Source: Simon Nelson Patten, Product and Climax (The Art of Life series) (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1909), pp. 45-48
Text: The next higher form of climax lies in the melodrama and its allied cheap shows of which the newest kind, the nickel theatre, has a novel importance. It is the first amusement to occupy the economic plane that the saloon has so long exclusively controlled. Its enormous popularity is proof that it appeals to the foundation qualities of men. It is moreover upbuilding, for the pictures of exciting adventures rouse the imagination and concentration which have lapsed in humdrum toil. It is accused of immoral suggestion: the suggestion however is chiefly in the wording of the titles, and the real test of immorality, which is destruction or construction of power, altogether fails. Such a test, naturally, lies in the later effects. If the man goes to the saloon he is “let down” and debilitated afterward; he becomes irritable or confused. There is no such reaction after the cheap show; the glow lasts, subsiding slowly as the memory of the thrilling rescue or the bad man’s capture is overlaid by new sensations. The watcher thinks with purpose, following a story which either has a plot or else holds his attention by showing novel scenes of travel among alien people. He can rest, be warmed, find the companionship of the like minded, and spend half an hour in either the nickel theatre or the saloon for the same price. A conservative estimate puts the number of people in New York City who daily visit the Nickelodeon at 200,000. On one New York street there are five Nickelodeons each having a capacity of 1,000 persons per hour and open from morning until midnight. In the crowded quarters they are almost as numerous as the saloons, and if their popularity continues they will soon out number them. Saloon keepers, says an investigator, are already complaining that their trade is injured by them.
Miss Jane Addams would give to physical sport the place which I have as signed to cheap shows. And this would be the natural place for it, I agree. Primitive men thought through their bodies before they thought through their imaginations; that is, they acted events before they sat down to watch others perform. Physical sport out of doors to-day would also be the natural corrective of the sedentary life of indoor workers. But we are confronted by then fact that there is not now, and is not likely to be for many years, any system of sport that will compare with the theatre in its present organization and accessibility. Great numbers of people easily obtain and are continually influenced by the cheap theatre; comparatively few are stimulated by its natural forerunner, physical play, because there is so scanty equipment for it. To make it a persuasive influence we must first secure an improved general organization of the city — in fact, a geographical reorganization of it, fundamental enough to replace whole areas of dwellings with parks, narrow streets by boulevards, shipping ways with boating courses and construct gymnasiums and baths extensive enough for many thou sand people. In the meantime the actual lift is made by the existing well organized and numerous centers of mimic deeds of virtue and prowess. To close them would be to leave the five-cent pleasure seekers with no alternative but the saloon or street.
Comments: Simon Nelson Patten (1852-1922) was an American economist. Jane Addams was an American social worker and reformer.
Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.
Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”
The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.
Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.
Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:
Wage of manager $25 Wage of Operator 20 Wage of doorman 15 Wage of porter or musician 12 Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50 Rent of projecting machine 10 Rent of building 40 Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18 Total $190
Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.
The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.
The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.
But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.
To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.
Who the Patrons Are
The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.
In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.
As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.
Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.
The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.
The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.
The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.
The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.
Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.
By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.
The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.
How the Drama Is Made
Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.
The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.
The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.
Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.
Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.
Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.
The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.
The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.
To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”
Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.
The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?
The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.
The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.
Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.
The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.
If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:
Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ” Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ” Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ” Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ” A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ” Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ” Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ” Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ” The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ” Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “
Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:
LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78 Extra for coloring $125.10
The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.
Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”
Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.
Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).
Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.
Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.
Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.
It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.
Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.
In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.
The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.
Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.
Source: Howard D. King, ‘The Moving Picture Show’, The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. LIII no. 7, 14 August 1909, pp. 519-520
Text: The development of the cheap moving picture and musical theaters as factors in the health of the community seems to have escaped the notice of the medical press. To-day every village and hamlet in the United States boasts a moving picture show. In the large cities of the north and cast it is not unusual for a hundred and often more to be in operation. In Europe they are outnumbered only by the public houses and cabarets. As is well known, the great majority of these theaters exist where the population is greatly congested, as in tenement districts and laboring settlements. The reason for this is obvious. It is the patronage of the poorer classes which makes the moving picture industry a paying proposition. These cheap theaters are usually located in old rookeries or poorly paying commercial sites, as abandoned shops of small tradesmen, etc. In the construction or building alteration of these places for their special needs the one object in view is to obtain a maximum seating capacity in as small a space as possible. No attention whatever is paid to ventilation and not the slightest heed given to the simplest sanitary details. The health or comfort of the patron is a secondary consideration. Municipal regulation is limited to ﬁre prevention and safety exits – and this only after several serious catastrophes.
