested that this audience was relatively young. One exhibitor reported that two-thirds of his daily attendance consisted of young people aged ten to twenty. Since unaccompanied children younger than seventeen were not permitted by law, Phelan used that age as a reference point. His survey of managers indicated that 40 percent of their audience were males above seventeen, 35 percent were females above seventeen, and 25 percent were children under seventeen. The managers admitted that half of these children were unaccompanied. That same year Harold Corey, writing in Everybody’s Magazine, claimed, “The backbone of today’s business is the attendance of young people from seventeen to twenty-three years of age. At twenty-three other interests develop.” 24

A decade later, Alice Miller Mitchell analyzed the filmgoing habits of 10,052 grade-school- and high-school-age children in Chicago. Mitchell also concluded that as children grew older, they attended the movies less frequently, with fifth-through eighth-graders attending more heavily than high-school students. The Mitchell study was among the first to attempt a statistical correlation between motion-picture attendance and criminal activity. Here one can read of the reformatory inmate who committed a series of holdups because “I had to have money for the movies.” This young felon attended the pictures almost every day (when at liberty), and his favorite films were THE BIRTH OF A NATION and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Mitchell also reveals that 27.2 percent of Chicago’s juvenile delinquents went to the movies five to seven times a week, while only 0.4 percent of local Boy Scouts did the same. More significant is the fact that the vast majority of children (69.2 percent) attended neighborhood theaters almost exclusively, avoiding the downtown Loop and its picture palaces. Indeed, only 3.3 percent of Chicago Boy Scouts might ever be found in a Loop theater, if these figures are to be believed. This means that the smaller neighborhood houses were the ones most heavily dependent on the patronage of children. “If it were not for the children, I should have to close my theater as 85 per cent of my audience is made up of them,” one exhibitor admitted. Mitchell provides convincing accounts of the many ruses used by young Chicagoans to gain admission, along with the assertion that over 20 percent clogged the theaters by sitting through at least two shows. 25

Children’s attendance figures reported by Mitchell at the end of the silent era (when general audience figures were rising) are among the heaviest of any survey in this period. She found 64.1 percent attending once or twice a week and 9.7 percent attending three or four times. By comparison, a 1915 study in Portland, Oregon,showed only 28.4 percent of children attending twice a week and 5.6 percent going three times. In Portland in 1915, 9.5 percent of children did not go to the movies at all, while only 1.7 percent abstained according to the Mitchell study a dozen years later. 26

The largest children’s sampling was undertaken in 1923 by the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, and Associated First National Exhibitors. It surveyed 37,000 high-school students in 76 cities across the country (table 2.4). The last part of the survey turned up interesting geographical biases. Boys and girls of central, eastern, and western states voted overwhelmingly for THE FOUR HORSEMEN ; boys and girls in New England and girls in the South preferred WAY DOWN EAST ; boys in the South supported THE BIRTH OF A NATION . A strong preference is apparent for the films of D. W. Griffith, whose work constitutes one-third of the entire list.

When asked about their favorite actors, the boys predictably voted for action and Western stars (Fairbanks was on top), while the girls supported romantic heroes (Valentino). But Wallace Reid came in second on both lists, unique in his ability to appeal strongly to both sexes.

That same year a more localized poll was conducted in Evansville, Indiana, and published in The Educational Screen . While the general preferences given in the Russell Sage study appear again, the Evansville survey included grade-school as well as high-school students and revealed significant shifts in attendance between these groups. In a sampling of 1,645 high-school and 3,354 grade-school students, it was found that the boys’ average weekly attendance dropped from 1.6 to 1.3 times per week when they entered high school, while that of the girls rose from 1.5 to 1.6. This is one of the few early pieces of evidence indicating an increasing feminization of film audiences beginning in the high-school years. There are few reliable statistics on the proportion of women in silent-film audiences, but the Evansville survey suggests that males gradually lost interest during their teens. In 1920 W. Stephen Bush reported in the New York Times that 60 percent of film audiences were women, but in 1927 the Moving Picture World set the figure as high as 83 percent. 27

While fan magazines organized popularity polls as circulation-building devices, industry surveys attempted to gain hard information that could inform bidding and other industry practices. The Kinema Theatre in Fresno, California (population 45,000), conducted one of the most methodical such surveys in 1924, distributing questionnaires to its patrons, hiring investigators to canvass 1,600 townspeople, and carrying out a special “across the tracks” survey among the town’s German- and Russian-speaking communities, from which the theater drew much of its audience. 28 This allowed the management to compare the tastes of regular theatergoers with those of the community at large. For example, in terms of genre preference, regular theatergoers had a far higher opinion of comedies than the average resident, while foreign-speaking audiences favored them most of all (table 2.5).

Attendance statistics in Fresno seem very high, with 74.4 percent of regular theatergoers attending once or twice a week, while 31 percent of the general community showed up just as frequently. According to the small “across the tracks” sample (thirty interviews), 80 percent of foreign-speaking residents attended once or twice a week. It would be interesting to know what other entertainment options were available in Fresno in 1924. Patrons of the Kinema Theatre (which was a 1,400-seat house, the largest in town) were asked what special features of this theater appealed to them:

These figures seem characteristic of many picture houses in this era. The Kinema was able to differentiate itself from its rivals primarily through its musical program, with its general opulence another important factor. Only 10 percent of its patrons came because they preferred the line of pictures shown there. 29

In 1928 Professor H. W. Hepner had his students conduct another survey, using a questionnaire very similar to that of the Fresno study. The sample of 600 was 58 percent male, and 41 percent of respondents were college students. When they were asked, “What features about your favorite theater appeal to you?” the results were similar to those in Fresno four years earlier: 30

One can speculate on how the high percentage of college students might have affected the rising importance of the film (or the declining importance of courtesy). The significance of the musical portion of the show has also shown a marked increase, however.

For certain questions, the response of the college students was broken down separately, as in the obligatory genre question, “What kind of pictures do you like best?”

The students’ preference for comedies and mysteries, and relative lack of interest in dramatic and historical subjects, suggests the response of the regular theatergoers in the Fresno survey; however, no statistics are offered here on frequency of attendance. Nor is any attention given to the tastes of children in either poll, although, as we have seen, they made up a significant portion of the silent-film audience.

While these data are scattered and incomplete, they suggest that, when asked, children claimed to prefer Westerns (boys), love stories (girls), and comedies; college students favored comedies and mysteries, and the theatergoers of one small California town preferred mysteries, melodramas, and comedies. The only group that expressed any preference for serious drama was made up of those who did not go to the movies very often. Were these avowed feelings actually translated into box-office support for comedies and melodramas and neglect of serious dramas and costume pictures? It is very difficult to judge with certainty which films in this period were the best box-office performers. In the early years of features, most pictures would have been sold outright by producers, as was the case with THE BIRTH OF A NATION , generally assumed to be the biggest box-office success of the silent era. While surviving records tell us how much money was returned to its producers, there is no way of knowing what amount was actually paid in at box offices, because no such records were kept. That is the figure we would need to know in order to gauge the “popularity” of THE BIRTH OF A NATION .

