The Cinematograph

Source: ‘The Cinematograph’, Pall Mall Gazette, 21 February 1896, p. 9


The world in general and London in particular has been given a new series of “living pictures” by some French inventors who have sufficiently tamed the kinetoscope to compel it to exhibit its wonders on the sheet of a magic lantern. No longer will the curious be conpelled to hunt for pennies to deposit in a slot, and to bend the back at an angle of 45 deg. in order to gaze at a moving picture rather less than two inches square. Now you may go to the Marlborough Hall, alongside the Polytechnic – a theatre, by the way, which has been the scene of famous optical wonders in times past – and having handed in the customary shilling, you can sit at your ease and watch scene after scene pass before you, clearly shown on a white screen, with the figures of life-size proportions. Yesterday there was a fairly successful private view of the new show, although the inventors declared that they hoped to attain still greater perfection. Under their system the series of photograph is taken even more rapidly than for the kinetoscope. For each of these series of negatives forty exposures a second are necessary. Even so there is a certain amount of vibration in the moving picture, although the retina of the human eye retains its impression for a full tenth of a second. There is also some of the glittering flicker which is also a defect of the kinetoscope. The series of scenes exhibited yesterday attracted each its burst of applause. They are also agreeably varied – you may see the throng of employees leaving a factory at the dinner hour, or a baby dabbling its hands in a bowl of goldfish. Altogether, it is a more interesting show, and quite worth seeing. The whole series of pictures is to be exhibited hourly.

Comment: The Lumière Cinématographe had a press show at the Polytechnic, Regent Street in London, a regular location for popular science lectures and demonstrations. It opened to the public the following day. The inventors, Augute and Louis Lumière, were not present. The number of images per second employed by the Cinématographe was fewer than that required by the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, not more. The two films referred to are La Sortie des Usines Lumière (1895) and Pêche aux poissons rouge (1895).

The Picture-Palaces of London


Illustration accompanying the original article

Source: ‘The Picture-Palaces of London’, The Daily Chronicle, 9 April 1910

Text: The Picture-Palaces of London. Have They Comes to Stay?

Pricked out in electric lights, on an imposing brand new structure of white stucco, you read the words “Cinematograph Theatre.” You wonder where the thing has come from. Like Aladdin’s Palace, it seems to have sprung up in a single night. On yesterday there was a block of old houses on that very spot. You remember looking in a the greengrocer’s window as you sauntered home to dinner, wondering what kind of fruit the children would like.

Well, no, it could not have been yesterday, but it was certainly the week before last!

A few weeks later the white stucco erection appears to have budded. There are two of the now, side by side. The matter is worth further enquiry, so you cross over, and read the “bill of fare” at either door. The rival attendants, gorgeously arrayed, glance at you with enticing eyes, but you regard not their mute entreaties. Then you are probably taken by surprise. The charm of the things catches you. Perhaps it is best set down as a free-and-easiness. Go when you will, after the door is opened, you are never late; never in anxiety over a seat. The show goes on continuously. There is a set of pictures for the day – six perhaps, or eight – and if you miss numbers one and two, why, you will see them for certain after number eight.

Entertainment Ad Lib.

The set may last an hour, to an hour and a half, but you need not go out at that time unless you have a mind to. You may sit still, if you choose, and see the whole set over again. I dare say you won’t, unless it is pouring wet outside, and you have forgotten your umbrella, but it is something to know that you can.

The cinematograph theatre fills a gap in our scheme of amusement. It may be a small gap, but still it was there, and now it is filled. It catches the leakage from the theatres and halls, the unfortunately who are sent sorrowfully away by the unwelcome announcement of “House full.”

It gives the tired sightseer an hour’s respite from the noise and fatigue of the streets, and in some cases it dangles the tempting bait of “afternoon tea[“] gratis before this type of prospective patron. To the regular theatre it stands in the same relationship as a “snack” does to a formal luncheon. It is the resource of the man with only an hour to spare, the lady who doesn’t like to be out late, the girl whose papa doesn’t approve of theatres, the little boy who must be in bed at six, the hospital nurse who only has two hours off duty, and the family party from the provinces, whose train starts at ten sharp.

Oh, and one must not forget the lovers! Humble lovers, perhaps, with a few shillings to spare. one sees them often in the sixpenny seats, holding hands in the friendly dark. They watch the films go spinning on, with absent eyes and beatific smiles. They haven’t come there for the show, but to find a corner to sit in, out of the wet. One can’t always go round and round the Inner Circle with a penny ticket without catching the eye of the cute conductor!

The Aristocratic Sixpence.

There are differences in the quality of these as of all other types of amusement. There are the second-raters in the outlying streets, just beyond the radius of West-end style. The modest sum of threepence will gain you admittance here, and if you indulge yourself to the tune of sixpence you are “a swell.” The pictures are usually quite up to the average, but the environment is not. The dark is not friendly, but apprehensive. One is suspicious of one’s neighbour, and keeps a tight clutch on one’s belongings. There is every prospect of carrying away with you less than you ought, and more than you bargained for. Reminiscences of the place are forced upon you next day by the odour of stale and indifferent tobacco that clings to your clothes. As you near the vicinity of Oxford-street there is a decided attempt at luxury in the internal appointments of the “Palaces.” The goods are not all in the shop window. Decidedly, too, the “orchestra” plays better. It consists usually of a girl with a piano, the latter very much at her mercy. In some of the theatres visited by the writer, it would be only charitable to suppose that the lady pianist had fallen a victim to the prevalent disease newly christened by a London daily as “The Hump.” She played in spasms, with a reckless disregard of time and tune, and an obvious idea that her function was merely to drown out the silence.

