The Negro in Chicago

Source: The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922), pp. 318-320

Text: Reports of investigators indicate that the managers of movies are convinced that their main floors, at least, should be guarded against Negroes. In most of the commercial amusement places, Negroes seldom have difficulty if they are willing to sit in the balcony, though attempts are frequently made to seat them on the aisles next to the walls, even when there are center seats empty. It is rare that any report is obtained of objections by white patrons to the actual presence of Negroes when they are well-mannered, well-dressed, and appreciative auditors.

As a rule movie theaters do not sell reserved seats, general admission entitling any patron to any seat in the house. But the following detailed report of the experience of two intelligent, well-dressed, quiet-mannered Negro women at a new movie theater on State Street is typical:

Purchased tickets, and entered the large lobby which extends across the front of the house. From this lobby there are closed doors at the entrance of several aisles, so that patrons are directed by ushers to different aisles, supposedly wherever there are vacant seats. We followed directions, and went to the extreme left of the lobby.

We opened the door, and the usher in charge of this aisle started down toward the front to show us seats. We saw at once that the narrow section of seats next to the wall was empty except for one colored woman sitting about the middle of the section. Instead of following the usher down the aisle, and taking seats indicated to the right of this section, we turned through a row of empty seats on the left-hand section, and sat next to a woman in the aisle seat. This put us two rows from the rear in a side middle section, instead of in the section which seemed to be reserved for colored patrons, next to the wall. As the usher returned to his station he said, “We have some lovely seats in the balcony; wouldn’t you prefer sitting there?” He was courteous, and I thanked him, telling him that we were quite satisfied with the seats we had taken.

Later, seeing two vacant seats further front in the center section which gave us a much better view we decided to take them and see what would happen. As we rose, the usher tried to block ms by putting his hands on the back of the seat in front, and saying, “I am sorry that you can’t take those seats.” I brushed by him and took one of the seats. He tried the same thing with Mrs. H — , and she also brushed by and joined me. There were scattered vacant seats both in the section we left and the one to which we moved. We remained until the end of the show without embarrassment.

The manager of this theater has had many years of experience in Chicago, and was quite willing to discuss race contacts. Nothing in his words would indicate any strong prejudice against Negroes, even when expressing his conviction that they should keep to places intended especially for them. He said, in substance:

Not many Negroes buy tickets — perhaps ten or a dozen a day. An effort is made to seat them in one section of the house, preferably the balcony, to which they are directed by ushers. Reason is the complaint by white patrons who object to sitting next to them for an hour, or hour and a half. Offensive odor reason usually given. White patrons often complain to manager as they go out if Negro has been sitting near them.

Conduct of Negroes is not often objectionable — runs about the same as all patrons. Occasionally one tries to “start something.” Recently two Negroes came to manager in crowded lobby after they had attended the show and objected to their seats on the balcony to which they had been sent by ushers, saying there were vacant seats on the main floor. Wanted to know why they were discriminated against. Manager did not want an argument in the presence of other patrons, and told them that as they had seen the show, heard the music, and shared everything with other patrons, he did not see they had any real cause for complaint. Called attention to the notice printed on almost every theater ticket in some form or other to the effect that the management reserves the right to revoke the license granted in the sale of the ticket, by refunding the money paid.

The same two women bought tickets the next day and attended a movie in an older and very popular “Loop” theater. They reported that they had no difficulty of any kind.

In a test made of a new and popular movie theater in an outlying section the investigator reported:

There were four of us in the party on June 5. We were told by the usher that there were no seats on the first floor, and that we would find seats in the first balcony. I think he was right, for there were white people also sent to the balcony. We were ushered in promptly, but another usher met us and said, “Right on up to the second balcony.” We said we preferred seats in the first balcony, and walked by him. He went and got two more ushers and stood in front of us to prevent us from going into the first balcony, insisting that there were no seats there. One of the young ladies stepped around the usher, and saw three vacant seats. She called them to the attention of the usher, and he then said he meant there were no seats for four. Two of our party took those seats, and the other two waited about twenty minutes till they could get the seats they wanted. After getting into the first balcony, we saw vacant seats in at least four rows, two, three, and four seats together into which we might quietly have gone had the usher been courteous.

On June 18, 1920, a well-known Negro employed in the City Hall was denied admission to a movie theater at Halsted and Sixty-third streets. There is a small but long-established Negro colony about a mile west of this location.

