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Learning To Go To The Movies

June 2024
18min read

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.

On July 5, 1896, the Los Angeles Times greeted the imminent arrival of Thomas Alva Edison’s moving-picture projector with enormous enthusiasm: “The vitascope is coming to town. It is safe to predict that when it is set up at the Orpheum and set a-going, it will cause a sensation as the city has not known for many a long day.”

Thousands of city residents had already viewed moving pictures by peering into the eyeholes of peep-show machines on display in saloons, railroad terminals, and amusement parlors, but these images were no bigger than a postcard. Never before had anyone seen moving pictures projected big as life on a screen.

The commercial possibilities of such an exhibition seemed boundless, and inventors, electricians, and showmen on two continents had been hard at work on a “screen machine” for several years. That the one about to make its debut at the Orpheum vaudeville theater had not actually been invented by Edison was kept secret by its promoters. The Edison name was much too valuable to compromise by suggesting that there might be others who were the Wizard’s equal in imagination and technical skill.

Tally’s back room with its three chairs and seven peepholes was arguably the nation’s first motion-picture theater.

The projector that bore Edison’s name had, in fact, been invented by Thomas Arm‚t, a Washington, D.C., bookkeeper, and his partner, C. Francis Jenkins, a government stenographer. After months of tinkering, separately and together, the two men had in the summer of 1895 put together a workable projector, named it the Phantoscope, and arranged to exhibit it at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in September of the same year.

The partners borrowed money from relatives to erect an outdoor tent theater on the fairgrounds, arranged for a series of newspaper articles on their wondrous invention, and printed complimentary tickets. When the expected crowds failed to materialize, in large part because fairgoers were not willing to pay a quarter for an amusement they knew nothing about, Arm‚t and Jenkins hired a barker who invited visitors to enter free and pay at the exit only if they were satisfied. The offer worked, but the customers it attracted entered the theater with only the vaguest idea of what they were going to see. Never having viewed projected moving pictures before, they did not know that the theater had to be darkened. “The moment the lights were turned off for the beginning of the show a panic ensued,” wrote the film historian Terry Ramsaye some thirty years later. “The visitors had a notion that expositions were dangerous places where pickpockets might be expected on every side. This was, the movie audience thought, just a new dodge for trapping the unwary in the dark.”


Jenkins and Armat never did figure out how to introduce their moving pictures to prospective audiences. They ended up losing the fifteen hundred dollars they had borrowed, and the rights to their projector were eventually sold to the company that licensed and distributed Edison’s peep-show machines.

The Los Angeles debut of the Phantoscope, renamed Edison’s Vitascope, went off without a hitch. The Orpheum Theater was filled with vaudeville patrons who, though not accustomed to sitting in the dark, had no reason to fear that they would be assaulted by those seated next to them. The Los Angeles Times carried a complete description of the exhibition for those who had been unfortunate or unadventurous enough not to buy tickets in advance or to secure standing room at the last minute:

“The theatre was darkened until it was as black as midnight. Suddenly a strange whirling sound was heard. Upon a huge white sheet flashed forth the figure of Anna Belle Sun, [a dancer whose real name was Annabelle Whitford] whirling through the mazes of the serpentine dance. She swayed and nodded and tripped it lightly, the filmy draperies rising and falling and floating this way and that, all reproduced with startling reality, and the whole without a break except that now and then one could see swift electric sparks. … Then, without warning, darkness and the roar of applause that shook the theater; and knew no pause till the next picture was flashed on the screen. This was long, lanky Uncle Sam who was defending Venezuela from fat little John Bull, and forcing the bully to his knees. Next came a representation of Herald Square in New York with streetcars and vans moving up and down, then Cissy Fitzgerald’s dance and last of all a representation of the way May Irwin and John C. Rice kiss. [ The May Irwin Kiss , perhaps the most popular of the early films, was a fifteen-second close-up of the embrace in the closing scene of the musical comedy The Widow Jones .] Their smiles and glances and expressive gestures and the final joyous, overpowering, luscious osculation was repeated again and again, while the audience fairly shrieked and howled approval. The vitascope is a wonder, a marvel, an outstanding example of human ingenuity and it had an instantaneous success on this, its first exhibition in Los Angeles.”