In the West they have changed all that, and, incidentally, the prices have gone up. We may now pay two shillings for a “fauteuil” (which is a horrid, awkward word to spell, and means exactly the same as seat, anyway!). Along with the fauteuil we have the advantage of being shone upon by rose-shaded electric lights, vastly improving to the complexion, and of feasting our eyes on the artistic decorations of the walls when we tire of the pictures.

People do not laugh so boisterously here as they do in the north and east. At most they chuckle. On the whole, there is a remarkable absence of all kinds of noise in these cinematograph theatres. Applause seems to be a thing unknown. It is a relief to hear the voice of a child imperiously demanding, as the name of the film appears, “Read it, mother. Read it quick!”

Child’s Living Picture Book.

The little folks are mostly to be found at the afternoon performances. It must all seem a kind of glorified picture book to them. How they roar over the man who knocks down everything, or the fat old lady pursued by some strange fatality, who is knocked down by everybody! They have a wonderful aptitude, too, for following the “story” in some of the more ambitious pictures. The kidnapped child is one of their favourites. “Did they find him, mother? Are you sure?” a little lad asks in a tearful voice, to the kindly amusement of all who sit near by. The tragic subjects find favour with young ladies, one fancies, and indeed they are sometimes admirably conceived – real dramas, in which the words are hardly missed. The marvellous power of facial expression to convey an emotion in all its subtle shades is brought home to the mind with striking force by the intense interest one feels in these “mimed” plays. Of course it is hard to forget that the pictures are “faked.” One could never for a moment admit the possibility of pictorial drama affecting the taste for the drama of the regular stage. Too much talk may be bad, as was instanced in a recent much-criticised production, but no talk at all is the worse evil of the two.

Perhaps most successful of all are the travel pictures, where the scenery is absolutely realistic, and the sense of motion admirably conveyed. No “book of views,” however beautiful, can fascinate as this moving panorama does. It is as good as a holiday – and somewhat cheaper!

Have the pictures come to stay? Yes, they have filled a gap. It will be long before anything more novel or more entertaining appears to fit that precise niche in the House of Pleasure.

Comment: The inner Circle refers to a London underground train line.

The Journals of Sydney Race

Source: Ann Featherstone (ed.), The Journals of Sydney Race 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 2007), pp. 78-79

Text: Saturday January 20th, 1897
Caldwells have been showing the ‘Living Pictures’ in their shop on Long Row for some time past now and tonight I went there to see them. This marvellous invention which only appeared last year is, I take it, a development of Edison’s Kinetoscope. In each case, I believe, an enormous number of photographs, taken consecutively, are whirled with speed of lightning, before your eyes. In this case the pictures are thrown onto a screen by a magic lantern. The screen at Caldwells was placed between us and the operator and when all the lights had been put out the pictures were thrown on it, in size about five feet by three or four I should think. The following were among the views I saw:

Place of the Opera, Paris with numerous buses, cabs and passengers continuously passing.

Some children skipping with a gentleman or two playing about with others, a boy watering the garden with a hose, and at the rear the traffic of a street seen through the railings.

Two gentlemen playing cards in a Restaurant. One accuses the other of cheating and after an argument they fight, the table, etc., at the finish being cleared off by a grinning waiter.

The sea washing over the promenade and some watering place. The photograph did not bring out the waves very clearly, but we could see them dashing up and down and at times leaping the promenade.

Three girls in a skirt dance. These showed up well.

Fire engines turning out of the Fire Station.

Two men wrestling.

A scene, apparently at an Exhibition; a fountain in the centre and a circular train coming in and discharging its passengers.

The Czar in Paris. This was very good. We first saw the road lined on each side with mounted soldiers. At his side was a row of Cuirassiers and it was very strange to see a horse shake its head while the man sat quite motionlessly. The effect of standing figures making a sudden movement was the most curious of all in the pictures. Down this road pressed by the military came the procession; squadrons of cavalry, carriages, a troupe of Arabs (easily distinguished by their dress and manner of riding), more carriages and more cavalry and then the Czar and Czarina and their escort. The cavalry rode in bunches and you could almost hear them trotting so lifelike was their manner, and it was curious to notice officers, every now and then, forging ahead of their troops.

A railway station. A porter and one or two officials came bustling along and then the train came slowly in. Passengers got out and hurried off and others got in and after an interval the train moved off, some in carriages put their heads out of the windows as it did so. It was funny to see a door open and a lady and gentleman jump out, apparently from a flat surface containing nothing.

There were other scenes which I do not remember and the affair was distinctly novel and wonderful. The pictures lasted about a minute and unlike the Kinetoscope did not seem to disappear almost as soon as they appeared. You had time to take in the scene fully and there was a leisurely air about it though you know that the operator was working as fast as his machine would allow him.