Comments: The Negro in Chicago is a report commissioned by the Chicago Commission of Race Relations following severe racial disturbances in the city in 1919. In Northern states Black audiences had the legal right to be seated anywhere at a public entertainment, but many cinemas and theatres attempted to keep them to segregated areas (often the balcony), or might charge them higher prices than white audiences. Some cinemas had separate entrances for blacks. Southern states enforced racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws. Cinemas managed solely for black audiences existed in both North and South.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Women and the Trades

Source: Elizabeth Beardsley Butler, Women and the Trades: Pittsburgh 1907-1908 (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1909), pp. 332-333

Text: There were then in Pittsburgh in 1907, 22,185 working women in factories and stores, besides many more in occupations uncounted in this census; yet of this number only 258, less than 2 per cent, were in touch with a centre for social development and recreation, either in the play or re-creating sense. Even a little leisure is a by-product of life too valuable to waste, and the community is the loser if the free hour is spent only in weariness or some undesirable form of entertainment. Nickelodeons and dance halls and skating rinks are in no sense inherently bad, but so long as those maintained for profit are the only relief for nervous weariness and the desire for stimulation, we may well reckon leisure a thing spent, not used. These amusements take a toll from the people’s income, disproportionate to the pleasure gained. They divert, and to the work-weary girl, diversion is essential. Yet there should be possibility for constructive diversion. A diversion is needed which shall be a form of social expression, and with slighter toll from strength and income, be of lasting value to the body and spirit.

I shall not soon forget a Saturday evening when I stood among the crowd of pleasure-seekers on Fifth Avenue, and watched the men and women packed thick at the entrance of every picture-show. My companion and I bought tickets for one of the five cent shows. Our way was barred by a sign, “Performance now going on.” As we stood near the door, the crowd of people waiting to enter filled the long vestibule and even part of the sidewalk. They were determined to be amused, and this was one of the things labeled, “Amusement.” They were hot and tired and irritable, but willing to wait until long after our enthusiasm was dampened, and we had left them standing in line for their chance to go in.

It was an incident not without significance, this eagerness with which they turned toward leisure after a working week of unmeaning hours. Are we very sure that this eagerness is not as well worth conserving as any river fall that makes electricity or drives a mill?

Comments: Elizabeth Beardsley Butler (1885-1911) was an American social investigator. She was an important contributor to the Pittsburgh Survey, an extensive survey of social conditions in the American city, of which Women and the Trades: Pittsburgh, 1907-1908 was the first volume of six.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Why We Go to the Pictures

Source: ‘Why We Go to the Pictures’, Cinema News and Property Gazette, 5 March 1913, p. 23

Text: Is it because of the price? Anybody can reflect upon the quality of a product by denouncing it in terms of shillings and pence, but that is not satisfying to those who study and marvel at the constantly increasing popularity of moving pictures. Such an illuminating argument is not at all complimentary to the millions upon millions of our men, women, and children who enjoy this form of entertainment, the total sum of those attending each day in the week amounting to more than one-tenth of our entire population. The millions who go each day are largely composed of occasional patrons, and this brings the total of those who enjoy presentations on the screen up to a figure of national interest and importance.

Money does not offer much of a reason for going or staying away, except among those who wouldn’t spend threepence on mere amusement if they could, or couldn’t if they would. An unfortunate proportion of our people cannot afford to lay out a penny on recreation of that kind, and another, equally unfortunate, proportion cannot enjoy anything that is inexpensive. Between these extremes may be found the sane and sound mass constituting the brain and muscle of the country, and many of them are hopeful, if not enthusiastic, about moving pictures.

As the politicians say, “We are facing a condition, not a theory,” and whatever gives so many people bliss, contentment, or relief inside of the motion-picture exhibitions pertains to a condition so extraordinary that it defies not only rational conclusion, but intelligent investigation as well. We have been going for many years, have seen all the inside workings of studios, have met the principal producers, directors, playwrights, and actors, have been thoroughly disillusioned, have sat through screen presentations that seemed to have been created for the express purpose of destroying all the charm and variety of the new art, and we are simply more deeply interested than ever.

Perhaps our interest is that of many others — we find in the crudities what one might expect in an imperfectly developed art, one in process of evolution, and in the more finished photo-dramas we gather promise of great things to come. Notwithstanding all the pains bestowed upon production and exhibition, we are fully aware of imperfections and deficiencies, yet regard them as bound to be overcome like our present political and social errors.