Eventually, distributors demanded a percentage of the box-office take, but such records do not survive for all releases. Even when they do, it is dangerous to make comparisons among the releases of various firms. For example, a Universal picture would have to sell far more seats to net its producers $100,000 than would an MGM film because an MGM release would have immediate access to the downtown Loew’s picture palaces, while Universal could only buy into such a situation at unfavorable terms. In addition, Universal’s distribution apparatus was more heavily oriented to the country theaters, where admission prices were lower. So even if we had reliable figures giving the net returns on all films of this period, we would still be unable to judge how many seats were sold. And only this “voting with the feet” could show us the impact on the general public of particular films and stars of the day.

James Mark Purcell, in an unpublished study, has attempted to correlate the available figures and combine them with such other data as exhibitors’ reports appearing in the trade papers. For this book he has provided an approximate ranking of the most popular attractions of 1922–1927: 31

These listings indicate that, for this period at least, the dominant genres were period spectacle and comedy. Except for some of the comedies, there are very few films here with contemporary settings. If audiences did have an aversion to historical costume dramas, it must have been to the wave of imitations that followed these successes. Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks appear as the most consistently popular stars, and the only film that could possibly be called a sleeper is CHARLEY’S AUNT , a Sydney Chaplin comedy that appears to have done quite well in the non-urban areas. The fact that there are so few surprises here demonstrates just how tightly knit all aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition had become. There was little opportunity now for the innovative little picture from an unexpected corner. THE MIRACLE MAN , said to have been the top grosser of 1919, would not have reached so many screens by the end of the silent era.

The Show

The high rates of attendance in this period, with most of the population turning out once or twice a week, could only be fueled by constant changes of program. While so-called pre-release engagements of a few major spectacles such as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS , WINGS , or BEN-HUR tied up some theaters for months, even most picture palaces typically changed their feature every week. For example, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles ran THE CIRCUS from 28 January through 11 May 1928. But down the street at the larger Egyptian Theatre, this same period was devoted to one-week runs of B ABY M INE , MY BEST GIRL , LOVE , WEST POINT , THE DOVE , THE LAST COMMAND , THE STUDENT PRINCE , THE SHOWDOWN , THE BIG CITY , CHICAGO , SORRELL AND SON , LEGION OF THE CONDEMNED , THE CROWD , THE DIVINE WOMAN , and SADIE THOMPSON . And, away from the big first-run houses, even more frequent changes were the rule. The Motion Picture News found in 1916 that only 3 percent of theaters ran their program an entire week, while 36 percent changed six times per week. The average number of changes per week was five, a figure that had gradually decreased to three and a half by 1922, when 10 percent of theaters kept a film for an entire week. 32

This move from daily to weekly changes began as soon as feature-length pictures had established themselves in the market. Walter W. Irwin, in charge of distribution for VLSE (Vitagraph-Lubin-Selig-Essanay) in 1915, offered figures suggesting that the new system of weekly changes could be far more profitable—providing that theaters could afford to double their film-rental and advertising budgets (table 2.7).

Despite these attractive statistics, the Connick report, in 1919, continued to show high turnover rates. Of 15,000 theaters cited, only 160 (1 percent) were said to lease films for an entire week, 2,500 (16 percent) were leasing for half a week, and the balance were changing daily. These figures were provided by Famous Players-Lasky, whose clientele would have been more “upscale” than most. 33

With such frequent changes, word-of-mouth publicity was of little value. Monthly fan magazines might be able to create some advance interest, but the daily reviewers had little influence. For this reason, one-quarter of exhibitors felt that the quality of the feature was of no importance to the box office. Audiences would arrive anyway, drawn to a particular theater by its unchanging amenities: comfort or music. If a particular film was bad, there was little time for such news to be circulated, and soon something else would be running in its place anyway. Given such conditions, the immediate appeal of certain stars was very important. Beyond that, the weekly grosses might be affected by the quality of exhibitor stunts and advertising. 34

Silent-film-era advertising followed patterns established by nineteenth-century circuses and traveling shows. Paid newspaper ads were small, a heavy emphasis was placed on large and colorful posters, and exhibitor stunts were employed wherever possible. When the European war closed access to the Bavarian quarries that had supplied stones for lithography, the printing process for advertising posters in America became photomechanical. This situation temporarily reduced quality, but made such posters cheap and easy to print. The burgeoning motion-picture industry of the late teens took full advantage of these new conditions to order print runs of unprecedented size. The formats adopted by the American Printers’ Congress in 1911 had become standard by the feature-picture era. The “one-sheet” (27" × 41") was by far the most common issue, posted singly or in combination in any convenient location. “Three-sheets” (41" × 81") and “six-sheets” (82" × 81") were reserved for poster hoardings around town, although in the early days they might appear in front of theater lobbies on specially built display stands. Small-town theaters continued to crowd their sidewalks with such large posters throughout the silent era. The “twenty-four-sheet,” reminiscent of the advertising campaigns of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at the turn of the century, was reserved for billboard use. 35

The Morgan Lithograph Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was the most important supplier of such paper, typically running 8,000 to 12,000 one-sheets, 300 three-sheets, 300 six-sheets, and 1,000 twenty-four-sheets if the need arose. 36 Most of these posters were intended for use away from the theater, and a line of smaller advertising cards was created for use within the theater itself. These included lobby cards (11" × 14"), usually issued in a set of eight, inserts (14" × 36") and half-sheets (22" × 28"). Window cards (14" × 22") were cardboard stand-ups intended for posting in friendly shop windows, and a blank space was left at the top to indicate the theater location and date. It was not unusual to have a choice of designs available within each format. For example, Harold Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN offered a pair of one-sheets, with “style A” featuring Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston in a traditional romantic two-shot and “style B” showing a humorous close-up of Lloyd alone. Three-sheet “A” featured the basted-tuxedo gag, while the “B” style emphasized the college angle. Exhibitors were expected to choose whichever combinations would be most effective with local audiences. This “paper” was to be purchased directly from the film exchange (in later years specialized agencies would lease such material on a regional basis). Pressbooks describing these items, and including prepared publicity copy for insertion in local papers (even prepared reviews), were sent to exhibitors well in advance of the show date. 37

One of the most elaborate campaigns was mounted for Universal’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA , which offered a choice of eight different one-sheets, six three-sheets, a pair of six-sheets, and four different twenty-four-sheets. How many of each were printed is unknown, but in 1919 that studio distributed 158,000 posters of all kinds for BLIND HUSBANDS , including 191 billboard-sized twenty-four-sheets in New York City alone. 38

The quality of the design involved was a constant issue throughout this period. At times, studios would hire well-known illustrators in an effort to emphasize the artistry of their productions. During 1914–1915 Mutual announced that they had employed

Scotson Clark, and Metro had a large department that is said to have included Edward Penfield. But the advertising men found the “artistic designs” to have inadequate drawing power. An article included in the pressbook for one of Paramount’s 1923 releases confronts this situation rather bluntly:

Not long ago a big picture company put out a 24-sheet which met with the approval of all the art critics, professional and amateur. It was a beautiful thing, the head of the star lithographed from a painting by one of the best known artists in the world, not alone America. One of these art critics, an amateur, come up to us [sic] and said, “Why don’t you get out something like that?”

We replied that we didn’t want to.

“Now that’s a real poster,” he said. “Look at the expression, the coloring, the slight cubist design in the background. It’s a work of art.”

We had to admit it.

Then we asked him a question. “Did you see the picture?”