Comment: Sydney Race (1875-1960) was the working-class son of a cotton mill engineer and worked as an insurance clerk in Nottingham. His private journal documents the different kinds of entertainment he witnessed in Nottingham. This show featured either Lumière or possibly Pathé films.

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 201-203

Text: Twelfth Day. Monday, March 26, 1917. The Bishop of Birmingham in the chair.

Two Schoolboys. Examined.

1. The Chairman. What are your names, where do you come from, what are your ages, and what standards are you in? ______ and _____, _______, _________; ages thirteen and eleven, and in Standards VI and VII.
2. How often do you go to the cinema shows? — About once a week.
3. And what price seats do you go in? — Fourpence or twopence.
4. And you? — I always go into the fourpenny.
5. And your parents give you the money to go with? — Yes.
6. And they like you to go? — Yes.
7. About what time in the day do you go to the performances? — On Saturday afternoon.
8. And you? — On Friday after school.
9. And what time does that performance begin? — Five o’clock.
10. And your performance on Saturday? — About a quarter to three.
11. And it lasts about two hours? — Yes.
12. What is the picture theatre you principally go to? — The Grand Hall.
13. And you? — I go to the Tower Cinema.
14. Have you any particular fancy for any particular kind of picture? — Well, I like war pictures and I like geography pictures.
15. When you say geography, will you explain exactly what you mean? — Like the different kind of things that come into England, and the exports.
16. You like to see things unshipped? — Yes.
17. And do you like the comic films? — Yes, sometimes, if they are not too silly.
18. Do you consider Charlie Chaplin too silly? — Sometimes.
19. What about the love stories? — I do not think much of those.
20. Do you like the films where the people are stealing things? — Yes.
21. And where the clever detectives discovers them? — Yes.
22. Have you ever thought it would be a fine idea to copy these people and steal these things? — No.
23. Has it ever made you think what a fine sort of life it is to go round and break into people’s houses? — No.
24. And what are your favourite films? — (Second boy) I rather like tragedy.
25. What do you mean by that? — A play where sorts of deaths come in.
26. Where somebody kills somebody else? — Yes.
27. Seeing a bad man trying to kill a good fellow, you never want to go and kill the best boy in the school? — No.
28. Now, why do you specially like that film? Is it because it is adventure? — Well, it is; it rather makes you — like, jumpy.
29. It excites you? — Yes.
30. Does that excitement last with you after you leave the theatre; do you feel nervous? — I feel rather nervous when I get home and when I go up and down stairs in the dark.
31. Do you feel nervous next morning when you go to school? — No, I have never felt any effects in the daytime, but I do in the night.
32. But you still like it? — Yes.
33. What else do you like besides? — Robberies are all right.
34. And you like to see how a fellow cleverly cuts things with a glass and gets into a window and over walls? — Yes, but a man has to be pretty good and have a good bit of sense to do all these things.
35. And you really think there is something rather clever about it? — Yes.
36. Have you ever met any boys who are? — There are one or two ruffians who sometimes go for other peoples’ things when they ought not to go.
37. And have they sometimes told you that the pictures made them anxious to go ? — I do not believe the pictures do, but they read some of these penny books.
38. Now do you like the comic things? — No, I do not like them.
39. Do you like the love stories? — Well, they are a bit trying sometimes.
40. Do you know those pictures which show you birds growing up and flowers coming out? — Yes, I like them all right.
41. Would you like the whole entertainment of two hours to be composed of that kind of film? — Well, they are not so bad, but sometimes they are a bit trying.
42. If an entertainment lasted two hours, would you object to half an hour of that? — No.
43. Do you find that seeing these things teaches you something? — Yes.
44. MR. T.P. O’CONNOR. Do you find that films assist you with your geography? — Yes.
45. If you saw a picture of Russia, say, would that make you study up your geography more about that country? — Yes.
46. PROFESSOR H. GOLLANCZ. Have you ever had any headaches on the same evening? — No.
47. Have you? — My eyes seem to be affected.
48. Did you notice any flickering? — Yes, during the performance.
49. Have you noticed any rough behaviour to some of the girls? — No.
50. MR. NEWBOULD. Is there a special attendant to look after the children when you go in? — Yes.
51. MR. KING. Have you ever felt sleepy? — Yes.
52. When do you feel that? — When there is a dry picture and you don’t care about looking at it.
53. MR. GRAVES. Would you like cinema lessons to be given in your schools the same as the magic lantern? — Yes, that would not be bad.
54. MONSIGNOR BROWN. Supposing a geography film lasted for half an hour, how do you think the children would take it? — They would not like it.
55. Are the children crowded in at the cinemas? — Not in all the places, but there was one place I went to where they were crowded together and there were no divisions or arms to the seats.
56. REV. CAREY BONNER. Have you seen any rough play going on? — There has always been decent behaviour, unless some
ruffians get in.
57. THE CHAIRMAN. Do you see these films better if the hall is lighted better? — No, the darker the place the better you can see the pictures.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. The Grand Hall was in Camberwell New Road; the Tower Cinema was in Rye Lane, Peckham. T.P. O’Connor was an MP and president of the British Board of Film Censors.

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 198-201

Text: [Three South London schoolgirls were examined together].