We love to watch or participate in growth. If we are not building a business, or a home, or a family, or a government, or a nation, we breed animals, or raise plants, or improve ourselves. Now, here is an art which is like any other art in one respect, it cannot reach perfection except through long and continued practice. Most of us have what might be called dramatic imagination, an ability to identify ourselves with the personality, fortunes, and mishaps of people in the pictured story. We have enjoyed the stage versions for many years, but the stage is mocking us to-day with shams that are not worth our time and money. Along comes a new medium of expression, one admirably suited to the swift delineation of character and narrative, and we take it up with sympathetic interest, though it may not lend itself to all recognisable shades and modifications of the drama.

Even while this New Art was groping its way men of intelligence and imagination foresaw its tremendous possibilities, and now that it is rising like a morning sun, touching here and there bits of exquisite landscape, illumining and adorning many phases of human existence, promising to give new life and spirit to what is gradually unfolding before our eyes, we feel that we are at the dawn of a new enlightenment.

There has come into existence an impressive interpreter of human emotion as well as an attractive agent for propagating knowledge. We are in at its birth, and are watching its development as an instrument of thought. Occasionally there are brilliant presentations that flash scenes upon our minds that abide with us for our betterment. Because of these and because of those which diversify our sentiments or stimulate us with new vigour we go again and again, always hoping to get in touch with minds that help solve our problems

We are not among those who believe that the legitimate stage is in its dotage, but it is every bit as difficult to sit out a round of performances in all the theatres as to tolerate the better-class of picture shows, those exhibiting new releases to appropriate music. In the former there is an affectation that is very repulsive all along the line from producers to ushers, whereas the little places of amusement are delightfully democratic. The actors in the pictured stories make no egotistical bid for plaudits, every one engaged in the entertainment seems anxious to please, and patrons are usually given to understand that they are welcome. In the better-class of exhibitions we are made to feel thoroughly “at home.”

One weakness in legitimate production is the painful lack of modern dramatists, and this is not altogether the fault of managers and theatre-owners, though they afford slender encouragement to the coming writers of plays. This is a progressive era, and an author must not only be alive to requirements of the time, but possess a rare literary knowledge in addition to a constructive grasp, a versatile imagination, and the power of taking infinite pains. When such a playwright appears, he is apt to shatter traditions, and the producer draws into his shell of conservatism.

The motion-picture producer dares all things, and those who write his plays are not expected to flourish on disappointment. However small the returns of the photo-playwright, he is often given a chance to show what he can do, and thus grow up in the work he has undertaken. On this account it is not unreasonable to look for our future dramatists among those now engaged in writing photo-play scenarios. They are fast getting at the importance of the visual appeal, and many of them are acquiring a constructive ability of high value in case they should ever turn to the more lucrative field of action.

The audiences are being educated. The universal appreciation of what is really meritorious is being raised by moving pictures to such an extent that the business men who own or run the big theatres need not long regard art as purely experimental. That keenness of perception which has always been a national characteristic is now being applied to the art of the stage so closely that moving pictures may some day be regarded as the school alike for playwrights and

Why should we not go?

Comments: Cinema News and Property Gazette was a British film trade journal, particularly aimed at cinema managers.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Mrs Annely, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000,

Text: Q: Cinemas, lantern slide shows, that kind of thing – was there anything like that you remember?

A: Oh, of course we were allowed to go to the cinema. 2d. at one cinema and ld. at the other. As long as you sat on hard wooden forms in the Jeune Street Cinema. And the Cowley Road one we used to go to very often. That was one of the places where my brother used to have to take me when I was small. But my first memory of Cowley Road was that it was a small theatre and the people that lived next door to us, she used to put some of the actors and actresses up, so we used to get a free pass to go up there. She used to send us a free pass in so we three children used to go and see some of the variety acts that they had there.

Q: It was more a variety theatre was it?

A: Yes. Very much like a music hall type of place. I think there’s been quite a lot of news about it, in the Oxford Mail recently you know. Antony Wood has been following it up.

Q: About the old style music halls?

A: About the old style music halls, yes. Up Cowley Road, the Old Palace as it was called. He’s done quite a lot of work on that

Q: Used you to go quite often to that then?

A: I would say every Saturday.

Q: And what about the cinemas, were they on Saturdays, too?

A: Yes. Usually a children’s performance in the morning.

Q: Were there special children’s programmes that you went to when your brother took you, or was it adult films?

A: I would think that they were adult films, but of course, you didn’t get “X” films like you do today.

Q: Oh, no. No I was thinking about your mother with her very particular ideas about upbringing, I think it probably must have been quite suitable for her to let your brother…

A: Oh, yes. I don’t think we would have been allowed to see anything that wasn’t quite suitable.

Comments: Mrs Annelly was born in Oxford in 1905, the youngest of three children. Her father was a house painter and decorator. Her mother was a cook for a doctor before marriage. She was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). The cinema referred to may be the Oxford Picture Palace, which was on the corner of Cowley Road and Jeune Street.