The critic admitted that he had not, although he had recently attended a Thomas Meighan film after seeing the nondescript poster put out to advertise it. The lesson is clear: “Paramount’s policy is to make paper that will draw the people to your box-office. We don’t care how we do it just so it is done. If the ugliest poster in the world will keep them flocking we will give you the ugliest poster in the world.” This language must have seemed very demoralizing to the poster staff, which, the same article tells us, included William Hannaman, a window-card specialist; Frederick Jehle, “a genius at colors”; and Joseph Fronder, designer of the posters for THE COVERED WAGON (1923), “one of the best portrayers of animals since the immortal Bonheur.” 39

No matter what their policy on high art, most studio advertising departments continued to maintain a staff of house artists. But gradually poster printers like Morgan came to take on more of the work themselves, dividing the design tasks in order to create an anonymous house style—one person handling portraits, another lettering, a third backgrounds and figures. By the late twenties, a poster with a strongly personal style, like John Held, Jr.’s, designs for TIN HATS or BATTLING BUTLER (both 1926), would be a rare exception. 40

While the poster remains a key element of motion-picture advertising today, the heavy use of exhibitor stunts employed by showmen in this period has long been out of favor. Harry Reichenbach was justly considered the king of movie press agents due to the audacity (and success) of the stunts he devised in the late teens and early twenties. It was Reichenbach who promoted THE RETURN OF TARZAN (1920) by sneaking a lion into New York’s Belleclaire Hotel, then leaving the management with the problem of evicting him. It was Reichenbach who convinced several New York papers that a group of supposed Turks he had registered at another Manhattan hotel were really in town searching for a lost virgin. This eventually caused the police to drag the lake in Central Park (just in time for the release of Universal’s THE VIRGIN OF STAMBOUL 1920), and the state legislature to prohibit the dissemination of false information to the press. In a more subtle vein, Reichenbach was credited with restoring Rudolph Valentino’s sagging popularity by the simple expedient of urging the star to grow a beard. The ensuing tabloid commotion was inevitable. By 1924

Reichenbach would claim that such stunts were “now practically passé, because of the many amateurish attempts made which ended in crude failures,” but few seem to have believed him that time. 41

Throughout the twenties, pressbooks and trade papers were filled with suggestions for bizarre “exploitation tips.” An exhibitor might be urged to rush an ambulance to his theater, which would carry off on a stretcher a “raving maniac,” driven crazy from laughing at the comedy featured inside. Ukelele competitions, elaborate parade floats, and mysterious contests and giveaways seem to have been standard local fare. Trade papers were filled with photos and letters from exhibitors across the country proudly displaying some new exploitation stunt. Nor was such garishness reserved for the smaller theaters. At the end of 1927, Jesse Lasky offered a prize of $300 for the best campaign devised for any Paramount picture. The winner was Charles Amos, manager of the Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg, whose 2,400-seat house competed with ten others in the same town.

Two weeks before Clara Bow’s HULA (1927) was to be screened, Amos put a twenty-four-sheet atop a downtown building, illuminating it each night with a powerful searchlight. A dozen small cutouts of Clara Bow in costume were placed in soda fountains, beach stands, and shop windows, and as the play date approached these displays were tied in with a music store’s large window display, where an electric Victrola played Hawaiian music every night. A life-sized cutout of Clara Bow, mechanized to do the hula, was placed in a variety of locations around town. Its real grass skirt, fresh flowers, and shimmying action attracted considerable attention, but the police refused to intervene. As the premiere approached, Amos dropped a forty-foot banner from the roof of his theater, had advance programs inserted into every St. Petersburg dry-cleaning package, and placed announcements on the rear of every taxicab in town. In addition to screening the film’s coming-attractions trailer during his regular program, he dressed eight local girls as Hawaiians to produce a “live novelty trailer.” In winning the prize, Amos was cited for the low cost of these stunts as well as for their subtlety. And all this was for a two-day run on 12 and 13 October 1927. To gauge the impact of such a campaign on St. Petersburg, remember that Amos was simultaneously promoting a couple of other pictures for showing that same week, while his ten rivals were also doing their best to capture some of the local film audience. 42

Today it is hard to weigh the value of such exhibitor stunts, but they were highly regarded at the time. It was even considered possible for stunts alone to make a theater competitive. The Motion Picture News reported in 1920 that the small Grand Circus Theatre in Detroit, long buried by competition from two of John Kunsky’s downtown picture palaces, had staged a major comeback when a new manager gambled heavily on stunt decoration and unusual lobby displays. For the showing of NOMADS OF THE NORTH (1920) he transformed the theater facade into a replica of a Page 41  Canadian-wilderness cabin, surrounded by tree and animal cutouts, and plastered with posters and banners. A “pictorial forest fire illusion” was the finishing touch. Fueled by such exploitation, the Grand Circus was able to compete successfully with larger and more comfortable theaters featuring elaborate musical presentations and the finest first-run films. 43

The one element that linked all silent-movie exhibitions (and that remains the most difficult to recapture for modern audiences) was the musical setting. Music was played to accompany the films, but it also existed by itself as a separate item on the program. This tradition dated from the earliest appearance of projected films on music-hall programs and survived even the storefront nickelodeon era in the form of songs illustrated by lantern slides, an immensely popular added attraction.

The problem of a proper musical accompaniment for the feature was Widely discussed throughout this period, since it affected not only the big downtown palaces but the thousands of smaller theaters scattered across the country. The 1922 Motion Picture News survey revealed that 29.47 percent of all theaters answering provided some form of orchestra, 45.95 percent boasted an organ, and 24.58 percent accompanied their films only with a piano. But 15 percent of those surveyed failed to answer this question at all, suggesting to the News that these houses probably employed no live music at all. Of those reporting an orchestra, the following sizes were indicated:

These figures, of course, relate only to those theaters reporting an orchestra; by this account less than 2 percent of the nation’s theaters reported an orchestra of over ten pieces in 1922. 44

Formal musical accompaniment of silent films was a specialized craft that developed, and disappeared, within a decade and a half. Unlike the scoring of sound pictures, its creative center was the theater, with producers offering much help only on the most elaborate releases. House conductor-arrangers needed to have their orchestras ready to accompany a new film every time the program changed, which generally meant at least once a week. While the largest theaters maintained huge music libraries (the Roxy started by purchasing Victor Herbert’s personal archive), even the small-town piano player had access to volumes like Erno Rapee’s Motion Picture Moods. This work was so indexed that the performer could quickly flash from “mother love” to “fire-fighting” as the occasion arose. Such volumes would help if a musician had to face his or her subject cold, but generally accompanists could count on at least some guidance from the distributor. 45

A completely original orchestral score was the finest, most expensive, and rarest of musical settings. George W. Beynon, in his Musical Presentation of Motion Pictures (1921), cites Robert Hood Bowers’ score for A DAUGHTER OF THE GODS (1916) as the most memorable up to that time. It took months to write and rehearse, longer than it took to make most feature pictures. More common were “semi-original” scores that combined original themes with stock melodies. Joseph Carl Breil’s music for THE BIRTH OF A NATION juxtaposed “The Ride of the Valkyries” with Breil’s own love theme "The Perfect Song, " famous again years later as the radio theme for "Amos’n