22. THE CHAIRMAN. How often do you go to the cinema? — I don’t go very often, as it is very injurious to my eyes when I go.
23. Do you sit right in the front? — Well, if they put you there you have to go there.
24. What do you pay generally? — Fourpence.
25. Do you go only for entertainments which are for children? — Not always.
26. Are you a great cinema-goer? — Yes.
27. How often do you go? — Once a week. Sometimes I go once a week for six months and then have a rest, and then start all over again.
28. What seats do you go in; what do you pay? — Sevenpence.
29. You sit right in the front? — No, it is all according to how much you pay. If you pay a low price you go into the front.
30. With your sevenpence, is that not a first-rate seat? — Just about in the middle of the cinema, and I can see all right there.
31. And you don’t find your eyes hurt? — When I go out it generally gives me a headache.
32. How long do you sit in the cinema? — Two and a half or three hours.
33. Do you go very much ? — About once every three weeks.
34. What do you like best? Comic things? — I like pretty pictures about dancing and horses.
35. Do you like seeing people breaking into rooms and taking things? — Not very much.
36. It never gives any of you an idea that what you see you want to go and do yourself? — No.
37. How about your eyes? Do you get a headache? — No.
38. Where do you sit? — I pay fourpence and sit about two or three seats away from the front.
39. What part of London do you come from? — We are all from the middle of South London.
40. Have you any particular picture palace which appeals to you? — I used to go to the Oval Cinema, but now I go to the Queen’s Hall, Newington Butts.
41. Where do you go? — To the Palladium, Brixton, and the Arcadia, Brixton.
42. What kind of things do you have at the Arcadia? — They generally have very good pictures, and I went once and saw “___ ______ __ __ .” It is not a very good picture to go to.
43. Why, what was the matter? — Because I do not like the way they used the crucifix. They used the crucifix to hit one another with, and it might make children think less of religion.
44. That was the principal thing, and you did not notice anything else? — No.
45. Where do you go? — I go to the Queen’s Hall, Newington Butts.
46. Did you see “___ _______ __ __ ” ? — No.
47. Do the girls sit amongst the boys? — Yes, all mixed up, and the attendant comes round, and if the boys start whistling about and do that again he turns them out.
48. I suppose girls never do that sort of thing? — That all depends.
49. Do you go to the late entertainment? — No, mother won’t let me.
50. Do you go late? — I get out about 9 or 9.30. Very often it is 9.30. If I go to Brixton by myself and my sisters are that way they meet me, otherwise I come home by myself.
51. Do you feel the influence next day? — I do not feel any bad effects.
52. SIR JOHN KIRK. Is the place very dark? — Yes, very dark. You can see over it while the performance goes on.
53. What would happen if the boys started fighting? — They would not start fighting, because they are always too anxious to see the pictures.
54. MR. LAMERT. Have you any other amusement to go to beside the cinema? — Sometimes a theatre.
55. Do you pay to go to the theatre ? — Sometimes mother lets us go into the pit, as she doesn’t like us to go up the stairs to the gallery. The price is one shilling and twopence tax.
56. When you go to the theatre what do you see? — Pantomimes, and if there is a revue mother thinks we will understand she will take us to it.
57. At the picture palaces do you take any steps to find out what is on? — No, we take our chance.
58. MONSIGNOR BROWN. What sort of picture do the children like best? — When the cowboys and Indians come on they clap very loudly.
59. Do you like flowers? — No, not very much.
60. Birds’ nests? — No, they don’t like those.
61. Charlie Chaplin? — They like those.
62. Do you get tired when they begin to show views and landscapes? — Sometimes some of them do.
63. Are they short films? — Yes, and sometimes they are the topical budget, and then a lot of them go out.
64. Do they like a long drama? — Yes.
65. How many minutes do the dramas last? — Sometimes one and a half hours.
66. Do they like dramas with a lot of love mixed up? — We don’t care for them very much; some like them and some don’t.
67. Would many like them ? — I should not think many of them would like them. I think they would prefer other pictures.
68. How many different picture houses have you been to? — Sixteen.
69. How many have you been to? — Eight.
70. How many you? — Six in London and Manchester.
71. DR. MARIE STOPES. Have you seen any picture which you thought at the time was bad to see? — No, but I saw a picture once which I thought was vulgar. It was called “_____”
72. Supposing you went into a picture house and you met a fairy at the door who told you you could see any picture you
liked, what kind would you like to see? — I should like to see a picture about a circus.
73. What sort of picture would you like best? — I should like a good drama, but not a love drama. A drama like “Little Miss Nobody,” which I thought was very nice.
74. Why don’t you like love dramas? — There is too much fooling about in them, and there is always a hatred between two men and two women.
75. You don’t like to see two men hating each other? — Well, it is a lot of silliness. I do not think it would happen in real life.
76. You never got any disease at the cinema? — No, but once I got scarlet fever, but not in a cinema.
77. Did you ever get anything? — No, I did not catch my disease there.
78. DR. KIMMINS. What is the, nicest picture you have seen in the cinema? — I think it was “Cleopatra.”
79. And you? — “Little Miss Nobody.”
80. And you? — “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “Rupert of Hentzau.”
MR. NEWBOULD. These three were of British manufacture.
81. Do you like serials? — I have seen “The Broken Coin,” but I did not like that, although I liked the acting.
82. COMMISSIONER ADELAIDE COX. Did you see anything that frightened you? — I saw one picture where a man was in the cell, and he was supposed to have an apparition, which breaks through the wall, and the wall falls over. It was in “Monte Cristo.”
83. And when you went to bed, did you think about these things ? — No, I went to sleep.
84. What do you like the least? — I do not like the topical budget.
85. And you? — Love stories.
86. And you ? — I think the same — love stories.
87. Mr. Graves. Have you seen any pictures which help you at school? — I have seen the picture about Nero.
88. Would you like some singing in between? — I should like to have some singing.
89. MR. NEWBOULD. Are you quite sure it was a crucifix you saw in “___ ______ __ __”? — Yes.
90. Have you any idea why she hit the man with the crucifix? — She was a servant in his father’s house, and he wanted to be in love with her, and he started cuddling and kissing her, and she gets up the crucifix quite unconsciously and hits him with it.
91. Have you ever seen films you do not understand? — Yes, I can never understand pictures on general plays.
92. MR. CROOK. Have you ever had a man who wanted to pay for you at night? — No.
93. PRINCIPAL GARVIE. Have the boys ever been rude to you in the cinema? — No, but they have pulled our hair and taken our hats off.
94. THE CHAIRMAN. Do they only do that in the cinema? — No, and if the attendant is about he puts them outside.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. Here three girls (ages not given) from South London are interview. A.E. Newbould, who speaks up for British films, was one of the British cinema industry representatives on the Commission; one of its members was the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes. Topical Budget was the name of a British newsreel, though ‘topical budget’ is here being used as a generic name for newsreels. Filmed mentioned are The Count of Monte Cristo (USA 1913), The Prisoner of Zenda (UK 1915), Rupert of Hentzau (UK 1915) and Little Miss Nobody (USA 1916), all features. ‘Cleopatra’ is possibly Marcantonio e Cleopatra (Italy 1913) (it is not the Theda Bara film Cleopatra, which was released after these interviews took place). The film with a crucifix has not been identified. The Broken Coin (USA 1915) was a popular serial, mentioned by other interviewees.