The performances are continuous, and thus an ever-moving stream of humanity, constantly passing in and out, stirs up dust and dirt that verily reeks with tubercle bacilli. The programs in these resorts have been considerably lengthened owing to the keenness of competition. The result is that an audience is conﬁned within these ill-ventilated and poorly sanitated amusement resorts often for more than an hour and a half, breathing in air which has become befouled and disease-laden through lack of sufficient air capacity. The superabundance of carbon dioxid and organic matter in the air gives rise to sick stomach, headache and a drowsy feeling. The small fee of admission is responsible for a class of patronage which is entirely oblivious of the simplest health precautions. Spitting on the floor is a common practice and is allowed to go unnoticed. Signs calling attention to the dangers of the vicious habit of indiscriminate expectoration are rare. The use of the electric fan in certain of these resorts, while refreshing to the overheated patron, also serves to dry up the sputum with greater dispatch, thus increasing its disease productiveness. Cleaning the premises is impossible during the hours of operation, which gives some idea of the amount of ﬁlth that accumulates.
Robust and vigorous individuals employed as singers and musicians, appearing as often as twelve and thirteen times a day in these crowded resorts, soon undergo a remarkable change of health. Poor ventilation produces not only discomfort and loss of energy, but greater susceptibility to disease, especially tuberculosis. Many of the singers are raw amateurs and know nothing of the care and preservation of the voice, and in many instances a voice capable of greater things is lost to the public through exposure to such unfavorable conditions. Laryngeal troubles are a frequent source of annoyance to this class of people through excessive vocal effort and constant conﬁnement. I have treated many of the singers employed by the cheap moving picture shows and found the majority of them to be of a decided phthisical tendency. The ﬁlm operator who is conﬁned cubby-hole at an exceedingly high temperature falls an easy prey to tuberculosis. Constant attendance at the scene of employment, coupled with the irregularity of meals and uncertain hours, is responsible for the fact that many of the male artists become alcoholics. Taken all in all, the cheap provincial picture theater artist has no easy task and sooner or later another victim is enrolled under the banner of the white plague.
The general practitioner is often consulted by a patient complaining of headache and burning eyes which run water as soon as they come in contact with strong light. After a thorough examination, including urinalysis, the patient is referred to an ophthalmologist in order that a refractive error may be corrected and the patient relieved of the heartache and the visual irritation. In a great number of cases the ophthalmologist will report that there is no error of refraction and that he is unable to account for the headache and the running burning eyes. An inquiry into the habits of the patient will elicit the information that he is a devotee of the moving picture show. The constant gazing on a rapidly moving and scintillating ﬁlm with every mental faculty alert to maintain the connection of the story is sufficient to produce an eyestrain of great severity and thus cause headache and burning eves. The only remedy is rest and cessation from this form of amusement. After a few weeks vision becomes normal or nearly so and no ill results are experienced unless the patient resumes his former habits. In many cases the eye trouble assumes a severity that calls for long and persistent treatment on the part of the ophthalmologist.
Moving picture shows in tenement districts and labor settlements should exhibit pictures that tend to elevate the mind and improve the moral condition of their audiences. Pictures portraying scandal, illicit amours and criminal cupidity very often have a debasing effect on a mind that is already morally warped through environment and surroundings, thereby bringing to the surface a latent criminality. If the moving picture shows are to remain, radical changes must be made.
Rigid inspection by the health authorities is absolutely necessary. Proper ventilation by means of exhaust air fans, airifiers and other ventilating appliances and numerous apertures with sufficient air intake must be provided. The number of cubic feet of air necessary for health should be determined by the seating capacity. The ﬂooring should be oiled, not carpeted or covered with dust-gathering material. Plush-covered and velvet-covered seats should also be prohibited for obvious reasons. Suspension of the performance at the end of every ﬁve hours, when the orchestra or seating hall should undergo a thorough cleaning, is of urgent necessity. The cleaning could be accomplished within forty-five minutes by the aid of the vacuum cleaner and should be followed by a draught of pure air throughout the place, it possible. At the termination of the day’s performance the whole resort should be given the proper sanitary attention. Signs should be conspicuously posted as to the evils of spitting.
That a great deal of eye trouble is due to moving picture shows cannot be denied. The singers, musicians and ﬁlm operators of these resorts fall an easy prey to tuberculosis through excessive vocal efforts, constant confinement, irregular habits and long hours. As a disseminator of tuberculosis the moving picture theater ranks high and it will become necessary to enact special health laws to remedy the evil.
Comments: Dr Howard D. King practiced in New Orleans. Early motion picture venues were regularly criticised for their poor hygiene, and the films condemned as the cause of eye-strain. It was common practice at this time for singers to perform in American nickelodeons, along with illustrative slides, in between reel changes.
Source: Margaret Frances Byington, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town [The Pittsburgh Survey vol. 4] (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910), pp. 110-112
Text: Practically the only public amusements in Homestead, during my stay there, were the nickelodeons and skating rinks. Six of the former, all but one on Eighth Avenue, sent out their penetrating music all the evening and most of the afternoon. There was one ten-cent vaudeville house, but the others charge five cents for a show consisting of songs, moving pictures, etc., which lasts fifteen minutes or so.