It was through lengthy newspaper descriptions like this one that prospective customers first learned about the magic of moving pictures. Note how the article begins with mention of the darkened theater and refers to the darkness again in mid-paragraph. Note too the reference to “swift electric sparks.” Neither audiences nor critics understood how the projectors worked, nor were they convinced that the electricity used to project the pictures was harmless.

After two weeks of sold-out performances, the projector and its operators left the Orpheum for a tour of nearby vaudeville houses. But it turned out that theaters outside Los Angeles could not provide the electrical power needed to run the projector, so the machine was hauled back to Los Angeles and installed in the back of Thomas Tally’s amusement parlor.

In the front of his store, Tally had set up automatic phonograph and peepshow machines that provided customers, for a nickel a play, with a few minutes of scratchy recorded sound or a few seconds of flickering moving images. Tally now partitioned off the back of his parlor for a “vitascope” room. To acquaint the public with what he billed as the “Wizard’s latest wonder,” he took out ads in the Los Angeles newspapers: “Tonight at Tally’s Phonograph Parlor, 311 South Spring St, for the first time in Los Angeles, the great Corbett and Courtney prize fight will be reproduced upon a great screen through the medium of this great and marvelous invention. The men will be seen on the stage, life size, and every movement made by them in this great fight will be reproduced as seen in actual life.”

Tally’s back room was arguably the nation’s first moving-picture theater. But although the technology for projecting moving images was in place, people turned out to be reluctant to enter a dark room to see pictures projected on a sheet. Unable to lure customers into his “theater,” Tally did the next best thing. He punched holes in the partition separating the larger storefront from the vitascope room and, according to Terry Ramsaye, invited customers to “peer in at the screen while standing in the comfortable security of the well lighted phonograph parlor. … Three peep holes were at chair level for seated spectators, and four somewhat higher for standees —standing room only after three admissions, total capacity seven. The price per peep hole was fifteen cents.”

As Tally and other storefront proprietors quickly discovered, it was not going to be easy to assemble an audience for moving pictures. Projectors were difficult to run and impossible to repair; the electrical current or batteries they ran on seldom worked properly; and the films were expensive, of poor quality, and few. But most important, customers balked at entering darkened rooms to see a few minutes of moving pictures. In April 1902 Tally tried again to open an “Electric Theater” but was forced to convert it to vaudeville after six months.

It was the same story everywhere. As a disgusted Oswego, New York, operator reported, at first the vitascope drew “crowded houses on account of its novelty. Now everybody has seen it, and, to use the vernacular of the ‘foyer,’ it does not ‘draw flies.’”

Although projected films failed to attract customers to storefront theaters during their first decade of life, they were nonetheless being introduced to millions of vaudeville fans. “Dumb” acts—animals, puppets, pantomimists, magic-lantern slides, and tableaux vivants —had traditionally opened and closed the show because, being silent, they would not be disturbed by late arrivals or early departures. The movies were, the managers now discovered, the perfect dumb acts: they were popular, cheaper than most live performers, didn’t talk back or complain about the accommodations, and could be replaced weekly.

Harry Davis, a Pittsburgh showman, attached the tony Greek word for theater to the lowly five-cent coin.

Most of the early projectors held only fifty feet, or sixteen seconds, of film, which if looped and repeated five or six times could be stretched out to almost two minutes. Seven or eight films, displayed one after another in this fashion, lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, the perfect length for a vaudeville “turn.”

The first moving pictures, shot in Edison’s Black Maria studio in New Jersey, had been of vaudeville, musical theater, and circus acts. But audiences turned out to prefer pictures that moved across the frame: waves crashing onto a beach, trains barreling down their tracks, soldiers parading, horses racing. At the vitascope’s debut performance at Koster & Bial’s vaudeville theater in New York City, the crowd cheered loudest on seeing Rough Sea at Dover , the one picture shot outside the studio. Still, in the vaudeville halls the “living pictures” constituted one act among many.

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.

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.

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.”