The Nickel Madness

Source: Barton W. Currie, ‘The Nickel Madness,’ Harper’s Weekly, 24 August 24 1907, pp. 1246-1247.

Text: The Nickel Madness

The Amazing Spread of a New Kind of Amusement Enterprise Which is Making Fortunes for its Projectors

The very fact that we derive pleasure from certain amusements, wrote Lecky, creates a kind of humiliation. Anthony Comstock and Police-Commissioner Bingham have spoken eloquently on the moral aspect of the five-cent theatre, drawing far more strenuous conclusions than that of the great historian. But both the general and the purity commissioner generalized too freely from particulars. They saw only the harsher aspects of the nickel madness, whereas it has many innocent and harmless phases.

Crusades have been organized against these low-priced moving-picture theatres, and many conservators of the public morals have denounced them as vicious and demoralizing. Yet have they flourished amazingly, and carpenters are busy hammering them up in every big and little community in the country.

The first “nickelodeon,” or “nickelet,” or whatever it was called was merely an experiment, and the first experiment was made a little more than a year ago. There was nothing singularly novel in the ideal, only the individualizing of the moving-picture machine. Before it had served merely as a “turn” in vaudeville. For a very modest sum the outfit could be housed in a narrow store or in a shack in the rear yard of a tenement, provided there was an available hallway and the space for a “front.” These shacks and shops are packed with as many chairs as they will hold and the populace welcomed, or rather hailed, by a huge megaphone-horn and lurid placards. The price of admission and entertainment for from fifteen to twenty minutes is a coin of the smallest denomination in circulation west of the Rockies.

In some vaudeville houses you may watch a diversity of performances four hours for so humble a price as ten cents, provided you are willing to sit among the rafters. Yet the roof bleachers were never so popular or profitable as the tiny show-places that have fostered the nickel madness.

Before the dog-days set in, licenses were being granted in Manhattan Borough alone at the rate of one a day for these little hurry-up-and-be-amused booths. They are categorized as “common shows,” thanks to the Board of Aldermen. A special ordinance was passed to rate them under this heading. Thereby they were enabled to obtain a license for $25 for the first year, and $12.50 for the second year. The City Fathers did this before Anthony Comstock and others rose up and proclaimed against them. A full theatrical license costs $500.

An eloquent plea was made for these humble resorts by many “friends of the peepul.” They offered harmless diversion for the poor. They were edifying, educational, and amusing. They were broadening. They revealed the universe to the unsophisticated. The variety of the skipping, dancing, flashing, and marching pictures was without limit. For five cents you were admitted to the realms of the prize ring; you might witness the celebration of a Pontifical mass in St. Peter’s; Kaiser Wilhelm would prance before you, reviewing his Uhlans. Yes, and even more surprising, you were offered a modern conception of Washington crossing the Delaware “acted out by a trained group of actors.” Under the persuasive force of such arguments, was it strange that the Aldermen befriended the nickelodeon man and gave impetus to the craze?

Three hundred licenses were issued within the past year in the Borough of Manhattan alone for common shows. Two hundred of these were for nickelets. They are becoming vastly popular in Brooklyn. They are springing up in the shady places of Queens, and down on Staten Island you will find them in the most unexpected bosky dells, or rising in little rakish shacks on the mosquito flats.

