The Nickelodeon theatre was an early motion-picture theatre named after the fact that admission generally cost one nickel. Developed during the early twentieth century, Nickelodeons provided spaces for longer, story films to be shown in lieu of the short films that were popular during that time. As a result, longer films became increasingly popular. This transition enhanced the movie-going experience because the longer a film's duration, the more emotionally involved an audience can become. Though originally associated with working-class audiences, the appeal of Nickelodeons extended into the upper classes as the years progressed. Nickelodeons also proved helpful in connecting members of immigrant communities, specifically in New York City.
The Rise of the Nickelodeon
The first Nickelodeon theatre was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905 by John P. Harris and Harry Davis, a local socialite with vaudeville interests. Within the year, a crop of Nickelodeon theatres sprang up around the city, and eventually spread to other places, including Manhattan. By 1908, between 8,000 and 10,000 Nickelodeon theatres existed in the United States, and by 1910, approximately 26 million Americans attended Nickelodeon theatres each week. This expansion marked a pivotal transition in the film industry and revolutionized American mass entertainment. For the first time, films had permanent homes and were able to be distributed nation-wide. In addition to entertainment value, this stability also created opportunities for interested parties to become involved in theatre and film distribution, ultimately bringing together various populations with the same interest: movies. This ability to find and widely distribute cheap movies on a large scale served to attract both the illiterate, as well as non-English speakers. Thus the Nickelodeon theatre become increasingly popular among the low income and immigrant populations, prompting intellectuals to describe the medium as a storytelling device for “naïve customers whose emotions were easily stimulated and whose pocketbooks were congenial to the 5-cent price” (Crowther). This rather critical portrayal of the Nickelodeon theatre and its customer base reflects the tension existing between different social classes at the time, as well as the idea that films were not considered "valued" art. In addition to films, the theatre offered live entertainment, often adding a comedian, animal act, or illustrated lecture before or immediately following the movie. "Scenic tours” were also of popular interest. Theatres would play rolls of travel pictures, which allowed the audience to feel that they were passing by the scenes on a railroad car.
The Nickelodeon Theatre
Nickelodeon theatres were typically all the same design: rectangular and approximately twenty feet wide by eighty feet long, with the wall on the far side painted white, and a projector above the door. One scholar described the Nickelodeon as a "small, uncomfortable, makeshift theatre, usually a converted dance hall, restaurant, pawn shop, or cigar store, made over to look like a vaudeville emporium" (Schatz). In the theatre itself, a hand-cranked projector displayed the film along the back wall. Permanent seating, if there was any, existed on either side of the center aisle in the form of wooden benches or plywood chairs. The floor of the theatre was slanted and at the front, a small area housed a piano player, who provided musical accompaniment to the silent film being presented. The entrance to the Nickelodeon theatre was almost always an arch, with a ticket booth at the front. Above the box office, there was often a small window through which the projectionist might escape in the event of a fire. Because of the highly flammable properties of nitrate film, fires were a very real danger. Despite basic setups, some Nickelodeon theatres evoked a grandiose feeling, especially those that were designed in a Gothic style (Morrison).
Longer Films & Storytelling
Prior to the Nickelodeon theatre, films were comprised of single shots and displayed either short fiction or non-fiction scenes. The Pathé Freres Company, a French film company, was the first to experiment with longer story films. When they opened offices in New York City in 1903, American film producers took notice - especially The Edison Manufacturing Company. Such American companies began to imitate the new, longer style and consequently, Nickelodeons began to show longer films (i.e. Edison’s "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903).
Although the Nickelodeons started with simpler, shorter films, the producers came to favor longer films because they allowed the producers to raise prices when selling film to exhibitors. Longer films also allowed for deeper, more complex story lines and stronger bonds between audiences and films. These films were excellent at “drawing spectators into the story and engaging them in the unfolding events, thus combining a form of entertainment which powerfully combined attractions with the pleasure of narrative” (Grieveson 78). These longer films, similar to the "scenic tour" films, allowed viewers to interact with the movie, becoming a part of its plotline and overall story.
New York City and the Nickelodeon
In the early 20th century, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was a large immigrant area - and also the location of the majority of New York City Nickelodeon theatres, which were strewn along the Bowery (Allen 4). These films were so popular that in New York City in 1910 alone, "between 1.2 and 1.6 million people (or more than 25 percent of the city's population) attended movies weekly" (Schatz). Because of the nature of silent films and the specific area in which they became prevalent in New York City, Nickelodeon theatres provided a sense of community to multiple levels of the social sphere, from the immigrant populations to blue-collar workers. In the theatre, a person's background and differences faded in light of the fact that they, and everyone else around them, were enjoying the same exact thing: the film.
The Death of Silent Film
Thomas Edison and Film
Inventor Thomas Edison was an influential figure within both the silent and sound film industries. In 1891, he created and debuted the kinetograph, for taking silent film footage, and the kinetoscope, a small, silent film viewer. It was while working in his “motion picture studio” that he also produced "Fred Ott’s Sneeze" - a few seconds of footage with a stream of pictures depicting his worker, Fred Ott (Cohen 33).
It was then that Edison became interested in merging both sound and film, thereby bringing together the kinetoscope with his previous 1877 invention, the phonograph. He thought that combining the motion picture with sound “would provide delightful entertainment for millions of people" (Manchel 2). In 1894 while collaborating with another inventor, William Dickson, Edison was able to successfully create one of the first sound films. Dickson and Edison worked in his laboratory in New Jersey, and eventually created a short clip viewed on a small screen that a person could watch while using listening tubes from a phonograph. The screen showed Dickson tipping his hat and waving to Edison, while the phonograph played a greeting wishing Edison good morning and expressing Dickson’s hope that he would enjoy the “kinetophone.” Despite their success, Edison felt the need to delve further into movie projection and motion picture production, while Dickson decided to pursue sound film productions, effectively ending their 6 year professional relationship in 1895.
A New Approach
A significant problem with Edison’s sound films involved use of the phonograph itself. Because the recording quality of the machines was poor, actors had to stand extremely close to the phonograph for any sound to be recorded at all. This limited the filmmaking process greatly because it required that either the phonograph be shown in the clip, or that the audio be recorded separately and then synchronized with the picture. Although Edison believed the second approach to be easier, it proved largely unsuccessful, as sound quality in the theatres was still poor and synchronization was difficult. Other attempts at sound film were also pursued. Actors sometimes hid behind screens to recite lines and sound machines were employed to create special effects sounds. Ultimately, however, neither these nor Edison’s efforts were commercially successful.
Eventually, the invention of Lee De Forest’s audio amplifier in 1908 allowed sound films to become a reality. De Forest invented a vacuum tube that converted sound into rhythmic light. Unfortunately, the process of converting the light back into sound was not perfected until the end of World War I. By then, the Western Electric Company had taken over the execution of De Forest's idea, and in 1925 teamed up with Warner Brothers to improve and produce sound films (Manchel 4).
Allen, Robert C. "Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan 1906-1912: Beyond the Nickelodeon." Cinema Journal (1979): 2-15.
Cohen, Paula Marantz. Silent Film & the Triumph of the American Myth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Crowther, Bosley. When Movies Were Young. New York: New York Times, 1955.
Grieveson, Lee and Peter Kramer. The Silent Cinema Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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Manchel, Frank. When Movies Began to Speak. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Mezias, Stephen J. and Jerome C. Kuperman. "The community dynamics of entrepreneurship: The birth of the American film industry, 1895–1929." Journal of Business Venturing (2001): 209-233.
Morrison, Craig. "From Nickelodeon to Picture Palace and Back." Design Quarterly (1974): 6-17.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 2004.