The part these shows play in the life of the community is really surprising. Not only were no other theatrical performances given in Homestead, but even those in Pittsburgh, because of the time and expense involved in getting there, were often out of the reach of workingmen and their families. The writer, when living in Homestead, found few things in Pittsburgh worth the long trolley ride, forty-five minutes each way. Many people, therefore, find in the nickelodeons their only relaxation. Men on their way home from work stop for a few minutes to see something of life outside the alternation of mill and home; the shopper rests while she enjoys the music, poor though it be, and the children are always begging for five cents to go to the nickelodeon. In the evening the family often go together for a little treat. On a Saturday afternoon visit to a nickelodeon, which advertised that it admitted two children on one ticket, I was surprised to find a large proportion of men in the audience. In many ways this form of amusement is desirable. What it ordinarily offers does not educate but does give pleasure. While occasionally serious subjects are represented, as for example pictures of the life of Christ given in Easter week, the performance usually consists of song and dance and moving pictures, all of a mediocre type. Still, for five cents the nickelodeon offers fifteen minutes’ relaxation, and a glimpse of other sides of life, making the same appeal, after all, that theatre and novel do. As the nickelodeon seems to have met a real need in the mill towns, one must wish that it might offer them a better quality of entertainment. Many who go because they can afford nothing expensive would appreciate something better, even at a slightly higher price.
Comments: Margaret Frances Byington (1877-1952) was an American social investigator. Homestead was part of the 1907-08 Pittsburgh Survey into social conditions, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. Homestead is in Allegheny County, Pennyslvania, and is famed for the Homestead Strike of 1892.
Source: John Collier, ‘Cheap Amusements’, Charities and the Commons, 11 April 1908, pp. 73-76
Text: For four months a joint-committee of the Woman’s Municipal League and the People’s Institute has been engaged in an investigation of the cheap amusements of Manhattan Island. The committee has been composed as follows: Michael M. Davis, Jr., secretary of the People’s Institute, chairman; Mrs. Josephine Redding, secretary of the Woman’s Municipal League, secretary; Mrs. R. H. McKelvey, Miss Henrietta B. Rodman, Miss Alice Lewisohn, Mrs. F.R. Swift, Michael H. Cardoza, Charles H. Ayres, Jr., John Collier, and W. Frank Persons. The investigation has been made financially possible through the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the Woman’s Municipal League. The writer has acted as field investigator.
Attempt has been made to cover all phases of the cheap amusement problem, excluding from the detailed investigation dance-halls and skating-rinks on the one hand and high-priced theaters on the other. Legal and business aspects have been studied as well as educational and sanitary. The subject-matter has been fourfold: melodrama, vaudeville and burlesque; nickelodeons, or moving picture variety shows; penny arcades; and miscellany. The miscellany are anatomical museums, fake beauty-shows, etc., which are confined to a limited area of the city where they maintain a difficult existence. They can be passed over in the present brief report. What follows sums up the results of the investigation.
The whole topography of the cheap-amusement problem has changed within the last six years. To illustrate: the old-time crass melodrama has been in large measure dethroned, crowded out by the cheap vaudeville and the nickelodeon. The cheap vaudeville has spread widely and has become a problem in itself; it plays a fairly constructive role in a few instances, and in several is about the vilest and most brutalizing form of entertainment in New York. Withal, it generally keeps within the bounds of the laws protecting public decency, which are largely matters of interpretation, but only through agitation, hard fighting and a constantly aroused public sentiment can it be kept within bounds. But even the cheap vaudeville has been eclipsed by the tremendously expansive nickelodeon, the number of which in Greater New York, has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children. And finally, the penny arcade has sprung into mushroom existence, has proved itself to be irredeemable on the educational side and without the elements of permanent growth in popular favor and has worn out its public. It is now being driven from the field by the nickelodeon.
Not only the superficial aspect, but the essential nature of the cheap amusement problem has changed and changed for the better. Constructive elements have entered and triumphantly made good with the public, so that now the cheap-amusement situation offers an immediate opportunity and a rousing challenge to the social worker. The nickelodeon’s the thing, and the story of its development is instructive.
Five years ago the nickelodeon was neither better nor worse than many other cheap amusements are at present. It was often a carnival of vulgarity, suggestiveness and violence, the fit subject for police regulation. It gained a deservedly bad name, and although no longer deserved, that name still clings to it. During the present investigation a visit to more than two hundred nickelodeons has not detected one immoral or indecent picture, or one indecent feature of any sort, much as there has been in other respects to call for improvement. But more than this: in the nickelodeon one sees history, travel, the reproduction of industries. He sees farce-comedy which at worst is relaxing, innocuous, rather monotonously confined to horseplay, and at its best is distinctly humanizing, laughing with and not at the subject. Some real drama: delightful curtain-raisers, in perfect pantomime, from France, and in the judgment of most people rather an excess of mere melodrama, and in rare cases even of sheer murderous violence. At one show or another a growing number of classic legends, like Jack and the Beanstalk or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, can be seen any night. The moving picture repertoire amounts to tens of thousands, and is amazingly varied. One firm alone in the city has two million feet of “film” stored away until it can be used again as fresh material, after the public has forgotten it. In addition to the moving-picture, the nickelodeon as a rule has singing, and almost invariably the audience joins in the chorus with a good will. Thus has the moving-picture-show elevated itself. But the penny arcade has not elevated itself, and the cheap vaudeville, if anything, has grown worse.
