- Historic Sites
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
Nickelodeon owners began to realize that to attract an audience large enough to fill and refill their theaters twenty to thirty times a day, they would have to meld into one institutional space the openness of the saloon and the selectivity of the hotel. They had to welcome all who sought entrance to their amusements, while simultaneously “appearing” to screen their customers and admit only those who were, as Henry James had described the clientele of the American hotel, “presumably ‘respectable,’ … that is, not discoverably anything else.”
By the mid-1910s a huge, heterogeneous urban public had been taught to feel comfortable in movie houses.
The trick of remaining open to the street and its passersby while keeping out the riffraff was accomplished by designing an imposing exterior and entrance. The penny arcades had opened their fronts to encourage passersby to “drop in.” The nickel theaters re-enclosed them, pulling back their doors about six feet from the sidewalk, in effect extending the distance between the theater and the street. This recessed, sheltered entrance functioned as a buffer or filter between the inside of the theater and the tumult outside. Framing this recessed entrance, massive arches or oversized columns jutted out onto the sidewalk. Thus the nickelodeon owners colonized the sidewalks in front of their establishments, shortening—while emphasizing—the distance between the amusements within and the workaday world outside.
Theater owners did all they could to convince customers that they would be safe inside, no matter whom they sat next to in the dark. To guarantee their customers’ good behavior, the exhibitors began to hire and parade uniformed ushers through the largest theaters and flashed signs on the screen warning patrons that those who misbehaved would quickly be banished from the house and prosecuted by the law.
The industry also accepted new firesafety legislation, but perhaps the most important step the exhibitors took to allay the public’s anxieties about health hazards was to install new and expensive ventilation systems that, they claimed, removed not only bad odors but germs as well. A. L. Shakman, owner of a Broadway theater, proudly proclaimed that there were “no clothing or body odors noticeable even during the capacity hours of the 81st Street Theater, for the simple reason that the air is changed by dome ventilators every twenty minutes. The air is just as sweet and pure in the balcony as it is downstairs.” The Butterfly Theater in Milwaukee advertised that its “Perfect Ventilation” system provided customers with a “Complete Change of Air Every Three Minutes.”
To convince the city’s respectable folk that the movie theaters, though cheap, were safe and comfortable, the exhibitors assiduously courted the local gentry, businessmen, and politicians and invited them to their opening celebrations. The Saxe brothers of Milwaukee launched their Princess Theatre in 1909 with a gala invitation-only theater party, organized, as the owners told the Milwaukee Sentinel , “in the effort to secure the patronage of a better class of people.” Mayor David S. Rose not only attended but gave the dedicatory address.
Gala openings like this had become routine occurrences by the late 1910s. Just as Barnum propelled Tom Thumb into the rank of first-class attractions by arranging and publicizing the midget’s audience with the Queen of England, so did the exhibitors signify that their theaters were first-class entertainment sites by celebrating the patronage of the crowned heads of their communities.
Even though the moving pictures would not reach the pinnacle of their respectability until the early twenties, with the building of the movie palaces, the industry had by the middle 1910s educated a huge and heterogeneous urban public that they could visit movie theaters without danger to their pocketbooks, their reputations, or their health.
When the social researcher George Bevans was writing How Workingmen Spend Their Spare Time in late 1912 and early 1913, he discovered that no matter what the men’s particular jobs, how many hours a week they worked, whether they were single or married, native-born or immigrant, earned less than ten dollars or more than thirty-five, they unfailingly spent more of their spare time at the picture show than anywhere else. William Fox claimed that the saloons in the vicinity of his theaters “found the business so unprofitable that they closed their doors. … If we had never had prohibition,” he later told Upton Sinclair, “the motion pictures would have wiped out the saloon.”