Already statisticians have been estimating how many men, women, and children in the metropolis are being thrilled daily by them. A conservative figure puts it at 200,000, though if I were to accept the total of the showmen the estimate would be nearer half a million. But like all statisticians, who reckon human beings with the same unemotional placidity with which they total beans and potatoes, the statistician I have quoted left out the babies. In a visit to a dozen of these moving-picture hutches I counted an average of ten babies to each theatre-et. Of course they were in their mothers’ or the nurse-girls’ arms. But they were there and you heard them. They did not disturb the show, as there were no counter-sounds, and many of them seemed profoundly absorbed in the moving pictures.

As a matter of fact, some mothers- and all nurse-girls- will tell you that the cinematograph has a peculiarly hypnotic or narcotic effect upon an infant predisposed to disturb the welkin. You will visit few of these places in Harlem where the doorways are not encumbered with go-carts and perambulators. Likewise they are prodigiously popular with the rising generation in frock and knickerbocker. For this reason they have been condemned by the morality crusaders.

The chief argument against them was that they corrupted the young. Children of any size who could transport a nickel to the cashier’s booth were welcomed. Furthermore, undesirables of many kinds haunted them. Pickpockets found them splendidly convenient, for the lights were always cut off when the picture machine was focused on the canvas. There is no doubt about the fact that many rogues and miscreants obtained licenses and set up these little show-places merely as snares and traps. There were many who though they had sufficient pull to defy decency in the choice of their slides. Proprietors were said to work hand in glove with lawbreakers. Some were accused of wanton designs to corrupt young girls. Police-Commissioner Bingham denounced the nickel madness as pernicious, demoralizing, and a direct menace to the young.

But the Commissioner’s denunciation was rather too sweeping. His detectives managed to suppress indecencies and immoralities. As for their being a harbor for pickpockets, is it not possible that even they visit these humble places for amusement? Let any person who desires- metaphorically speaking, of course- put himself in the shoes of a pickpocket and visit one of these five-cent theatres. He has a choice of a dozen neighborhoods, and the character of the places varies little, nor does the class of patrons change, except here and there as to nationality. Having entered one of these get-thrills-quick theatres and imagined he is a pickpocket, let him look about him at the workingmen, at the tired, drudging mothers of bawling infants, at the little children of the streets, newsboys, bootblacks, and smudgy urchins. When he has taken all this in, will not his (assumed) professional impulse be flavored with disgust? Why, there isn’t an ounce of plunder in sight. The pickpocket who enters one of these humble booths for sordid motives must be pretty far down in his calling- a wretch without ambition.

But if you happen to be an outlaw you may learn many moral lessons from these brief moving-picture performances, for most of the slides offer you a quick flash of melodrama in which the villain and criminal are getting the worst of it. Pursuits of malefactors are by far the most popular of all nickel deliriums. You may see snatch-purses, burglars, and an infinite variety of criminals hunted by the police and the mob in almost any nickelet you have the curiosity to visit. The scenes of these thrilling chases occur in every quarter of the globe, from Cape Town to Medicine Hat.

The speed with which pursuer and pursued run is marvellous. Never are you cheated by a mere sprint or straightaway flight of a few blocks. The men who “fake” these moving pictures seem impelled by a moral obligation to give their patrons their full nickel’s worth. I have seen dozen of these kinetoscope fugitives run at least forty miles before they collided with a fat woman carrying an umbrella, who promptly sat on them and held them for the puffing constabulary.

It is in such climaxes as these that the nickel delirium rises to its full height. You and old follow the spectacular course of the fleeing culprit breathlessly. They have seen him strike a pretty young woman and tear her chain-purse from her hand. Of course it is in broad daylight and in full view of the populace. Then in about one-eighth of a second he is off like the wind, the mob is at his heels. In a quarter of a second a half-dozen policemen have joined in the precipitate rush. Is it any wonder that the lovers of melodrama are delighted? And is it not possible that the pickpockets in the audience are laughing in their sleeves and getting a prodigious amount of fun out of it?

The hunted man travels the first hundred yards in less than six seconds, so he must be an unusually well-trained athlete. A stout uniformed officer covers the distance in eight seconds. Reckon the handicap he would have to give Wegers and other famous sprinters. But it is in going over fences and stone walls, swimming rivers and climbing mountains, that you mount the heights of realism. You are taken over every sort of jump and obstacle, led out into tangled underbrush, through a dense forest, up the face of a jagged cliff- evidently traversing an entire county- whirled through a maze of wild scenery, and then brought back to the city. Again you are rushed through the same streets, accompanying the same tireless pack of pursuers, until finally looms the stout woman with the umbrella.

A clerk in a Harlem cigar-store who is an intense patron of the nickelodeon told me that he had witnessed thief chases in almost every large city in the world, not to mention a vast number of suburban town, mining-camps and prairie villages.

“I enjoy these shows,” he said, “for they continually introduce me to new places and new people. If I ever go to Berlin or Paris I will know what the places look like. I have seen runaways in the Boys de Boulong and a kidnapping in the Unter der Linden. I know what a fight in an alley in Stamboul looks like; have seen a papermill in full operation, from the cutting of the timber to the stamping of the pulp; have seen gold mined by hydraulic sprays in Alaska, and diamonds dug in South Africa. I know a lot of the pictures are fakes, but what of that? It costs only five cents.”