The nickelodeon is a family theater, and is almost the creation of the child, and it has discovered a new and healthy cheap-amusement public. The penny arcade is a selfish and costly form of amusement, a penny buying only a half-minute’s excitement for one person. Its shooting-gallery and similar features are likewise costly. In the short-lived pictures there is no time for the development of human interest, but the gist of a murder or of a salacious situation can be conveyed. So the penny arcade has resembled the saloon, from which the family has stayed away; and everything artificial has been mustered in to draw the floating crowd. As for the cheap theater, it has had a false tradition behind it, and managers have taken for granted that a low-priced performance could be given only by an inferior cast. So when the cheap theater has departed from the crudest melodrama it has gone over into inferior vaudeville and has depended on illegitimate methods for its success. This is the rule, although there are exceptions, and vaudeville at best has only a limited interest for the great, basic, public of the working and immigrant classes in New York.
But the nickelodeon started with a free field and a marvelous labor-saving device in the moving-picture, and it began above all as a neighborhood institution, offering an evening of the most varied interest to the entire family for a quarter. Thus the nickelodeon grew as solidly as it grew swiftly, and developed a new amusement seeking public, the public that has made the nickelodeon what it is. Right here is found the most significant aspect of the present amusement situation. All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theater of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it.
The investigation led almost immediately to constructive opportunities. On the legal side, an anomalous situation was found. In no existing law, state or municipal, was penny arcade or moving picture mentioned. These theaters were grouped by construction as common shows, along with ferris wheels and bicycle carrousels, and were put under the authority of the license bureau. But where the standard theater is regulated in the minutest detail as regards its building requirements, by written law, there is no law and no printed specification for the moving picture show, which plays with fire. The theaters are controlled by the police, in whom responsibility is centered, and who co-operate with the proper departments. But the nickelodeon is controlled by the license bureau, a clerical department, and up to ten months ago it went to all intents and purposes unsupervised. Then popular agitation and the initiative of a hard working official in the fire department, set the city’s machinery at work, and a good deal has been done. The moving picture show is reasonably safe from fire now; it is not yet safe from contagious disease, and the air is often very bad.
As a first step toward adjusting the legal situation, the investigation committee framed a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Samuel A. Gluck at Albany, and which has passed the Assembly by a large majority. Barring unforeseen obstacles it will pass the Senate at the present session. This bill provides for the raising of license fees on nickelodeons from $25 to $150 a year, for the placing of this license under the direct control of the police, along with the license for standard theaters, and for the exclusion of school children from nickelodeons during school hours and after eight o’clock at night, except when accompanied by guardians. This bill went to Albany with the endorsement of various civic organizations, the Board of Education, and the Moving Picture Association itself which has shown every desire to co-operate in the improvement of moving picture standards.
On the side of co-operation with the moving-picture business looking toward more elevated performances, and even the improvement of the artistic and educational quality and of sanitary conditions through direct competition on a commercial basis, the opportunity is immediate and large. In this field it is probable that the drama machinery of the People’s Institute will be turned to use in some co-operative plan, giving endorsement to the best of the shows and receiving in return the right to regulate their programs. Settlements on their own initiative could do valuable work in this way. The investigation committee, which is to be perpetuated as a sub-committee of the drama committee of the People’s Institute, will in all probability start one or more model nickelodeons, with the object of forcing up the standard through direct competition, of proving that an unprecedentedly high class of performance can be made to pay, and perhaps, in the event of success, of founding a people’s theater of the future.
Comments: John Collier was an American social worker working for the New York People’s Institute. Michael M. Davis of the same organisation later produced an important study of commercial entertainments, including cinema, The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City (1911). Charities and the Commons was a weekly journal dedicated to social and charitable themes. Penny arcades would often include moving pictures, usually of the peepshow variety.
Source: W.W. Winters, ‘With the Picture Fans’, The Nickeodeon, 1 September 1910, pp. 123-124
Text: Come on, girls, let’s go to the show. You get the tickets, Gertie. Of course, it’s Dutch treat, you know. Here’s mine.” There immediately begins an animated search among powder rags, trinkets, and sundry other articles held in a girl’s pocketbook, for the little purse with her small change. Result! “Heavens. Has everybody put all they have in? Yes? And only two dollars and sixty-nine cents. Mercy! Let’s see, one, two, three, four, five. Five of us can’t go anywhere on that. No, we went to Chase’s yesterday, so there are two of us who don’t want to go there. What? Of course, I won’t go in the gallery! Horrors ! I’m surprised at you, Clara. Oh! come on, then, and for mercy’s sake quit fighting about it here.”
Answer to the riddle. Twenty minutes later Five girls, with as many bundles, containing candy, etc., are sitting giggling in one of the city’s foremost nicolettes. Happiness!