Andy." Arranged for forty pieces, this music was unprecedented in its effective synchronization with the action, a fact that so impressed Beynon that he cited it six years later as “a criterion; no subsequent score has transcended its beauty or comprehensiveness.” 46

Other scores for Griffith pictures, including Carli Elinor’s for HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1918), Breil’s for INTOLERANCE (1916), and Louis F. Gottschalk’s for BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), were equally notable, with Griffith taking a personal interest in the arrangement of each. Such scores could be written more quickly and rehearsed more easily, since large segments were simply adapted from existing music already familiar to the musicians. A study of the silent-motion-picture music preserved in the Music Division of the Library of Congress suggests that a favorite orchestration included a flute, an oboe, two clarinets, a bassoon, two French horns, two trumpets, a trombone, drums, and strings. Such disparate films as BEAU GESTE (1926), BROKEN BLOSSOMS , THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921), and AMERICA (1924) follow this pattern, although one sees occasional variants. Victor Schertzinger’s score for CIVILIZATION (1916) used a pair of saxophones instead of clarinets, while Mortimer Wilson’s for THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) added harp and tympani. Of Sigmund Romberg’s score for FOOLISH WIVES (1922) only a portion of the piano arrangement survives. 47

Also available were scores that were compiled entirely from stock melodies, and these appear to have been the most common (and the cheapest) of fully orchestrated scores. Yet the extent to which large numbers of exhibitors were prepared to deal with such scores is unclear. In the late teens Paramount entered into an arrangement with the music publisher Schirmer to print scores for 116 films. All lost money because of “lack of support” from exchanges and exhibitors, Beynon notes. 48

Some films were supplied with an assortment of “musical settings,” a group of standard selections loosely placed in a folder. These familiar numbers could be worked out with a minimum of rehearsal time. More popular were “musical cue sheets,” suggestions to the conductor giving the approximate time and a short description of each scene. The conductor could then turn to his music library for a full orchestration. By 1921 the cue sheet was the format most frequently supplied to theaters. Through a careful study of the cue sheet, a conductor did not need to screen a film in advance to prepare his own orchestration of stock melodies, a great advantage given the frequency of program changes. A derivative of the cue sheet called the “musical suggestion synopsis” offered the summarizing function of a cue sheet but allowed the conductor to use his own ideas for arrangements.

It must be kept in mind, however, that while modern notions of “authentic” silent film accompaniment are usually based on the evidence of these surviving documents, the scores actually testify to the wishes of producers and distributors, not actual performance practice in most theaters. Abraham H. Lass accompanied silent films at Brooklyn’s Eagle Theater from 1923 to 1926. His 1971 recording “Play Me a Movie” is of a very different character than other revival accompaniments by Arthur Kleiner or Carl Davis, for example, whose orchestrations are extremely tightly scored. According to Lass:

Like most of the neighborhood movie pianists, I never pre-viewed any of the pictures. Some motion picture producers supplied cue sheets for each picture. These cue sheets provided appropriate music for every scene. But I rarely got to see them. They were usually lost in transit or mislaid Page 44  by the management. So I was thrown entirely on my own musical resources and perforce became an "instant composer. " As each scene flashed on the screen, I had to decide what music to play for what was probably about to happen, and for what actually did happen (which frequently wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated would happen). Fortunately, the subtitles and the fairly broad and obvious acting telegraphed enough cues to me so I could hazard a reasonable guess (Abraham H. Lass, “Piano-Player for the Silent Movies.” Liner note for Asch Records AH 3856 1971).

The film industry’s voracious musical appetite was soon recognized by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), which charged theaters a fee of ten cents per seat per year for access to the catalogues of the fifty leading publishers. This proved to be a gold mine. By 1926 the chairman of ASCAP’s administrative committee could say, “The motion picture theater is the foremost employer of musicians and music—it pays more money for music than any other industry in the world. Almost more than all others put together.” 49

Nonetheless, some theaters wished to avoid this tax, so obliging distributors supplied cue sheets with alternate selections of “tax-free” music drawn from publicdomain material. In LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN (1925), for example, when Moskowski’s “Valse Célèbre” is the suggested taxable selection, Lehar’s Merry Widow waltz might be substituted. Theaters resorting to the tax-free route provided good homes for familiar melodies, but it would not be long before so restricted a catalogue descended into cliché and self-parody. 50

Just as with the development of poster design, a battle was soon raging between populists and classicists in silent-film scoring. George W. Beynon suggested that a music library should be filled mainly with “concert classics … preferably of short length,” and that Beethoven, Liszt, and Berlioz would almost always be preferable to the hackwork of “photoplay series” composers. The exception was in “agitatos and hurries,” where the hacks were supreme. 51

By contrast, the Moving Picture World only a few years earlier had attacked the whole idea of offering the classics to film audiences:

Considering the fact that the average motion picture audience is made up largely of people who are unable to appreciate classical music, it seems that the moving picture theater is the place for but little classical music. It might be safe to say that eighty per-cent of moving picture audiences are more bent on hearing the selections and songs that have appealed more to our emotions and sentiments. As for example, how many patrons of the theater know the “Hungarian Rhapsodie” by Litz [ sic ] or Chopin’s “Nocturne in G Major”? (Samuel W. Thornton and F. Hyatt Stout, “Music and the Pictures,” Moving Picture World, 3 April 1915, p. 106).

This was the opinion of a pair of theater pianists, but only a short time later, introducing the works of classical composers would become a minor competition among the best downtown houses.

What one heard in the smaller theaters was another matter. The Musician complained that movie music was the only live music some children ever heard and that they were not being well served in the average theater:

The instrument is generally old, out of tune, strings dusty, and incapable of producing the correct vibrations. The stool has no back and the pianist plays for hours with the muscles of her back becoming constantly more strained. The light, both night and day, is poor and inadequate, forcing the pianist either to play by memory, ear, or incorrectly by notes which she strives to make out.

During the performance, children in the front row would be kicking their feet wildly (just inches from the piano bench), and the boys would whistle along with the melodies, “generally rag-time, and tawdry at that.” The performance of the exhausted and underpaid pianist was predictable:

The lights go out, the first picture appears on the screen, accompanied by a loud pound from the piano; then a series of runs through which the loud pedal is weighed down to its utmost; this bad pedaling is now quite a feature; the pedal is put down at the beginning of a piece and it is safe to say that it is released scarcely half a dozen times, and then more through accident than intention; there is not even the remotest effort at phrasing of any nature (K. Sherwood Boblitz, “Where ‘Movie Playing’ Needs Reform,” The Musician, June 1920, pp.7, 29).

A year later, Leopold Godowsky had found little improvement:

The best picture seeps through in the course of time to the smallest of the dime houses & but the girl at the piano knows no change or progress in her efforts. She has learned a book of selections and they go for every picture. The continual playing of “The Maiden’s Prayer,” “Humoresque,” and “Hearts and Flowers” is demoralizing. The effect on the emotion of the public is deplorable—it’s a narcotic. … When I hear the sad melange of emotions in the music which is offered to small town folk, day in and day out and weeks without number and without change, I am almost for a censorship of certain selections (“Criticizes Music in Small Cinemas,” New York Times, 16 November 1924).

Godowsky was speaking professionally: his son was the holder of several key colorfilm patents and his daughter a popular film star, so he had more reason to be concerned with the movies than the average concert artist. Unfortunately, he felt that the music he had heard in theaters in Central America, Java, and Turkey was superior to that in small American houses.