The popularity of these cheap amusement-places with the new population of New York is not to be wondered at. The newly arrived immigrant from Transylvania can get as much enjoyment out of them as the native. The imagination is appealed to directly and without any circumlocution. The child whose intelligence has just awakened and the doddering old man seem to be on an equal footing of enjoyment in the stuffy little box-like theatres. The passer-by with an idle quarter of an hour on his hands has an opportunity to kill the time swiftly, if he is not above mingling with the hoi polloi. Likewise the student of sociology may get a few points that he could not obtain in a day’s journey through the thronged streets of the East Side.

Of course the proprietors of the nickelets and nickelodeons make as much capital out of suggestiveness as possible, but it rarely goes beyond a hint or a lure. For instance, you will come to a little hole in the wall before which there is an ornate sign bearing the legend:

Very Naughty

Should this catch the eye of a Comstock he would immediately enter the place to gather evidence. But he would never apply for a warrant. He would find a “very naughty” boy playing pranks on a Paris street- annoying blind men, tripping up gendarmes, and amusing himself by every antic the ingenuity of the Paris street gamin can conceive.

This fraud on the prurient, as it might be called, is very common, and it has led a great many people, who derive their impressions from a glance at externals, to conclude that these resorts are really a menace to morals. You will hear and see much worse in some high-price theatres than in these moving-picture show-places.

In of the crowded quarters of the city the nickelet is cropping up almost a thickly as the saloons, and if the nickel delirium continues to maintain its hold there will be, in a few years, more of these cheap amusement-places than saloons. Even now some of the saloon-keepers are complaining that they injure their trade. On one street in Harlem, there are as many as five to a block, each one capable of showing to one thousand people an hour. That is, they have a seating capacity for about two hundred and fifty, and give four shows an hour. Others are so tiny that only fifty can be jammed into the narrow area. They run from early morning until midnight, and their megaphones are barking their lure before the milkman has made his rounds.

You hear in some neighborhoods of nickelodeon theatre-parties. A party will set out on what might be called a moving-picture debauch, making the round of all the tawdry little show-places in the region between the hours of eight and eleven o’clock at night, at a total cost of, say, thirty cents each. They will tell you afterwards that they were not bored for an instant.

Everything they saw had plenty of action in it. Melodrama is served hot and at a pace the Bowery theatres can never follow. In one place I visited, a band of pirates were whirled through a maze of hair-raising adventures that could not have occurred in a Third Avenue home of melodrama in less than two hours. Within the span of fifteen minutes the buccaneers scuttled a merchantman, made its crew walk the plank, captured a fair-haired maiden, bound her with what appeared to be two-inch Manila rope, and cast her into the hold.

The ruthless pirate captain put his captive on a bread-and-water diet, loaded her with chains, and paced up and down before her with arms folded, a la Bonaparte. The hapless young woman cowered in a corner and shook her clankless fetters. Meanwhile from the poop-deck other pirates scanned the offing. A sail dashed over the horizon and bore down on the buccaneers under full wing, making about ninety knots, though there was scarcely a ripple on the sea. In a few seconds the two vessels were hurling broadsides at each other. The Jolly Roger was shot away. Then the jolly sea-wolfs were shot away. It was a French man-of-war to the rescue, and French man-of-war’s men boarded the outlaw craft. There were cutlass duels all over the deck, from “figgerhead” to taffrail, until the freebooters were booted overboard to a man. Then the fiancé of the fair captive leaped down into the hold and cut off her chains with a jack-knife.

Is it any wonder, when you can see all this for five cents and in fifteen minutes, that the country is being swept by a nickel delirium? An agent for a moving-picture concern informed the writer that the craze for these cheap show-places was sweeping the country from coast to coast. The makers of the pictures employ great troops of actors and take them all over the world to perform. The sets of pictures have to be changed every other day. Men with vivid imaginations are employed to think up new acts. Their minds must be as fertile as the mental soil of a dime-novelist.

The French seem to be the masters in this new field. The writers of feuilletons have evidently branched into the business, for the continued-story moving-picture has come into existence. You get the same characters again and again, battling on the edges of precipitous cliffs, struggling in a lighthouse tower, sleuthing criminals in Parisian suburbs, tracking kidnapped children through dense forests, and pouncing upon would-be assassins with the dagger poised. Also you are introduced to the grotesque and the comique. Thousands of dwellers along the Bowery are learning to roar at French buffoonery, and the gendarme is growing as familiar to them as “the copper on the beat.”

And after all it is an innocent amusement and a rather wholesome delirium.

Comment: Anthony Comstock was renowned moralist who formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. This article on New York’s nickelodeons was originally made available online via The Silent Film Bookshelf, a collection of transcriptions of original texts on aspects of film history collated by David Pierce. The site is no longer available, but can be traced in its entirety via the Internet Archive.

Going to the Pictures

Source: Ben Moakes, ‘Going to the Pictures’, in The Time of our Lives (Peckham Publishing Project, 1983), pp. 96-97

Text: All those people who, like me, were born in the early years of this century have grown up with the cinema, reached their prime with the cinema and are now declining with the cinema.