* * *
“Do you know, Mrs. Jones, I do get too petered out shopping for any use, I do, indeed.” Mrs. Jones, looking a little done up herself, sympathizes with her. “And do you know, Mrs. Jones, it do beat all how hard it is these days to find a bargain. Oh! there goes that Mrs. Brown. ‘Pon my word, I don’t know where she gets the money she spends on her clothes. And Mr. Jones says her husband ain’t doing nothing worth talking of. Don’t tell me some women ain’t worthless. But Lord! you never can tell; there’s that dear Mrs. Smith, and you do know that her husband is acting scand’lus. What? You didn’t? Why it do beat all, but you know they say he has been running around with some little hussy that dyes her hair and — and, mercy, it’s an outrage, but I never do talk scandal, so you will have to find out — now, I wonder! Mrs. Jones, let’s take in this here show. Never been in one? Well, come on in now, I’ll pay, and I’ve got some candy that I promised Johnnie I would get him, but he’ll never know if we eat some, come on.” Exit Mrs. Jones and her talkative friend through the entrance of one of the five-cent theaters.
* * *
“Two o’clock. H-m-m-m, threequarters of an hour before I can see that man. Why didn’t I make it earlier. Great Scott, what a noise those places do make. Wonder what they’re like. H-m-m-m, 40 minutes. I reckon I’ll take a chance.” The next minute the gentleman disappears into a nicolodeon [sic], with a rather sheepish look.
When one says five-cent theater the first thought is that they are for the poorer people, those who cannot afford even to pay 50 cents for a seat in the “peanut” at one of the other theaters. But is this so? To a certain extent, yes; but only to a certain extent. No matter what time you take to visit these theaters you are sure to find among the motley throng some who are of your station almost, no matter what that station may be. You can, for instance, see plenty of Chinamen there, but whether or not — and from the immobile expression I should say not — they are enjoying it can only be a conjecture. And right here it can be said, and with praise, that one set that they appeal to is the soldier from the fort, the marine barracks, and, in fact, anywhere he comes from. This is in itself a fact that is worthy of praise, for if the soldier can secure an evening’s enjoyment by going to those places, and, at the same time, not spend more than he thinks right, they have filled a vacancy long felt in cities adjoining posts. Then, too, there are the children. They can surely find no more harmless amusement, and few less expensive. And last, but not by any means least, are the men and women who drop in for a while to be amused, or to fill up a spare moment, or even out of courtesy. This only brings us to the cleanness of the performance. It can be truly said that, as a general rule, there is nothing to offend the most fastidious. Taken as a whole, they present amusements that are good, bad, and — worse, the pictures of which the same may be said at times, but which are at least clean. This, too, is a fact worthy of praise, and more — of continuance.
* * *
How different it must seem to a man or woman who has not visited the city for, say, five years — nay, even less — to come here, and in the evening stroll down the avenues and streets. To see tall buildings outlined with lights, huge doorways filled with lighted figures, brilliant paintings, and the ever-present phonograph. But to see the outlay of lights and noise and color is to go back to the Midway at a fair; and consequently we wander past the girl at the window, depositing at the same time a coin, carelessly and as if by chance, on the counter, take up our ticket, and slip inside. It depends entirely upon where this sudden idea takes you what the inside will be like. No two are the least alike, and it must be said that they all show a certain amount of beauty. It is well to say a certain amount, for not wanting to knock them, there is nevertheless a certain incongruity about some of them in the manner in which they have mixed ideas. In other words, you can from the “trimmings” imagine it was done after any of a dozen styles of architecture. But this is a side issue. You go there to see moving pictures and vaudeville acts, and not to comment upon the wall decorations. You go there for amusement. And you can surely get it. No matter how crude the acting, or how far fetched the pictures, there is always sure to be some one who thinks they are “perfectly lovely,” and so amusement is assured. For if you cannot enjoy the performance it is pretty safe to say it is because you have been used to better acting, etc., but unless you are an absolute pessimist you cannot fail to be amused by those around you who do enjoy it.
* * *
One of the most noticeable habits of the patrons of those theaters is that of reading out loud what is flashed upon the screen. “The Capture of the Outlaws.” Ah-h-h-h-h. Everybody sits up and “takes notice.” “Love Triumphant.” Another long-drawn-out “Ah-h-h-h!” and some more notice. Then comes an act a la vaudeville. Somebody in the exurberance of their spirits yells “Get the hook!” whether or not the act is bad, whereat everybody laughs. There are times when the whole audience is so pleased with itself and everybody else that let any one accidentally, quite accidentally, sneeze, why, the whole house re-echoes with laughter. Have you ever noticed some old party who is so absorbed in the thing going on before him that he unconsciously makes remarks to nobody in particular, and seen how everybody around is generally tolerant, generally, be it said, and will nudge one another, and smile, and bob their heads in his direction. Ever seen it? Ever done it? Ever been it? Isn’t it nearly always a good-natured crowd? Doesn’t your heart warm within you and you feel like patting some small boy on the head, a small boy, be it said, that at any other time you would push out of your way? Somehow you all enter into the spirit of the thing. Armed with a few stray nickels, a bag of peanuts, a good supply of patience and good humor, and oh! what a time we did have! You all know that line from Kipling, “The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.” Isn’t it so? Don’t you slip away from yourself, lose your reticence, reserve, pride, and a few other things? Don’t you even forgive the fat old gentleman who, when he passed you, stepped on your co—-? Aren’t you most willing to do that? And why? Here’s where I retreat and let you puzzle it out.