Trial of Manuel Goldberg

Source: Louise Vallers, cited in Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 10 December 2013), January 1907, trial of GOLDBERG, Manuel (23, stickmaker) (t19070108-19)

Text: LOUISE VALLERS, wife of Henry Vallers, 129, Whitechapel Road, E.

We keep a Bioscope Exhibition. I was there on the evening of December 22 last, between five and six, when prisoner came in on see the exhibition. The charge for admission was one penny. He tendered a half-crown. The people pay at the door as they enter. This is the coin marked by myself. I took it and gave him two separate shillings and fivepence change. He said to me, “Are there no tickets?” I said, “No,” and he went to the door again and beckoned to another man to come in. The other man came up, and he also gave me a half-crown for his admission, for which I gave him two and fivepence change. This is the one. I looked at them, being two half-crowns looked suspicious. I tested both of them with acid, and found they were bad. The second-man kept by the doorway, but the prisoner walked right to the end of the shop and sat down and waited for the exhibition. When the second man noticed that I saw the coins were no good, he took to his heels and ran away. I then closed my shop door and sent for a constable. I went up to prisoner, and said, “This half-crown is no good to me,” and detained him till the other people in the shop had left. I gave him the coin back again. He simply said, “Not” and gave me a two shilling piece and ten halfpennies for his half-crown. A constable came in and I gave him in charge.

Comments: This is evidence from a witness at the trial of Manuel Goldberg, alleged user of counterfeit coinage, at the Central Criminal Court, London. He was found not guilty.

Links: Full trial record at Old Bailey Online

Movies, Delinquency and Crime

Source: ‘Male, white, Polish, 28, sentenced for burglary, inmate of reformatory’, quoted in Herbert Blumer and Philip M. Hauser, Movies, Delinquency and Crime (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 38-39

Text: The ideas that I got from the movies about easy money were from watching pictures where the hero never worked but seemed always to have lots of money to spend. All the women would be after him and usually there would be two or three women who have a fight over him. They’d pull each other’s hair and all that sort of thing. I thought it would be great to lead that kind of life. To always have plenty of money and ride around in swell machines, wear good clothes, and grab off a girl whenever you wanted to. I still think it would be a great life. After seeing these pictures I would think how great it would be if I could get hold of a few hundred thousand dollars and travel all over the world and see everything and have a girl in every city in the world so that no matter where I was I could get lots of loving.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies, Delinquency and Crime studies the supposed connection between cinemagoing and crime, and is part of a series of studies made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Report from a Chinese Village

Source: Li Hung-fu, interviewed for Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village (London: Picador, 1975, orig. Rapport från kinesisk, pub 1963), trans. Maurice Michael, pp. 248-250

Text: With the years, life has got better. We are making progress all the time. In the old days, for example, we had few possessions. Now we have thermoses, galoshes, blankets, hand-carts with rubber wheels, bicycles. There’s no comparison between what is was like before and what it is like now. We had been hoping for a long time to be able to buy a bicycle. We had planned to buy one. Eventually, in 1959, we had got enough together to buy one. We use it for transporting things, for bringing things home when we have been in the town shopping, and I usually take it to ride over to my relations in other villages. Sometimes I take my wife and children with me. I give them a lift then. It’s a quick way of getting there. Women walk so slowly. I also take the bicycle when I am going into the town to go to the opera or the cinema. I like the opera and cinema; but on the other hand I am not particularly amused by the song-and-dance troupes. It’s mostly operas that are already classics that I like. Of the films I remember, I can mention ‘The Monkey King Conquers the White Bone Spirit Three Times’, that is a filmed opera, and ‘Hwa Mountain is Conquered’. I like films. My ten-year-old son can’t get on with opera, but he likes films, he wants to see films like ‘A Warrior of Steel’. He wants adventure and excitement and war and that sort of thing.

Comments: Li Hung-fu (b. c.1928-?) was a battalion commander in the People’s Militia and resident in the North Chinese village of Liu Ling, near Yenan (the town referred to here). He was interviewed and profiled by Swedish sociologist Jan Myrdal during a month’s study of the village undertaken in 1961, which resulted in his Report from a Chinese Village. The films referred to are Monkey King Conquers White Bone Ghost Three Times (China 1961), Capture by Stratagem of Mount Hua (China 1953) and Steeled Fighter (China 1950). Opera here refers to Chinese opera.


