Learning To Go To The Movies


Imagine for a moment what it must have meant to be able to attend a show for a nickel in your neighborhood. City folk who had never been to the theater or, indeed, to any commercial amusement (even the upper balcony at a vaudeville hall cost a quarter) could now, on their way home from work or shopping or on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon, enter the darkened auditorium, take a seat, and witness the latest technological wonders, all for five cents.

One understands the passion of the early commentators as they described in the purplest of prose what the moving-picture theater meant to the city’s working people. Mary Heaton Vorse concluded a 1911 article in The Outlook by referring to the picture-show audiences she had observed on Bleecker Street and the Bowery in New York City, “You see what it means to them; it means Opportunity—a chance to glimpse the beautiful and strange things in the world that you haven’t in your life; the gratification of the higher side of your nature; opportunity which, except for the big moving picture book, would be forever closed to you.”

Nickelodeon owners realized they had to meld the openness of the saloon with the selectivity of the hotel.

The nickelodeon’s unprecedented expansion did not go unnoticed by the critics of commercialized popular culture who had for a century complained about and organized against the evils of saloons, bawdy houses, honkytonks, prizefights, and variety theaters. For the anti-vice crusaders and child savers, the nickel shows presented an unparalleled threat to civic morality, precisely because they were so popular with the city’s young and poor.

Although they grossly exaggerated the “immorality” of the pictures and the danger to those who saw them, the anti-vice crusaders and reformers were correct in claiming that never before had so many women, men, and children, most of them strangers to one another, been brought together to sit in the closest physical proximity in the dark for twenty to thirty minutes. The Vice Commission of Chicago believed that “many liberties are taken with young girls within the theater during the performance when the place is in total or semi-darkness. Boys and men slyly embrace the girls near them and offer certain indignities.” The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children presented case after case of such depravities. “This new form of entertainment,” it claimed in its 1909 annual report, “has gone far to blast maidenhood. … Depraved adults with candies and pennies beguile children with the inevitable result. The Society has prosecuted many for leading girls astray through these picture shows, but GOD alone knows how many are leading dissolute lives begun at the ‘moving pictures.’”

While the anti-vice crusaders complained about the moral dangers, other reformers and a number of industry spokesmen worried about the physical conditions inside the “nickel dumps.” Not only were the storefront theaters dark, dirty, and congested, but the stench inside was often overpowering. Investigators hired by the Cleveland commission investigating local movie theaters claimed that the “foul air” in the theaters was so bad that even a short stay was bound to result in “sneezing, coughing and the contraction of serious colds.”

The Independent reported in early 1910 that the city’s “moving picture places” had “become foci for the dissemination of tubercle bacilli,” and Moving Picture World warned exhibitors to clean up their theaters before it was too late. “Should a malignant epidemic strike New York City, and these conditions prevail, the result might be a wholesale closing down of these germ factories.”

Tuberculosis and head colds were not the only, or even the most serious, threats to the safety of movie patrons. In the early years of the storefront theaters, the danger of fire breaking out in the projection booth and sweeping through houses that lacked adequate exits was ever-present, especially since the film stock was highly flammable. There were close to one thousand theater fires in 1907 alone.

While nickelodeon owners and operators were reaping a bonanza, it had become apparent to manufacturers, distributors, and trade-journal editors that the industry had to do something about conditions inside the theaters to forestall government action and broaden the audience base. Homer W. Sibley of Moving Picture World warned his colleagues in August of 1911, “the ‘dump’ is doomed, and the sooner the cheap, ill-smelling, poorly ventilated, badly managed rendezvous for the masher and tough makes way for the better class of popular family theater the better it will be for the business and all concerned.”

The enormous success of the nickelodeon was, paradoxically, blocking future growth of the moving-picture business. Potential customers who preferred not to mingle with the lower orders stayed away. In the vaudeville theaters the “refined” could, if they chose, sit safe from the rabble in the more expensive box and orchestra seats. There were no such sanctuaries in the nickel and dime theaters, where customers could sit wherever they pleased.