* * *
And when you come out, this is particularly so of a Saturday night, you wander up and down and find yourself brushing shoulders with goodness knows who. And then you go to speak to your friend, he was right by your side a second ago. You turn. “Oh! do let’s take in that one — Oh ! Oh-h-h-h! I be-eg your pardon. Oh! there you are. Mercy, that was a perfectly strange man.” There you are! The man took off his hat and went his way and forgot you. But there is something in the air, a something caused by the bright lights, and a great deal of squeeky noises issuing forth from each recess you pass, that gets into your bones, and you all lock arms, everybody in your crowd, and swing down the street, happy and care free, and proceed to take in every five-cent theater that so much as displays a little tweeny light — and then wish for more. And, of course, it is understood that you had not only no idea of ever going in the “cheap” places, but, when you were finally inveigled in, that you could go once, but never again. But what’s the use? Why not submit gracefully and admit that the five-cent theaters have a place all their own and that, after all, you are going again. By Jove! So there!
Comments: ‘Nickelodeon’ was a name given to early American film theatres, which appeared in cities from around 1905 onwards, where seats were commonly priced at five cents (a nickel).
Source: James Oppenheim, ‘The Nickel Theater’ in Monday Morning and other poems (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1909), pp. 66-68
Text: O Shakespeare come and sit with us! Here are such theater-glories As you, O million-peopled Soul, had loved! For you told stories The crowds could see — yea, though the poems swept over their brains blind. So much were women and men your words you spoke to all mankind.
It’s a thick black room and a rough rude crowd — the real strong human stuff — A screen’s before, a beam of light rules through the air — enough! Lo, on that beam of light there darts vast hills and men and women. The screen becomes a stage; here’s life, blood-red with the living human!
In but ten minutes how we sweep the Earth, un- baring life. Here in Algiers and there in Rome — a Paris street — the strife Of cowboys swinging lariat ropes — the plains, the peaks, the sea — Life cramped in one room or loosed out to all eternity!
Lo, now, behold the dead salt desert, the trail-lost man and wife, A child clutched to her breast ! They toil through sand, they cry for life. They stagger on from hill to hill — now far, now near — their cry Breaks through our hearts, their fight is ours, we love them as they die!
Yea, in ten minutes we drink Life, quintessenced and compact. Earth is our cup, we drain it dry; yea, in ten min- utes act The lives of alien people strange; the Earth grows small; we see The humanness of all souls human: all these are such as we!
O at day’s end, and after toil that dragged the heart In the street, What utter glory to forget, to feel again the beat Of the warming heart with light and life and love’s unearthly gleam, Till Dreams become our Living World, and all the World’s a Dream!
Now we have lived the pain of others, now we have drunk their joy! It gives us new heroic grip upon our day’s employ! O Shakespeare, here Earth’s dimmest brain can draw strength from great stories! The millions grasp their heritage of Art, the theater-glories!
Comments: James Oppenheim (1882-1932) was an American poet, novelist, writer on psychology and editor of the literary magazine The Seven Arts.
Source: Molly Picon, So Laugh a Little (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), pp. 136-142
Text: If someone were to write a history of the movies from the fan’s point of view, he would have to include my grandmother. From the day she walked in to see her first nickelodeon, she was completely captivated by Hollywood. She might not have gone to the nickelodeon if my grandfather hadn’t used every argument he could muster to get her there – what did she need it for, she cried, the first time the subject came up, she had a million things to to around the house, she didn’t feel like getting all dressed up, if he wanted to go, she wouldn’t stand in his way. My grandfather patiently outwaited all her cogent reasons for not leaving the house and eventually bore her off triumphantly to witness the marvel of moving pictures. Afterwards he used to complain that a man didn’t know when he was well off, why hadn’t he left well enough alone, if he had known how she would react he would have had his head examined before he talked her into it. My grandmother would smile and wave her hand at him and tell him not to get excited, at least she wasn’t a gambler or a drinker. My grandmother didn’t need alcoholic stimulation; she was intoxicated by the silver screen. Although she loved the theatre, she never responded to it the way she did to the movies. I have often thought that the plays she saw on the Yiddish stage hit too close to home; the situations were exaggerated, perhaps, but always contained nuggets of reality; the people were too easily identified with. They were, after all, her own people. But up there on the screen, magnified out of all contact with her world, scenes would unfold before her that would transport her into a never-never land. Even when she didn’t understand what was happening – and this occurred more often than not – she still loved every minute of it.
When I would ask her what she had seen, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “Do I know? They were hitting and fighting, and the girl didn’t like the good-looking one, and then she did like him, and then she changed her mind again. I don’t know what’s the matter with the girls today. In my time nobody asked you. You got married and that finished it.”
