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Learning To Go To The Movies
The great democratic art form got off to a very rocky start. People simply didn’t want to crowd into a dark room to look at a flickering light, and it took nearly twenty years for Americans and motion pictures to embrace each other.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
Only in the middle of the first decade of the 1900s, after enormous improvements in the quality of the projectors and the production and distribution of films, was a new generation in show business ready to try again to lure eus- tomers into a moving-picture theater. What made the moment right was the fact that after 1903 the manufacturers—as the film producers referred to themselves—grew concerned that their customers were weary of the same old “actualities” and began to make pictures that told stories.
Although it was not possible to tell much of a story in a few silent minutes, audiences were captivated by the new films. As demand increased, the manufacturers developed assembly-line production methods, distributors streamlined the process of getting the films to exhibitors, and businessmen opened storefront theaters to exhibit the increasingly sophisticated product.
The first freestanding moving-picture theater was probably the work of Harry Davis, Pittsburgh’s most prosperous showman. In April of 1904 Davis opened an amusement arcade near his Grand Opera House. When a fire burned it down, he rented a larger storefront, but instead of outfitting it as an arcade, he filled the room with chairs, gaily decorated the exterior, and, attaching the high-toned Greek word for theater to the lowly five-cent coin, advertised the opening of a “nickelodeon.” It was an instant success.
Although Davis was certainly the first exhibitor to use the name nickelodeon , similar experiments were taking place in other parts of the country. Marcus Loew on a visit to his Cincinnati arcade in 1905 learned from his manager that a rival across the river in Covington, Kentucky, had come up with a marvelous new “idea in entertainment. … I went over with my general manager—it was on Sunday … and I never got such a thrill in my life. The show was given in an old-fashioned brownstone house, and the proprietor had the hallways partitioned off with dry goods cases. He used to go to the window and sell the tickets to the children, then he went to the door and took the tickets, and after he did that he locked the door and went up and operated the machine.… I said to my companion, ‘This is the most remarkable thing I have ever seen.’ The place was packed to suffocation.” Loew returned to Cincinnati and opened his own screen show the following Sunday. “The first day we played I believe there were seven or eight people short of five thousand and we did not advertise at all. The people simply poured into the arcade. That showed me the great possibilities of this new form of entertainment.” Back in New York City, Loew rented space for similar pictureshow theaters alongside each of his arcades.
Across the country arcade owners shut off the backs of their storefronts or rented additional space for picture shows, while vaudeville managers, traveling exhibitors, and show businessmen left their jobs to set up their own nickel picture shows.
There was a great deal of money to be made in the fledgling business, but nickelodeon owners had to work hard to introduce their product. They could not afford to advertise heavily in the papers, but they could and did design their storefront facades to call attention to their shows—with oversized entrances, attraction boards, posters, and as many light bulbs as they had room for. To draw the attention of passersby, they set up phonographs on the street outside and hired live barkers: “It is only five cents! See the moving-picture show, see the wonders of Port Said tonight, and a shrieking comedy from real life, all for five cents. Step in this way and learn to laugh!”
The din became such that local shopkeepers complained it was interfering with business. In Paterson, New Jersey, the Board of Aldermen outlawed “phonographic barkers” after complaints from storekeepers, among them M. L. Rogowski, who claimed that the “rasping music, ground out for hours at a time, annoyed his milliners until they became nervous.”
With the aural accompaniment of the barkers, the visual displays of glittering light bulbs, and word of mouth, city residents began to throng the new theaters. Contemporary commentators used terms like madness, frenzy, fever , and craze to describe the rapidity with which nickel theaters went up after about 1905. By November of 1907, a little more than two years after the opening of the first one, there were already, according to Joseph Medill Patterson of The Saturday Evening Post , “between four and five thousand [nickel shows] running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money … as one press-agent said enthusiastically, ‘this line is a Klondike.’”
It is, from our vantage point in the 1990s—suffused as we are by television, radio, CD players, and VCRs— difficult to recapture the excitement caused by the appearance of these first nickel theaters. For the bulk of the city’s population, until now shut out of its theaters and commercial amusements, the sudden emergence of not one but five or ten nickel shows within walking distance must have been nothing short of extraordinary.