In later decades, many who wrote of their experience as part of the silent-film audience were recalling their childhood days in these small neighborhood or country theaters, which seem to have left far deeper an impression than the relatively more sophisticated performances offered in the downtown houses. Essayist E. B. White recalled:

When Anita Stewart went into an early-twentieth-century love sequence, or “mushy business” as it was called in my circles, the pianist was ready for her. He may have been busy with a waltz in E-flat, but with the stealthy arrival of Love on the screen he slipped quietly into D-natural and worked his way into Dvorák’s “The Old Mother,” wooing us till the Page 46  tiny goose pimples disturbed our flesh and we almost swooned with beauty and tender desire. ’ If he began to coast after six or seven hours of playing, he would hear loud cries of “Music!” or (if it were a college town) “Better music!” (“Mood Men,” Readers Digest, July 1938, p. 87).

There is one further aspect of these accompaniments that deserves mention, namely the survival, until well into the feature era, of onstage lecturers and “explainers.”

As late as 1920, the New York Times found five theaters catering to immigrant audiences on the Lower East Side that included a live “presenter” as part of the show. These men and women were on hand not to translate the titles into the language of an immigrant audience, but instead to read the English titles and provide dramatic commentary and explanation throughout the picture: "From behind, the man—he steps up to the lady and grabs her pocketbook. ‘Ganef! Robber! Help! Ganef!’ she screams. " The theater managers felt that this served as a language lesson for their patrons, but the lecturers felt differently. Audiences would complain if too much Yiddish was introduced, they said, citing a growing lack of familiarity with this tongue in the neighborhood. What the audiences really seem to have come for was the interpretive presentation (something most historians ascribe only to the Japanese benshi tradition). There are few records of such performances, and it is impossible to know how widespread the use of “presenters” might have been in this period, or whether the practice existed at all outside of certain immigrant neighborhoods. As late as 1926, benshi imported from Japan were touring West Coast theaters with performances of Japanese silent films, but they did not accompany non-Japanese films. In any case, the surviving New York presentations in 1920 were quite involved, requiring pre-screening, careful selection and arrangement of material by the “presenters,” and a suitably dramatic performance. If displeased, audiences would whistle, stamp their feet, or rhythmically clap their hands. 52

In larger theaters decorum would prevail, but to modern ears the orchestral arrangements heard there might seem as cliché-ridden as anything found in the single piano houses. Lang and West, in their Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures, present a lengthy synopsis of the prepared score for Maurice Tourneur’s THE ROSE OF THE WORLD (1918), a Paramount release. The action is set in British imperial India, and an original love theme and a Hindu motif are provided, interwoven with popular melodies and light classics. While watching Tourneur’s film, the audience heard Massenet’s Élégie, “Somewhere a Voice Is Calling,” “Home, Sweet, Home,” two different segments of the William Tell Overture, Nevin’s “The Rosary,” and, accompanying scenes of the return to England, “Sailor Beware!” This program is cited as exemplary. 53

Still, one wonders how much of their attention the musicians could devote solely to the feature. The traditional picture-palace routine, as perfected by the Balaban and Katz chain in Chicago, also required the orchestra to accompany the shorts, play an overture, support a soloist, and deal with the inevitable large-scale, live stage presentation. The following review of the week’s attraction at the Chicago Theatre is revealing:

9:15 “Rachmaninoff Selection,” overture, directed by Joseph Koestner in the probably vacational absence of Adolphe Dumont and not quite so well.

9:25 Newspicture views of local baby contest with B-K hookup, followed by shots of Gertrude Ederle swimming the channel.

9:30 Vincent O’Donnell, boy tenor late of Gus Edwards’ corps, singing a couple of numbers he has sung too often in these parts, working in one.

9:31[ sic ] “The River Road,” Bruce scenic, run off with violin lift by Eugene Dubois, veteran first fid at this theater. These things go big at the Chicago.

9:41 Jessie Crawford at the organ playing a probably original (good whether or not) number called "Ain’t It a Grand and Glorious Feeling, " with slides that might have been drawn by Briggs, who gets a credit line for the number. The number, featuring "Hello, Aloha, " is way above the stuff most picture shows are offering with their billion dollar organs. So is Crawford.

9:46 “Sidewalks of New York.” Nathaniel Finston’s Publix presentation. Finston was ace director for B + K here for years, but his name on the film [ sic ] didn’t elicit a ripple. The act is like the rest of those sightseeing-bus things but more so in that Finston even stuck “Glow Worm” into it. Nor did he fail to provide another of those expository introductory songs which mean so little in these big houses, as he should know.

10:05 "Fine Manners, " Paramount picture. Later: “Excess Baggage,” Educational comedy (“B-K Routine Still Hits at the Chicago,” Exhibitor’s Herald, 28 August 1926, p. 50).

Exhibitor’s Herald saw fit to review this show at length because it already seemed a “last stand” for this mix of entertainment. The other Loop theaters had begun to replace their potpourri programs with jazz-band performances, which were cheaper to mount and more consistent in tone.

The presence of a newsreel, comedy, and scenic on the bill at the Chicago was characteristic of balanced programs in this period. In 1922 the percentage of theaters using such auxiliary attractions was found to be as follows: 54

Although it was passed over quickly by the reviewer, it should not be thought that the Rachmaninoff selection at the Chicago was just a musical warm-up. The energy and imagination devoted to even a simple overture at these first-run theaters is enthusiastically recalled in Beynon’s account of an early (pre-1921) presentation of the William Tell Overture:

With house-lights full and stage-lights up, the Andante movement opened the overture. Gradually the dimmer brought the house lights down as the movement progressed, until the entire theater was in utter darkness when the orchestra reached the Allegro. Then the storm began, intermittently at first, but increasing in force. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. At this instant, a picture showing a dilapidated homestead deluged with rain was projected upon the screen. This made a pretty effect and concentrated the attention of the audience. As the storm died down, the rain slowly diminished in the picture, the sun came out, and while the orchestra proceeded into the Andante, sheep were seen coming over the horizon. The scene was held until the finish of the movement, which brought the sheep and shepherd into a close-up, and faded out. Immediately the Allegro vivace was picked up by the orchestra. The lights slowly came up and, as the overture ended in a grand finale, the theater was flooded with light. It provided entertainment of a high order ( Musical Presentation of Motion Pictures [New York: Schirmer, 1921], pp. 127–128).