The early films had just a novelty value and were shown wherever a suitable hall could be rented. Music halls would feature ‘the bioscope’ as an added attraction.

No film lasted more than half an hour and was usually accompanied by a piano tinkling out appropriate music.

We children had plenty of choice between cinemas that catered for youngsters. There was one in Walworth Road, near Liverpool Grove, and the halls that stands behind the Visionhire premises nearby was called ‘The Electric’ cinema. There was also ‘The Gem’ in Carter Street opposite the Beehive Public House.

My elder brother and I were given a penny each for our weekly visit to the pictures. We favoured the little cinema near Liverpool Grove.

The procedure was to buy a penny ticket each at the paybox outside; then, on entering, half the ticket would be taken by an usher, the other half being retained.

The seating consisted of rows of wooden forms. After two or three short films had been shown, the lights were switched on and the remaining half tickets were collected from us. The children who had arrived earlier and seen their full pennyworth would have to leave.

At the end of the next part of the programme once more the lights went on and we, having no ticket, would go out.

But my brother and I liked to have sweets to suck, so we spent a halfpenny on toffee before getting to the cinema, then bought one penny ticket and one halfpenny ticket. This meant that one of us, it was always me, had to leave after the first half was seen. So we planned a fiddle. I would lay full length under the form when the collector came, hidden by the legs of the other children. They also spread themselves along to cover the space I had occupied. As soon as the lights went out I climbed back on the form. But after a while they got wise to us. A man came in with a broom that had a long bamboo handle. “Hold up your feet”, he shouted, then plunged the broom under the forms to detect anybody lying there.

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

Eddie Polo was one of our early film heroes. He had fights in every picture, getting his shirt ripped each time.

Two of our cowboy heroes were William S. Hart and Broncho Billy Anderson. Tom Mix came later. Charles Ray was the college boy heart-throb for the girls.

In the many fights we saw on the screen, our heroes always fought fairly. When they had knocked down their antagonist, they stood back to allow him to get up. But the villains would frequently kick the man who was on the ground.

After a few years we got the serials, with an exciting episode every week, the hero or heroine being left is a desperate situation each time. From this the word ‘cliff-hanger’ evolved.

‘The Shielding Shadow’ was a serial that intrigued us with its trick camera effects showing only the hands of an invisible man who foiled the villains every time. We all knew that Jerry Carson was The Shielding Shadow. He couldn’t be seen because he used a substance left in a jar by a scientist.

‘The Exploits of Elaine’, ‘The Hazards of Helen’ and ‘The Perils of Pauline’ were all serials and Pearl White was the blonde heroine who stole the hearts of growing lads – us!

Comment: Ben Moakes was born in 1904. His piece on cinemagoing is part of a local collection of memories of life in Peckham, London. The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen were all American serials that began in 1914, The American serial The Shielding Shadow was released in 1916.

Nice Work

Source: Adrian Brunel, Nice Work: The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production (London: Forbes Robertson, 1949), p. 16

Text: In 1912 my mother and I were film fans. We lived in Brighton where there were at least half-a-dozen bioscopes, as cinemas were usually called, although my mother’s maid always referred to them as “the fumes”. Many of them were converted shops, with hard, noisy, tip-up seats and bare boards, but they were cheap, the price of seats ranging from threepence to ninepence, and in some cases one shilling, and the programme varied in length between three and four-and-a-half hours. Threepence was our price; we generally managed to afford two or three shows a week, and if my mother went to town or I was on my own, my meagre savings quickly diminished while I went to as many as three shows in a day, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at eleven at night.

Comment: Adrian Brunel (1892-1958) was a British film director and editor, as well as a writer of guides to film production. His films includes The Man Without Desire (1923), The Constant Nymph (1928) and The Vortex (1928). Nice Work is his autobiography.

The Edwardians

Source: J.B. Priestley, The Edwardians (London: William Heinemann, 1970), pp. 175-176.

Text: The final act in most of these variety shows when all the glory of the programme had vanished, was a few minutes of jerky film, generally called ‘Bioscope’. But we rarely stayed to discover what the Bioscope was offering us. Now that we have so many accounts of the early history of films, we know that men in various places were taking them very seriously indeed. But that was true of very few people. My friends and I waved them away. Apart from halls where films were occasionally shown, I seem to remember – as my first genuine cinema – a certain Theatre-de-Luxe, where for sixpence you were given an hour or so of short films, a cup of tea and a biscuit. I tried once, and once was enough. Not until the First War, when I was in the army, did I begin to look for films, not simply to take girls into the back rows for canoodling, but in search of the early Chaplin shorts that were arriving then. Before that, in the Edwardian years, like most other people I spent very little time looking at films, which were just so much prolonged ‘Bioscope’. And for that reason I shall spend no more time with them here, leaving them to flicker away, a final disregarded item in the great gaudy programmes of the music hall.

Comment: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. His history The Edwardians is a classic account of the social, political and cultural aspects of the era. His dismissal of cinema is typical of many nostalgic accounts of the era which favour theatre and music hall over the upstart new medium. Theatre de Luxe cinemas were part of Electric Theatres (1908), the first cinema chain in London.