Source: V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976 orig. pub. André Deutsch, 1975), pp. 35-37

Text: It was just after eight. Half an hour before the evening cinema shows began, half an hour before the street grew quieter, that precious last half-hour of the evening when, with the relaxed groups on the pavements, the coconut carts doing brisk business, the cafés and the rum-shops, the food-stalls and the oyster-stalls below the shop-eaves, even a little religious meeting going, with the neon lights, the flambeaux smoking in stone bottles, the acetylene lamps like Christmas sparklers, so many pleasures seemed possible. But Bryant was wise now; he was no longer a child; he knew that these moments were cheating. He had money, he had to spend it; it was like a wish to be rid of his money, and it went with the knowledge that it was all waste, that the day would end as it had begun.


He thought of the cinema. He had seen most of the films; in these country cinemas certain films were shown over and over. When he was younger he used to go to the interracial-sex films with the Negro men as star-boys; they were exciting to see but depressing afterwards, and it was Stephens who had told him that films like that were wicked and could break up a man. He chose the Sidney Poitier double. He went into the shuttered little cinema-house with the noisy electric fans and was along again, the evening almost over.

In the first film Poitier was a man with a gun. Bryant always enjoyed it, but he knew it was made-up and he didn’t allow himself to believe in it. The second film was For the Love of Ivy [sic]. It was Bryant’s favourite; it made him cry but it also made him laugh a lot, and it was his favourite. Soon he had surrendered: seeing in the Poitier of that film a version of himself that no one – but no one, and that was the terrible part – would ever get to know: the man who had died within the body Bryant carried, shown in that film in all his truth, the man Bryant knew himself to be, without the edginess and the anger and the pretend ugliness, the laughing man, the tender joker. Watching the film, he began to grieve for what was denied him: that future in which he became what he truly was, not a man with a gun, a big profession or big talk, but himself, and as himself was loved and readmitted to the house and to the people in the house. He began to sob; and other people were sobbing with him.

The cinema boy scrambled about, turning off the electric fans, creating a kind of silence, opening the exit doors and pulling curtains to shut out the street lights. It was quiet outside; traffic had died down. Bryant was already afraid of the emptiness, the end of the day. He had already come to the end of his money and was as poor as he had been in the morning. The cafés would be closed when the film finished and he went outside; the rum-shops would be closed; there would only be a coconut cart, more full of husks than coconuts, a few people sleeping below the shop eaves, drunks, disordered people, and an old woman in a straw hat selling peeled oranges by the light of a flambeau. There would remain the journey back, the taxi, the walk in the night along roads that would barely glimmer between walls of forest and bush. So even before the film ended he was sad, thinking of the blight that came unfairly on a man, ruining his whole life. A whole life.

Comments: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (born 1932) is a British/Trinidadian author, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His 1975 novel Guerrillas is concerned with social and political conflict on a unnamed Caribbean island, presumably based on Trinidad, where Naipaul was born. The disaffected young black Bryant is a minor character in the novel, though pivotal to its violent climax. For Love of Ivy (USA 1968 d. Daniel Mann) is a romantic comedy starring Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln, about an African-American maid whose employers engineer a romance with the Poitier character in the hope of persuading her not to leave them. It is notable in film history for being one of the first Hollywood mainstream pictures to feature a romance between two black leads.

Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Mike Leigh, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994,–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: The Tolmer, in Tolmers Square, close to Euston Station. It’s been dead for some time. I suppose it lasted until the mid-Seventies. It was in fact an old church, which was apparently haunted. It was the cheapest cinema in London. The last time I went it was two shillings to get in. It was grotty. The seats were very tightly packed together. Certain sections you couldn’t sit in because it was where the tramps sat. It smelt of urine. But for the film student it was a brilliant place. It was fantastically cheap and you could catch up on all sorts of films there. They’d grab anything and show it – epics, westerns, anything and everything. Architecturally it was early-to mid-19th-century. But the spire had been chopped off and it had been painted in gloss. It was horrid. It was an old shit-hole actually. It was a joy. There was and is nothing like it. In terms of movie-going, for a serious film-buff, it was brilliant.

Comments: Mike Leigh (born 1943) is a British film and theatre writer and director. The Tolmer Cinema was in Tolmer Square, Hampstead Road, close to Euston Station, London. It closed in 1972. This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).

What could be nicer?

Source: Fred Spurgin, ‘What Could Be Nicer?’, postcard c.1917, from the Nicholas Hiley collection



Comments: Frederick Spurgin (1882-1968) was a prolific British postcard illustrator of the First World War period, who produced several cards with a cinema theme, usually with a mild sexual theme. This card was posted in Guildford in 1917.