The William Tell Overture was in fact one of the most frequently heard pieces of music in the silent-film theaters. According to Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rivoli and the Rialto, the ten most popular overtures were Tannhauser (Wagner), William Tell (Rossini), the 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky), the Second Hungarian Rhapsody (Liszt), the Light Cavalry Overture (von Suppé), the Marche Slav (Tchaikovsky), the Merry Wives of Windsor (Nicolai), Orpheus in the Underworld (Offenbach), The Queen of Spades (von Suppé), and the Irish Rhapsody (Victor Herbert). 55

In addition to the overture, it was obligatory for any large theater to offer a major production number, somewhat in the style of a lavish Broadway revue. At times, the tendency was to overproduce such entertainments, swamping the film presentation. Ben Hall describes the opening of Major Edward Bowes’s Capitol Theatre in 1919,which, in addition to the usual film shorts and a few warm-up selections featuring Arthur Pryor’s seventy-piece orchestra, presented an eleven-act revue before the feature. Staged by Ziegfeld producer Ned Wayburn, this extravaganza featured original music by George Gershwin (including “Swanee,” soon picked up by Al Jolson), ballets, rope-twirlers, and soloists like Mae West. The feature picture, HIS MAJESTY, THE AMERICAN , with Douglas Fairbanks, reached the screen at 11:20 P.M. Attacked in the press for its “unwarranted ostentation” and “misdirected talents,” the Capitol streamlined its presentation policy the following season, when S. L. Rothapfel was brought in. He reduced the number of acts and emphasized one large production number, often related in some fashion to the weekly feature. On the West Coast such “prologues” had already been introduced by Los Angeles showman Sid Grauman, first at his Million Dollar Theatre in 1918, and later with even more ceremony at his Egyptian and Chinese theaters in Hollywood. The latter were the sites of many of the industry’s most lavish picture premieres (a stunt Grauman is usually credited with perfecting). 56

This “prologue idea” was soon widely imitated, although few theaters could equal Grauman’s imagination or Rothapfel’s resources. When presenting Fatty Arbuckle in THE LIFE OF THE PARTY (1920) at the Rivoli, Hugo Reisenfeld preceded it with “Falstaff’s Dream,” a ten-minute prologue whose main themes were lifted from The Merry Wives of Windsor. “The choice of number and title were appropriate because of the girth of the hero of the picture as well as of the Shakespearean character,” noted one critic. 57 The implied commentary provided by a thematic prologue probably reached its height in Rothapfel’s notorious 1921 prologue to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI . Not only did the number frame the movie fore and aft, mimicking the film’s formal structure, but it left the audience with the news that Francis was now happily married and working as “a prosperous jeweler in Holstenwall.” 58

In middle-sized theaters, the need to do something to keep up with such presentations soon strained the management’s capabilities. Robert E. Sherwood complained that audiences who came to see a film were often “compelled to sit around while several talented recruits from the local high school danced the Sylvia Ballet.” In one midwestern theater, he saw a prologue to SCARAMOUCHE (1923) that “was apparently supposed to be Elizabethan England, except that there was one young lady dressed as Cleopatra and a man who appeared to represent General Robert E. Lee. The chorus sang ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ from Sally. ” 59

Some studios attempted to ease this problem by supplying their own prologue designs for middle-sized houses. Universal imported the German designer-director Paul Leni to work on this scheme, and Leni’s ingenious and inexpensive design for the presentation of a 1926 revival of OUTSIDE THE LAW (1921) at New York’s Colony Theatre was published in the studio house paper, Universal Weekly, as one of a series. 60

But the prologue idea had already run its course by this point, and in 1927, Frank Cambria could announce that “the prologue, which at one time took first place in novelty film presentations, … is today practically discontinued, because in many instances the prologue hurt the picture, being a sad attempt to reproduce a scene from the picture.” Cambria saw unit shows, which he had developed for Balaban and Katz, replacing the feature-specific prologues. He was then working for Publix Theatres in New York, designing unit shows like “Way Down South,” “Alpine Romance,” and “Opera vs. Jazz.” Staged at a cost of $20,000 to $50,000 each, these units toured a circuit of eighteen Publix houses and often ran sixty to seventy-five minutes. 61

The apotheosis of the Cambria style was the “Pageant of Progress” devised by John Murray Anderson for the opening of the New York Paramount in 1926. Aware of the self-importance of the new theater, as well as (apparently) Terry Ramsaye’s recently published history A Million and One Nights , Anderson highlighted “The Pre-History of the Screen” and celebrated Edison’s 1896 screening at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, a few blocks down Broadway from the Paramount. As a climax, a mammoth congratulatory finale celebrated the completion of the theater: “The Paramount Theatre stands at the Crossroads of the World wherein the Aladdin Lamp of the Camera, and the magic carpet of film, have built an Empire of Delight, and its boundaries are the limits of the Earth.” 62

Managing such an empire was a unique entrepreneurial problem. The showmen in charge of the nation’s picture palaces often acted as if they believed Roxy’s publicity and felt a personal responsibility to live up to it. It was not enough simply to sign up with the best available distribution chain and put on the most elaborate stage production. Despite the fact that the film came to them in a can, managers of first-run theaters regularly attempted to improve this portion of their show as well.

The Eastman Theatre in Rochester was not only that city’s largest motion-picture house but one of the most elegantly appointed theaters in the country. Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, and sponsored by George Eastman himself, the 3,200-seat house opened in 1921. Its management was so self-conscious about its responsibilities that, beginning in 1925, it reported on them to the annual convention of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. What is most interesting about these reports is the emphasis placed on the composition of the show, and the theater’s treatment of its films as just another troublesome item on the bill. The Eastman was far larger than any of its rivals in this city of 330,000, and its director, Eric T. Clarke, felt that he needed to attract one-eighth of the population each week and make steady patrons of many of these customers. This meant that the Eastman emphasized family fare much more strongly than, say, a Broadway house in New York City, which served an extended entertainment district and a large population of transients. By 1925 the Eastman could still claim THE FRESHMAN (1925) as its biggest hit. 63

The Eastman’s standard bill included an eight-minute overture, a ten-minute news weekly (edited by the management from four rival “news services”), a ten-minute live act, and a ten-minute comedy or novelty film. The individual running time of any item on the bill might vary, but the feature would always be kept to eighty minutes or less, since the house followed a strict two-hour program policy. If the feature was too long, Clarke had three options: he could reduce the number of items on the program, shorten the films, or project the films faster than usual. Oddly enough, he never suggested even a slight lengthening of the entire program’s running time, indicating the importance of standard show times to the filmgoing habits of his regular patrons. Another thing he refused to do was drop one of the program items. The fact that he was prepared to cut down his films and project at inappropriate speeds suggests an essentially different approach to first-class presentation than would be the case only a few years later. But the belief in a “balanced program” was almost mystical among silent-picture-palace managers, who clearly saw this part of their business as closer to the work of vaudeville managers than operators of legitimate houses.

The audience reacted in kind. Clarke claimed that 50 percent of his patrons arrived during the running of the feature and stayed through the show to catch the beginning, suggesting the attendance pattern of a vaudeville house. He criticized producers for being insensitive to this situation and attacked films that were difficult to follow if one missed the first couple of reels. To counter this problem, he always skipped the first half-hour when pre-screening films for possible selection.

The Eastman Theatre was part of a small Rochester combine that also included the Picadilly (2,200 seats) and the Regent (1,800). 64 Clarke would contract in advance with various distributors for about 200 features per year to be used interchangeably among these theaters. He could expect only about half to emerge as top-quality films, and fifty of these would appear at the Eastman. The remaining 150 would be allocated to the Regent and the Picadilly, with the weakest titles playing only split weeks. An exclusive policy of first-run double features was successfully introduced at the Picadilly in 1927, leaving that theater with a two-hour-and-twenty-four-minute program and no stage show.

