Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Movie Theaters

Movie Nights in 1916

For this “context” post, I want to look at how exhibitors showed movies, and hence how audiences saw them, at the time under study. I’m not arguing that this is how these movies “should” be seen, or that there’s something wrong with us watching them today on cell phones, or high-definition TVs with Blu-Ray, or with modern music, or whatever. We live in the present, and the only way we can interact with the past is through that filter. Still, when asking ourselves questions about the past, like why a given movie was popular or why people in the forties thought silent comedies were “supposed” to run super-fast, it can be helpful to know something about how movies were seen in their original runs.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

I’ve already written some articles about the transition from Nickelodeons to movie palaces. Read the rest of this entry »

Picture Theaters of 1916

One of the first articles I wrote for context on this blog was a discussion of Nickelodeon audiences, and I followed that last year with a discussion of the transition to “movie palaces” that began in the mid-teens. This year, I’d like to explore a bit further what movie venues looked like a century ago. We can’t ever hope to re-create the conditions under which audiences saw these movies on our flat-screens or hand-held devices today, or even really at film festivals, but it helps to think about the surroundings people found themselves in when they went to the movies back then. It helps us to understand how different the experience was from going to a multiplex or just clicking on a link to see movie, and it also gives us a sense of how the movie industry was trying to convince itself and the world that it really was a legitimate art form, worthy of respect and high ticket prices.

Picture Theaters 1For this year’s article, I’m going to look at an article from the January 1, 1916 issue of Moving Picture World, called “Among the Picture Theaters.” This was a regular feature in the weekly magazine, which displayed some of the newest and most fashionable movie theaters across America. It’s important to realize that not all theater owners could aspire to this level of elegance, nor did all audiences necessarily enjoy it. But Moving Picture World was an industry magazine for exhibitors, and the owners did read and drool over what they saw here, probably picking up a few hints for their next renovations as they went along. These were some of the best places to go to the movies in 1916, and also probably some of the most profitable.

Portland Sunset TheaterFirst up, we pay a visit to my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and the Sunset Theater, which was situated at Washington and Broadway in the downtown area, apparently on the most heavily taxed lot in the city at that time. With a rent of $900 per month, they had to pull in a lot from each screening just to cover the overhead. The corner was and remains one of the busiest intersections in the city. With seating for 500 people and four loges or theater boxes that could accommodate 34 people each, they certainly had the capacity when filled to show a tidy income. There was an organ in addition to a small orchestra space in the front of the house. The two entrances were finished in onyx and the lobbies set in Grecian marble. The restrooms included tapestries and furniture “in the Marie Antoinette” style. Surely a regal setting to watch the latest antics of Charlie Chaplin or adventures of Douglas Fairbanks!

Newark Proctors PalaceNewark Proctors Palace1Moving East to Newark, New Jersey, we get a glimpse of one of the styled walls and several balconies of the Proctor’s Palace. This true movie palace was designed to seat 2800, and is called by the Moving Picture World writer “the latest word in theatrical construction.” Located at 118 Market Street, it would have been close to the center of this suburb’s downtown, a place frequented by wealthy New Yorkers on weekends as well. The building was ten stories high, with offices available for rent above the theater level, making it one of the tallest in the vicinity, and with a series of “brightly lit hanging lights from the third to the tenth stories” making it visible from a distance at night. The floors of the lobbies were done in mosaic tile and the walls in white marble, while the ceilings were forty feet high, and there were smoking and lounging rooms available on each floor of the theater. One almost imagines buying a ticket just to hang out in these lounges socializing, and forgetting to head back in time to see Mary Pickford or Pearl White on the screen.

Wallace Grand TheaterWe don’t get any attractive pictures of the interior of the Grand Theater in Wallace Idaho, but the imposing outside of the structure suggests that it was one of the major institutions of that small mountain community (current population estimate = 780). Built at the economy rate of only $30,000, it held 700 patrons, many of whom might be stopping over at the railroad station on a trip West. Following a somewhat older model of entertainment, its shows combined vaudeville and live music with movie screenings, giving two “shows” per day of mixed entertainment. This is a more rustic concept of a theater, sturdy and functional, but not gaudy or decorative. I bet more than one Broncho Billy Anderson fan discovered his hero right in this theater!

Denver Strand TheaterWe return to a more exotic conception with the Strand Theater of Denver, Colorado, whose striking exterior is shown fully lit with “58,000 candlepower” electric lights. On Curtis Street, in the midst of other theaters, these lights made the theater “one of the most conspicuous” and the writer says that the entrance is “simply a blaze of white light.” The capacity was 1250, with wide, comfortable seats in rows spaced 30 inches apart. The price was only ten cents, and the house was restricted to screening features, apart from twice-weekly newsreels. A smoking room was also provided, although with those comfortable seats, I suppose more people stuck around to watch Theda Bara or Henry B Walthall purvey their art.

Note: MPW's caption says "Pageant" but the article says "Regent."

Note: MPW’s caption says “Pageant” but the article says “Regent.”

For Indianapolis’s Regent Theater, we get a very different impression from viewing the exterior. This 800-capacity house looks sort of like a giant Nickelodeon, with minimal decoration and simple posters advertising its wares, rather than fancy lights. We are told, however, that its opening day drew 8000 patrons to what we must assume were ten separate screenings, surely a profitable day for the owners! This theater included the “innovation” of aisle lights to help patrons find their seats in the dark. The “retiring rooms” were located in the basement, and the women’s room was attended by a maid and included free telephones and writing desks! Surely, that made it easy for female movie reviewers to phone in their thoughts on the latest Cecil B. DeMille drama.

Perth Amboy DitmasThe Ditmas Theater in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, looks more like a major train station than a movie theater from the outside to my eye. Situated on State Street, “the center of the city’s activity,” it catered to “the best and most exclusive playgoers” of the community. The “spacious and artistic” lobby was decorated with photos of “well-known” film stars – wouldn’t you love to know which ones made the cut? This was another 800-seat house with no balcony or boxes, but with “comfortable and roomy” chairs. The Ditmas showed Paramount and Universal pictures exclusively, with serials on Friday night and new features on every Saturday. Unlike the larger theaters with full orchestra pits, only a piano was provided for the music. Fans of Blanche Sweet and Owen Moore probably  found it more than adequate.

Hamilton LyricFinally, we have an impressive interior view of the Lyric Theater in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a sizable metropolis near the border with New York and part of the Niagara Peninsula. The picture reminds me of the theater frequented by Charlie Chaplin in “A Night in the Show.” With a capacity of 2200, it was originally opened as a vaudeville house, which converted to movies when they proved more profitable. They screened 13 reels to a show, apparently avoiding features which “mean an interruption to the system of programs in vogue,” so mainly a series of shorts, perhaps with live performances interspersed. At a rate of 10 cents for adults and 5 for children, this must have been the place that many a Canadian discovered the joys of Keystone comedies!

Venues of 1915: Nickelodeons to Movie Palaces


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.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

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.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

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.