“Then you didn’t care for the picture?” I asked.
“Didn’t care for it?” she repeated incredulously. “With all that fighting and hitting and that poor boy up there eating his heart out for her? Why didn’t I like it?”
She became such an avid movie fan that Helen and I had to sit and read every little bit of gossip we could find in the papers to her, up to and including the blurbs of coming attractions. To my grandmother this wasn’t gossip, but gospel. She never for a moment doubted that every word was true. After all, it was printed, right there, in black and white. In those days, we lost my grandmother regularly once a week. For this was the era of the weekly serial, and Pearl White was its human sacrifice in fifteen installments. In spite of my grandmother’s shrieking warnings, Pearl White always managed to get herself into utterly hopeless situations. She would be huddling in some dank cellar while up above the villain would be peering down at her through a convenient hole in the floor, threatening to flood the cellar and drown poor Pearl unless she immediately and forthwith yielded what my grandmother always called her “good name.” Both Pearl White and my grandmother rejected these advances haughtily, no matter what the consequences. And the villain, of course, would then promptly turn on the waterworks.
All week long, my grandmother would worry and fret and strain for the days to pass so she could see how Pearl was doing. Pearl would escape from drowning only to wind up, at the end of that particular installment, in an even more precarious position, maybe tied to the railroad tracks, or about to be evenly distributed in a sawmill, or hanging by her fingertips from a cliff whilst the villain carefully and painstakingly lifted her fingers, one by one. I remember one time my grandmother was ill and unable to attend the next showing. She went into an absolute frenzy. I couldn’t go, because I was involved in a rehearsal. Helen was out of town. My mother had to stay home and take care of my grandmother. That left only my grandfather, who regarded the whole thing as bordering on simple insanity. “I should spend a beautiful day in the dark to watch a girl make a fool of herself,” he scoffed. “This week she’ll hang by the neck, and next week she’ll hang by the toes, and after the fifteen weeks is up, she’ll only start all in again with the foolishness. You would think with all the trouble she gets into that she would learn something.”
“Aaron, I beg you,” my grandmother pleaded. “I left her last week the house was burning down, and she was choking … such choking she was purple in the face. Like this she was, Aaron …” And my grandmother went into a graphic illustration that almost purpled her own face, but my grandfather remained unmoved.
“So what are you so worried?” he replied indifferently. “You think they’ll let anything happen to her? And for her I should miss my checkers?”
Even my grandmother couldn’t expect my grandfather to give up a checker game for Pearl White. All week she brooded. A whole episode missed and gone forever. When she would return to the theatre, Pearl would be facing a completely new peril. It was too much for flesh and blood to stand, my grandmother complained. As soon as she was well, she hurried off to the theatre and cornered the manager.
“Mr. Brody,” she panted. “From you I can have an answer. Tell me what happened last week. One foot I don’t put outside this office till I hear what happened.”
“God love you, Mrs. Ostrow,” said Mr. Brody, who had come to know my grandmother very well, in weekly installments, “how would I be knowing that? I’ve more adventures of my own keeping an eye on the little devils that come to watch her than she’ll ever be having.”
My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She herself would sit through both showings of the serial, just in the hope that it might come out differently at the end the second time, and here was Mr. Brody, with such a golden opportunity, who didn’t even care!
“Do you have any idea what the little monsters do here of an afternoon?” Mr. Brody warmed up to his subject as one who had had much practice. “I won’t mention the condition of the floors, with the boxes and papers and bags filled with banana peels and apple cores,” he said, waving an angry finger under my grandmother’s nose. “Nor do I care to mention the state of the bathrooms in front of a lady. But do you have any idea what happens to the seats?” He clutched his head. “The black plague on him that invented chewing gum!”
“I ask him about last week and he gives me chewing gum. Mr. Brody. A whole week I’m dying …”
“It’s the back of my hand to the next whippersnapper I see with a mouthful of the stuff.” Mr. Brody, my grandmother could understand, was too full of his own woes to be concerned with hers. She left his office, muttering to herself angrily. Fortunately she ran into an usher who was as much enraptured with Pearl White as my grandmother.
“Ya dint see ut?” he whispered, aghast.
“I was sick. Please. I’m dying. How did she get out of the fire?”
“It was the cat’s pajamas,” the usher said. “Ya know how she dint see no way outa there, an thuh fire gettin’ closer alla time, and she was kinda chokin’ up from the smoke …?”
“Yeh, yeh, I know the fire and the smoke … what did she do?”
“Well, just when it looked like she was a goner, she noticed a little door she never seen before and …”
And turned the knob and escaped into the clean, outside world to start running from the villain in Chapter Ten, to be seen at this theatre next week, don’t miss this exciting episode.
When talking pictures came in, my grandmother became an even more ardent fan. She would come home beaming and repeat the story to us whether we wanted to hear it or not. Since the plot suffered considerably in the retelling, it was like trying to solve a puzzle with half the pieces missing. For some reason or other, my grandmother would identify the actor or actress with the role he was playing, so that if John Gilbert’s name in the story was Henry, he would remain Henry to her.