Clarke realized that he had an advantage in being able (essentially) to pick and choose among the season’s releases when most large houses were stuck with whatever the parent chain had in release that week. He felt that the reason many of the New York palaces presented such elaborate stage shows was to “bolster up weak features” that he was able to “palm off” on the Regent or the Picadilly. This was his argument for mounting a less spectacular program than might be expected in so large a theater. In fact, he was a bit smug about his policy:

All deluxe theaters in New York live on the remains of Rothafel’s policies. His has been the one original mind in deluxe presentation. When he, graduating from a 5,000 seat theater, opens one seating 6,200, his competition are tempted to follow his ways. The Capitol, having a better line of pictures than the Roxy can get, contents itself to increasing the orchestra to 85 men. The Paramount slaps on massive acts of tinsel and gaudiness. The Roxy itself is not immune to the disease. There they slash away at the 11,960 feet of WHAT PRICE GLORY ? until it can be run in 90 minutes. Why? Well, anyhow they made room for a prologue lasting for half an hour…. The situation has grown top-heavy. Rothafel with his immense reputation can doubtless get away with it, for the public knows that he gives a show, and the public will come whatever the weakness of his feature picture. Already others like Hugo Riesenfeld are talking about the “dignity of the simplicity of presentation” and making capital of the opposite (“An Exhibitor’s Problems in 1927,” Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 31 [September 1927], p. 453).

Clarke outlines the ways in which the Eastman Theatre was carefully tailoring its stage shows to the screen presentation, even employing an in-house "scenario editor " and staff merely to work on structure. His warnings about the danger of presenting a weak film within an ostentatious frame (which echo the complaints of John Grierson) seem to predict the rejection of the Roxy style that followed a few seasons later. In fact, his pioneering use of first-run double features and strong support for the establishment of specialized “art cinemas” to serve the tastes of sophisticated audiences suggests that Clarke was one of the more thoughtful and innovative managers of the day. But Clarke had one glaring weakness (at least to modern eyes): an incessant, even arrogant, need to “improve” his features by recutting them and speeding up the projector during the dull parts. He was not alone. 65

Until the introduction of talkies, it was not necessary to project a film at any particular speed. Likewise, the physical integrity of a motion-picture print was a chancy thing in the days before the soundtrack. These two factors were seen as variables under the control of the exhibitor, with any theater manager having the power, even the obligation, to change projection speeds to suit the circumstances of the performance. Recutting the film was a cumbersome process, but even small theaters that might use a film only for a day could drop an entire reel if the need arose.

The question of a proper projection speed for silent films is extremely important in understanding the experience of early film audiences, and the intentions of early filmmakers. Logic would dictate that films should be projected at the same speed they were photographed, and modern audiences have been trained to accept motion pictures in only this way. But pre-1927 audiences had no reason to expect their stylized shadow plays to be reproduced in this manner. Since the nineteenth century, they had been accustomed to moving-picture toys replicating action at arbitrary rates, and Heyl, Muybridge, and Reynaud worked in this tradition. In fact, the ability to observe in slow motion was the essential element of Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope. Projectionists in the nickelodeon era commonly projected either faster or slower than the taking speed, as circumstances dictated. The Moving Picture World was already finding cause to complain about this situation in 1909, and a few years later Photoplay was absolutely outraged at " picture racing, an evil existing mainly in cheap, poorly-run theaters, but which once in a while pokes its sinisterly rapid head among the seats that retail at a quarter or a half a dollar." 66

In 1917 the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE) decreed that “a film movement of sixty feet per minute through motion picture mechanisms shall be considered as standard speed.” This 16-frames-per-second standard for both cameras and projectors was still being touted as late as 1922, in the third edition of James Cameron’s influential Motion Picture Projection, but by that time it was clear that few cameramen or projectionists were adhering to it. F. H. Richardson, projection editor of the Moving Picture World, claimed that it was impossible to project at 60, or even much below 70, without creating a distracting flicker. He felt that projection and taking speeds needed to be identical, but that managers ordered overspeeding in order to squeeze in more shows. “This one thing has … done more to render difficult the popularization of the photoplay as a high class form of entertainment than any or all other causes combined,” he declared in 1920. “It has tended to cheapen the photoplay and to prevent its drawing at high prices.” 67

The following year Carl Louis Gregory told the SMPE that most theaters were now projecting “a great deal faster than it is taken,” with predictable results: “I really think the public has become so educated to seeing pictures run faster than normal speed, that if the pictures were actually run at normal speed they would think they were slow.” 68

M. W. Palmer, an electrical engineer at the Paramount Astoria studio, stunned the motion picture engineers in 1923 by suggesting that projection speed was a subjective issue. “I don’t think what you are trying to produce on the screen is necessarily a duplication of what happened before the camera,” he told them. “It is an artistic presentation, and it is not necessary that it should be mechanically accurate.” 69

The society moved to change its standards and conducted a series of stopwatch tests on “a number of well known cameramen,” who “tried to stick pretty close to a speed of sixty feet per minute.” They then held a series of projection tests in Chicago that convinced them to adopt a projection standard of 80. “Apparently the mind is not satisfied when the projection speed is exactly the same as the taking speed,” noted J. I. Crabtree of the Eastman Kodak Research Laboratory. Richardson and other supporters of “normal” projection speed were outraged. Dr. W. E. Story asked “why we propose a taking speed which will give a distortion in action.” But, the society maintained this standard of shooting at 60 and projecting at 80 for the rest of the silent era. 70

Oddly enough, the cinematographers were the group most pleased by the adoption of this standard. For years they had argued that projectionists were overspeeding merely to get in extra shows, and not, as the operators claimed, because cameramen had increased their own cranking speeds over the years. When F. H. Richardson suggested in 1923 that cameramen were varying their speeds and cranking as high as 80, cinematographer Victor Milner attacked his “appalling ignorance.” Milner insisted that two turns per second of the camera crank produced an automatic rate of 65. John Boyle in 1925 and Dan Clark in 1926 continued to insist that cameramen were cranking as usual at their traditional speed of 60. Even the few Page 58  mechanized cameras introduced in this period, like the Bell & Howell Eyemo (1925), were set at a standard of 60. 71

All this information seems to indicate that 60 was, in fact, the usual camera speed at this time, but investigations by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill demonstrate otherwise. In preparing dozens of different silent films for their Thames Television series Hollywood, Brownlow and Gill transferred the material on a variable-speed telecine machine called a Polygon. Despite the SMPE tests, equipment calibrations, and testimony of the cameramen, these researchers found practically no one cranking at 60 after this “standard” had been adopted in 1917. CIVILIZATION , produced in 1916, was already varying between 60 and 75, according to the Polygon tests. Brownlow indicates camera speed on ROBIN HOOD as 71, THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE A POCALYPSE as 75, WHAT PRICE GLORY ? as 82, and THE GENERAL as 90. One of the few exceptions was G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, cameraman for D. W. Griffith, who cranked some sections of THE BIRTH OF A NATION as low as 45 and kept below 60 for most of his career. 72

Since the most popular cameras of the day, such as the Bell & Howell 2709, had no film-speed indicator, it was impossible for most cameramen to know their exact cranking speeds, so all protestations on the part of Milner, Boyle, or Clark must be guesswork. Richardson and the projectionists, it seems, were correct in their original assessment of gradually increasing camera speeds.

