Last year around this time, I talked about my understanding of the audiences of a century ago. Today, I’d like to expand that a bit by talking about what I’ve learned since then about the places people went to see movies.
My periodization suggests that we are now moving from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Silent Classical Period.” So, the nickelodeons are on the way out? What does that mean? And what the heck is a nickelodeon in the first place?
Let’s start by talking about what a nickelodeon isn’t, first. It’s not an arcade lined with peep-show machines like Kinetescopes, nor is it the name of any such device. That sort of movie-viewing was a brief fad in the late-nineteenth century, which rapidly disappeared when camera-and-projection systems were developed by Lumière, Edison, and others. For some time afterward, movies were shown in temporary venues, like World’s Fairs or museums, or at traditional live theaters adapted for the purpose, as with the Théâtre Robert-Houdin of Georges Méliès.
Both of these were somewhat outside the range of the poorer classes, at least as regular entertainment options. So long as the movies were restricted to these kinds of venues, the demand for new material was small enough to be manageable. But the desire to see moving pictures meant that there was a market for anyone who could make them available cheaply. In 1905, John P. Harris decided to convert a small storefront in Philadelphia to a makeshift theater and show movies there for 5 cents. He called his new establishment a “nickelodeon” from the word for a five-cent-piece and an adaptation of the Greek word for “theater” (“odeion”). His business model, and the name, soon caught on as hundreds of small-time exhibitors began opening dime- and nickel-theaters.
So what was a nickelodeon like? It was not a purpose-built theater, but usually a darkened storefront or back room with some folding chairs and a screen at one end. The seats were level, not graded, so people in the front blocked the view of those behind them. The projector was often out on the floor and the proprietor might run it personally and offer narration to accompany the pictures. As they made more money, they might hire a professional “operator” to run the machine, and possibly put in a piano, or a small band, for accompaniment. The program would often include audience sing-alongs, with slide shows, and sometimes a live vaudeville act. There would be a ticket box at the outside. Shows generally ran thirty minutes, and would include multiple films. In the early years, a good percentage were “actualities” meaning documentary-style images of real or staged events, but demand for narrative stories rapidly grew. Nickelodeons frequently had bad ventilation, uncomfortable seating, and poor fire safety. That last was a particularly big issue, since the nitrate film used at the time was highly flammable, and local fire departments were among the biggest foes of the early motion picture industry.
There was also a perception, once the middle class press discovered the existence of this cottage industry, that they were places that encouraged vice and laziness among the worst segments of society. It is certainly true that they appealed to the urban working poor and to immigrants. Movies did not require any education to understand, and, since they were silent (and intertitles were limited, especially in the beginning), it didn’t matter what language you spoke. Anyone could understand them. The nickelodeon, so far as I can tell, was a largely American phenomenon, and it partly explains why the United States quickly became one of the largest markets for movies, as they led the world in making them cheaply accessible to the masses. And the masses responded, but meanwhile elites worried over what was really going on in those dark rooms, and might there be some way to “elevate” both the movies and their viewers.
Meanwhile, the owners of these little movie halls were getting rich. They opened more and more shops, in some cases forming empires through franchise systems. There seemed to be no limit to the number that could be opened in a given town – they often lined up in rows on a given street in a poorer neighborhood, and, as long as there were different movies at each one, they all turned a profit. Because supply was so far below demand, many of the more successful exhibitors started going into production, simply in order to be able to have something new to show. For some reason, the industry standard was to change the program every day, which meant that each nickelodeon needed at least 365 original films per year (more, really, since each program included multiple films). It was widely believed that “daily viewers” were the bread-and-butter of the industry, although I haven’t seen any studies that confirm this idea.
One of the results of this economic situation is that the movie industry worked fast and made lots of product, struggling to keep up with the demands of daily change-over in thousands of little storefronts. This partly explains the reluctance of Biograph and other early production companies to move towards making longer films. The nickelodeon owners counted on a full house every half an hour, and they would have to raise prices (possibly losing their audience as a result) if they showed movies lasting more than 20 or 25 minutes. They bought by the reel, not by the story, and sometimes the second part of a two-reeler would be shown first, or alone without any context, to an audience that didn’t realize it was out of sequence. But, the American motion picture industry grew rapidly under all the pressure for new movies.
Another result is that as the owners got rich, they tried to improve their businesses. They expanded the spaces by buying out extra lots, they made fireproof booths for the projectionist, they improved the seating. Eventually, some of them were making enough money to buy out failing theaters and convert them to movie halls. Then, in 1914, the Mark Strand Theater was built in New York City at a cost of 1 million dollars. It was the first purpose-built movie theater in the world. The improved concept of a movie theater made it possible to attract a higher-class audience, to charge more for admission, and to show longer pictures. The movies were finally becoming an “art form” or at least a cultural model with some degree of acceptance by elites.
Nothing changes overnight, of course, but you can already see the decline of the nickelodeon model in the early teens, as more longer movies start to show up with more “serious” subject matter, partially dictated by the progressive values of movie censors. By 1915, the feature film is an established fact of movie life, and D.W. Griffith famously succeeded in opening “The Birth of a Nation” in $2.00 theaters in various parts of the country. $2.00 was what people paid to see “legitimate” live theater on Broadway at the time. Nickelodeons continued to exist alongside the big theaters for some years to come, but their control of the market had slipped and would never return.
*Note: Much of the information for this article comes from Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.