I’ll never forget the day she saw Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. She sobbed so hard through this performance that even after the curtain swished across the screen and the house fights were put on, she sat in her seat and cried vigorously. She came home with a bagful of sodden handkerchiefs, convinced that Al Jolson had sustained a terrible loss. In the picture, he sang a tearjerker called Sonny Boy to an angelic-faced child who subsequently died. Nothing could persuade my grandmother that this boy was not Al Jolson’s child. For weeks she would walk around the house, heaving racking sighs and wiping tears from her eyes.
“Bubba. For heaven’s sake,” I said, annoyed. “It was only a picture! That boy will be in a dozen new pictures before the year is over.”
“What do you know how a father’s heart can break? Wait. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand what it is to have love for a child.”
“But, Bubba. That child did not die. It was just a story.”
“Malkele,” she replied sorrowfully. “I know you mean well and you’re trying to make me feel better. But you’re young yet. You don’t know what real suffering is.”
From that time on, she became especially interested in Al Jolson’s career. If she heard gossip that was good, she felt considerably cheered. If she heard comments that were unfavorable, she would shake her head gravely and say, “That poor man hasn’t been the same since he lost his little boy.”
As she became older, she preferred stories with modern settings. When we took her to see a picture depicting early days in man’s history, she would turn to me or to Yonkel and say disapprovingly, “Why do you take me to see a picture made in olden days?”
“Bubba,” I would answer. “The picture wasn’t made in those days. The movies are practically brand new. That is a picture that just came out this year from Hollywood.”
“Go on,” she denied unbelievingly, “don’t I see with my own eyes what they’re wearing and how they are living?”
We discovered, after a while, that my grandmother would go to the movies for still another reason than to see what was playing. It was so dark and cozy and relaxing, my grandmother found it ideal for sleeping. The music would crash through the theatre; sirens would wail; heroines would shriek. My grandmother would doze blissfully through it all, awaken refreshed, and remark that she didn’t remember when she had enjoyed a picture more.
Finally my grandmother took to going to see foreign films. This was somewhat of a puzzle to me, since she had rough going with American films. One day I spoke to her as she was busily preparing to go to a Spanish movie.
“Bubba,” I protested. “A Spanish movie you want to see? Do you understand Spanish?”
She looked at me, and her eyes crinkled with amusement as she answered, “And who understands English?”
My grandmother was constantly amazed at the new innovations in the motion picture field, but I think there was never a time to equal, for her, the Pearl White days. Once, when I took her to see some mystery film, remembering how she loved the suspense in the old-time serials, she turned to me and said, “You think she is suffering?” – pointing scornfully to the quaking heroine on the screen – “you should have seen little Pearlie White. She was a real wreck.”
Comments: Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a renowned American star of Yiddish theatre and film. The above is a chapter from her memoir (‘as told Eth Clifford Rosenberg’) of her family and upbringing. Her Ostrovsky (later Ostrow) grandparents came from Rizshishtchov in Russia, where Picon’s mother was born. Molly Picon herself was born in New York. Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’ comes from the film The Singing Fool (USA 1928), not The Jazz Singer (USA 1927). Pearl White starred in the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).
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.
Source: Walter Anthony, extract from ‘The Growth of the Silent Drama’, The San Francisco Call, 30 April 1911, p. 29
Insert from the illustration that accompanies this article, showing nickelodeon audience types, drawn by the theatre’s manager, Art Hickman
Text: A matinee audience at a nickelodeon is interesting. I noticed at the Garrick five baby buggies, three of them occupied by pretty youngsters sound asleep, and over in a dark corner the mother of another was rendering such substantial consolation as infants cry for. An invalid chair was at the end of the aisle set so that the wan occupant, while not in the way of the passerby, could still see the pictures. Hickman said, “he comes every other day.” The “audience” was quiet and well behaved. It applauded its favorites, laughed at John Bunny, was curious at the exhibition of a picture showing what a drop of water contains – mightily magnified bugs of nightmare forms. It traveled to India for 15 minutes and watched a tragedy develop to a conclusion. “Strangely enough,” said Hickman, “a nickelodeon audience doesn’t necessarily want a play to end happily. It wants it to end logically, and it doesn’t especially care for spectacles involving hundreds of supers, but is content with a quick story told plainly and with a point to it, well worked out. Travel scenes are popular; outdoor cowboy pictures go well, but mostly the people seem to want stories, and so the nickelodeon has given a new lease of life to popular plays of 15 years ago, like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Octoroon,’ which are put on in tabloid form and explained, here and there, with a flash paragraph which puts the observer in touch with the action.”
Comments: Walter Anthony (1872-1945) was an American journalist who went on to become a screenwriter and film title writer (The Man Who Laughs, The Cat and the Canary, The Phantom of the Opera). Art Hickman (1886-1930) was manager of the Garrick Theatre, San Francisco. He went on to become a big band leader. John Bunny was a highly popular American film comedian. This is an extract from a longer article which also covers motion picture history, production and the cinema business.