But the projectionists were not content to maintain even this new standard. Implicitly agreeing with the SMPE that audiences expected their films to move briskly, they continued to push their own speeds upward. When the American Projectionist published a wall chart for its readers in 1923, it listed speeds from 66 to 126, although operators were warned not to run over 100 for more than a minute “for your own sake and the sake of the business generally.” 73

A study of musical cue-sheets issued by distributors gives us an indication of the speed at which distributors hoped their films would be shown, and by 1921 most of these seem to have settled at or near 90. First National announced in 1926 that they would indicate the proper film speed on each reel band, but projectionists were no more likely to follow these suggestions than the dictates of the SMPE. 74

So what speeds were theaters using? The American Projectionist called 85 “a fair average speed” in 1926, but there were many exceptions. Indiana theater owner Frank Rembusch claimed that projection speed had jumped to 100 as an answer to rising camera speeds. One Texas theater had a scheduled rate of 110, and an MPPDA investigation found one in Atlanta running its comedies at speeds up to 120, so fast “it was almost impossible to read the titles.” Another Atlanta theater would run a seven-reel show in forty-five or fifty minutes on Saturday nights to increase the number of shows. “Speeding … is practiced both by large theaters as well as small ones, probably more so by large ones,” the study concluded. Indeed, the largest theaters often set the pace here, for their motorized projectors could easily be set to project at a rate that would soon exhaust the manually cranking projectionist in a small country house. Adjusting a lever on the Powers mechanical speed control, for example, made the film automatically run at any speed from 40 to 140. 75 Table 2.8 shows some of the standard projection speeds of the era, with frame-per-second equivalents.

“I have been in the projection room of the Capitol Theatre and four o’clock was the time for completing the program,” one observer in New York reported. “There was a signal from the orchestra leader to speed up projection and the finale of the picture was shown at a hundred and twenty feet a minute, obviously detracting from its presentation.” Sound-film pioneer Earl Sponable surveyed New York projection booths when he affiliated with Western Electric in 1927. His early tests had been done at 85, but he was unable to find any theater in the city projecting at that speed. He found the current average to be 105, with peaks of 120 on Sundays to slip in another show. Such overspeeding was not only inelegant but dangerous. A 1927 investigation showed that the majority of film fires took place in the late afternoon and early evening, times when the projection speed frequently reached 120. The American Projectionist argued that a film should be dropped instead of overspeeding to this degree, but as we have seen, managers had their own reasons for rejecting this suggestion. 76

Of course, the Eastman Theatre was equally guilty of overspeeding, something it justified as a natural part of its program presentation. Their standard projection speed was 90 to 100, with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS run at 100, for example, because it was too long to fit the procrustean bed of their daily schedule. They would also regularly cut all the films on the bill, trimming the two-reel comedy to 1,200 feet and the news weekly to 800 feet and excising about 1,000 feet from every feature. The managing director, music director, and projection director would preview each feature, decide on the speed and running time, and indicate on a file card what was to be cut. The print arrived about four days before the show date, and the projection director would spend between six and seven hours making cuts, taking out "minor incidents which do not have a direct bearing on the story and unnecessary detail or padding, of which there is usually great sufficiency. " This he insisted he would do as long as producers continued to release films of over 7,000 feet. The next three days were spent scoring the film and preparing the colored projection effects for which the Eastman was famous. 77

Despite such callous behavior, the Eastman’s management was capable of criticizing Rothapfel for his treatment of WHAT PRICE GLORY ?, from which three reels were eliminated. They considered themselves above such behavior, just as they considered themselves superior to the filmmakers whose work they played. Once, D. W. Griffith, whose films were traditionally shot at very slow speeds, confided to Clarke that his cameramen were now cranking “with the idea that the picture would be exhibited at 90 feet per minute.” Clarke told the SMPE, "Among ourselves, we believe his productions go best when run nearer 100 feet per minute. … " 78

As might be expected, by the time the Eastman had restored its 1,000 feet of cuts, the once-pristine print contained a significant number of splices. This procedure was repeated by other first-run houses across the country, and with a maximum of sixty-five prints being struck for the average release, the visible wear and tear on all circulating copies was soon quite extreme. While there were no soundtracks to spoil, these intentional splices were serious problems, for 75 percent of all print damage was due to faulty splicing. The American Projectionist estimated in 1926 that not one theater in a hundred possessed a mechanical splicing block. Torn-off film was simply rolled up and stuffed back into the shipping case. A survey of three hundred projection booths across the country found hasty splices made with straight pins, gum, safety pins, and wire. A reel hiding such materials could maul the fingers of an unsuspecting film-exchange worker operating a high-speed rewind. 79

By 1926 most exchanges used mechanical splicing blocks, but even that did not guarantee the delivery of usable prints to the theater. The projection-booth log of Boston’s Lancaster Theatre from June to August 1927 records the fact that the 411,653 feet of film received from the exchanges contained 6,892 splices, or about 17 splices per reel. Of these splices, 211 needed to be remade in the booth for the following reasons: loosened (133), unmatched perforations (10), damaged perforations (5), wide or curled splice (51), crack along splice (12). This theater reported that film would frequently arrive in a tangled mass in its shipping case because the exchange reels had come apart in transit. 80

Exchanges were accused of improperly waxing prints, simply rubbing raw paraffin   over the reel instead of using a proper waxing machine. This practice would gum up the projectors, increasing the already serious problem of scratching caused by the proliferation of bad splices. In fact, unless a film was absolutely first-run, severely scratched prints were the rule. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) found that most of the damage to film was sprocket damage caused by overspeeding or improper splicing. Such footage was discarded and rarely replaced. After splices and scratches, additional problems included mutilation of the ends of the film for “signal purposes,” and fire damage. Projectionists would punch holes, mark crosses, even glue sheet tin to the perforations to help signal reel changes (the latter technique involved a primitive electric-bell system). The use of a cue sheet was considered the proper way to time a reel change, but many houses had no patience with such niceties. 81

By the time these prints had reached the smallest theaters, they were in miserable condition. One such exhibitor complained in the Motion Picture News that his exchange defined as “good-running condition” anything that would travel through the projector: “I’ve been compelled to turn down films right from the express, by looking in the box, with each of the five reels half gone and looking like miniature reels…. Of course, you can make it go through the machine, but what about the story of the picture after half of it is gone?” 82

Viewing conditions in most modern cinemas are far from ideal. The depressing sameness of multiplex houses, the careless attitude of management and staff, the infuriating quirks of automated booths, all suggest to modern audiences that if no one else cares about the presentation, why should they? Over the decades many forces have acted to concentrate the audience’s attention on the feature alone, thus leaving theaters completely at the mercy of their current attraction’s drawing power. The theater has effectively subtracted itself from the motion-picture equation. But would even the most nostalgic viewer wish to exchange current viewing conditions for those of the silent era? The convenience and affordability of the old neighborhood theater could hardly outweigh the battered prints, clichéd musical accompaniment, and careless projection that awaited the patron. And a trip downtown to luxuriate in the comfort of a grandiose picture palace was more an architectural treat than a cinematic one. Here, one was at the mercy of those theater managers who felt compelled to “improve” every reel that passed through their fingers. Cutting more severely than any censor, overspeeding more violently than an episode of “Fractured Flickers,” these first-run theaters made an understanding of the filmmakers’ intentions nearly impossible. Many of these abuses would be eliminated when the talkies made tampering with the films more difficult, but during the silent era simply watching a film could be one of the most unnerving parts of going to the movies.

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