More and more what drew these audiences was the emergence of the movie star from the ranks of the wholly anonymous players of a decade earlier. Actors in the early story films had borrowed their gestures, poses, grins, and grimaces from melodrama and pantomime. Villains all dressed, acted, and moved the same way, as did the other stock characters: the heroes, heroines, and aged mothers. Any child in the audience could tell who the villain was (the man in the long black coat), why he acted as he did (he was evil), and what he was going to do next. By 1909 or so critics and audiences alike appeared to be growing weary of these histrionics, and players adopted instead a “more natural” or “slower” acting style. As cameras moved in closer to capture increasingly subtle and personalized expressions, audiences began to distinguish the players from one another. Since the manufacturers never divulged their actors’ given names, the fans had to refer to them by their brand names—the Vitagraph Girl, or the Biograph Girl.

It didn’t take long for manufacturers to recognize the benefits of exploiting their audience’s curiosity. Kalem was the first to identify its actors and actresses by name, in a group photograph published as an advertisement in the January 15, 1910, Moving Picture World and made available to exhibitors for posting in their lobbies. In that same year, Carl Laemmle, a distributor who was preparing to manufacture his own films, hired Florence Lawrence to star in them for the then exorbitant salary of fifteen thousand dollars a year. To make sure the public knew that the Biograph Girl would now be appearing exclusively in IMP pictures, Laemmle engineered the first publicity coup. In March of 1910 he leaked the rumor that Miss Lawrence had been killed in a St. Louis streetcar accident and then took out a huge ad in Moving Picture World to announce that the story of her demise was the “blackest and at the same time the silliest lie yet circulated by enemies of the ‘Imp.’”

It took only a few years for the picture players to ascend from anonymity to omnipresence. The best evidence we have of the stars’ newfound importance is the salaries the producers were willing to pay them. On Broadway Mary Pickford had earned $25 a week. In 1910 Carl Laemmle lured her away from Biograph, her first movie home, with an offer of $175 a week. Her starting salary with Adolph Zukor at Famous Players in 1914 was $20,000 a year, soon raised to $1,000 a week and then, in January of 1915, to $2,000 a week and half the profits from her pictures. In June of 1916 another contract raised her compensation to 50 percent of the profits of her films against a guaranteed minimum of $1,040,000 a year, including at least $10,000 every week, a bonus of $300,000 for signing the contract, and an additional $40,000 for the time she had spent reading scripts during contract negotiations. And this was only the beginning.

The stars were worth the money because their appearance in films not only boosted receipts but added a degree of predictability to the business, a predictability that was welcomed by the banks and financiers that in the 1920s would assume a larger role in the picture business. The most reliable, perhaps the only, predictor of success for any given film was the presence of an established star.

The reception accorded The Birth of a Nation marked the distance movies had traveled since their disastrous debut.

The stars were not only bringing new customers into the theaters but incorporating a movie audience scattered over thousands of different sites into a vast unified public. “Stars” were by definition actors or actresses whose appeal transcended every social category, with the possible exception of gender. As the theater and now film critic Walter Prichard Eaton explained in 1915, “The smallest town … sees the same motion-picture players as the largest. … John Bunny and Mary Pickford ‘star’ in a hundred towns at once.”

The reception accorded The Birth of a Nation that same year marked the distance the movies had traveled since their disastrous debut in Armat and Jenkins’s tent just twenty years earlier. While African-Americans and their supporters strenuously protested the film’s appalling portrayal of blacks and succeeded in forcing state and municipal censors to cut many scenes, white Americans of every age group, economic status, neighborhood, and ethnicity lined up at the box offices to see D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic.

The Birth of a Nation would eventually make more money than any film of its time and be seen by an audience that extended from prosperous theatergoers who paid two dollars in the first-class legitimate theaters to the women, children, and men who viewed it at regular prices in their neighborhood moving-picture houses. Even the President of the United States, as the promotions for the film asserted, had seen The Birth of a Nation and was now a moving-picture fan.

The ultimate confirmation of a picture show’s respectability came only a few years later, during World War I, when the federal government, concerned that its propaganda messages might not reach the largest possible audience through the available print media, decided to send its “Four-Minute Men” into the nation’s movie theaters. (The speakers were so named to reassure audiences and theater owners that their talks would be brisk.)

As President Wilson proclaimed in an open letter to the nation’s moviegoers in April 1918, the picture house had become a “great democratic meeting place of the people, where within twenty-four hours it is possible to reach eight million citizens of all classes.” There was nothing wrong with going to the movies while a war was being fought across the Atlantic, the President declared in his letter: “The Government recognizes that a reasonable amount of amusement, especially in war time, is not a luxury but a necessity.”

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