CHAPTER 7 / Part 2


Table of Contents

Table of Contents




Its spectatorial relationships—the ways in which a medium encourages audiences to respond to what it presents to them—are inextricably bound up with the exhibition practices by which its offerinjgs are presented to audiences. In order to understand U.S. motion-picture exhibition practices in the years 1900-1903, we need to look more closely at changes affecting the industry as a whole during this period. Charles Musser calls these years “a period of commercial crisis”: “The American motion-picture industry,” he writes, “experienced severe difficulties in the early 1900s on account of numerous factors: problems with technological standardization, patent and copyright problems, audience boredom with predictable subject matter, stagnant demand, and cutthroat competition.”[24]

The “Chaser Theory”
  How “bored” were audiences? How “stagnant”—as a result of collective boredom—was demand in the motion-picture industry? For a long time, film historians answered such questions by reciting the so-called “chaser theory.” Thus Lewis Jacobs in one of the first estimable histories of the cinema:

[As of 1900] most movies had hardly advanced beyond their first attempts and continued to show similar subjects with the same reproductive technique. As the initial fascination and wonder of the audiences waned . . ., managers of the better-class vaudeville theatres either abandoned the novelty entirely or presented it at the end of their programs, so that people who did not care to see it could leave. Movies became disdained throughout the theatrical world as “chasers.”[25]

The harshest model of the “chaser theory” held that because audiences were so accustomed to leaving the theater when the movies started, managers actually used them to “chase” one audience from the theater in order to make room for the next.

Modern scholarship suggests a different explanation for the phenomenon (audience exodus when the movies started) that apparently gave rise to this theory. As we’ve seen, vaudeville programs were “continuous”—patrons could come in and go out when they wished and still see a complete “cycle” of acts or fifteen-minute “turns” (see Figure 7.10). It thus seems more likely that movies were used to signal the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next, not to disperse entertainment seekers who’d overstayed their welcome.[26] Especially if the theater added no music, the motion-picture “act” would serve as a perfect “dumb” show between turns. In any case, film subjects, even at bargain-basement prices, still cost money, and if theater managers wanted to “chase” audiences, they could have sent the same signal at no cost by striking up the orchestra or raising the lights.


Eight original founders of the White Rats,

     precursor of Actors Equity, in 1900

The White Rats Strike
  Historian Robert C. Allen goes further in questioning a twofold assumption that he finds at the core of the chaser theory—namely, “that motion pictures were universally unpopular during this period and . . . that the cause of this public disfavor was probably the repetition of the same types of films.”[27] He points to the episode known as the White Rats strike. In February 1901, an organization of vaudeville performers called the White Rats of America struck East Coast theaters controlled by the Association of Vaudeville Managers. To fill their bills, managers in many theaters increased the number of motion pictures on their programs; others added movies to programs that had included them either irregularly or not at all. Needless to say, the situation was a boon to motion-picture producers, but the circumstances, like those which gave rise to the chaser theory, have tended to foster oversimplified interpretation: “For the first time,” reports Lewis Jacobs,

programs consisting solely of movies were offered to the theatrical public. To theatre managers’ great astonishment, people came—and came again. Before long, the vaudeville [owners] declared the motion picture to be its surest weapon against “the dissolution, bankruptcy, and humiliation” engendered by the strike.[28]

Again, more reliable scholarship suggests that the White Rats strike was broken by a combination of the union’s own lack of solidarity and the availability of replacement talent. The impact of motion pictures was undoubtedly limited. More importantly, the argument for the revival of the motion picture from the White Rats strike suggests that the strike provided an opportunity for the motion picture to recover a market that it had lost. To account for such a dramatic turn of commercial events, we’d expect to find some change in the product itself—some qualitative alteration in its content. But as Allen points out, researchers have uncovered no evidence of a change in the content of motion pictures that would account for the apparently sudden reversal of industrywide fortunes in the winter and spring of 1901.[29]

Supply and Demand in the Variety-Show Business

The issue of satisfactory variety in the available product—and the related issue of sufficient supply to satisfy demand—raise more complicated questions. One fact is certain: primarily because of ongoing legal strife, the production of the American motion-picture industry was severely curtailed in the years 1900 to 1902. It’s equally clear that vaudeville theaters were at the same time growing in importance as exhibition outlets for motion pictures. Vaudeville programs featured anywhere from eight to fifteen acts, and because they had to attract the same customers week after week, theaters were under constant pressure to replenish programs with fresh entertainment: in short, vaudeville demanded both variety and quantity from its suppliers, whether from live performers working its theater circuits or from the exhibition services supplying its motion pictures.

Moreover, vaudeville expanded between 1901 and 1904, and the demand for motion-picture subjects grew—modestly, for a while—along with it. Musser reports that between the fall of 1903 and the spring of 1904, the number of vaudeville theaters that regularly featured films rose substantially, especially in the large cities of the Northeast.[30] According to Richard Abel, many of these theaters, especially those operated by chains such as Keith’s, Proctor’s, and Orpheum, offered “high-class” vaudeville—programs of perhaps fifteen variety acts.[31] Even more important was the proliferation of less expensive theaters—so-called “cheap” or “family” vaudeville—which opened in mid-sized cities in the Northeast and soon spread throughout the Midwest and Far West. Featuring more modest programs (five or six acts) and boasting lower ticket prices (usually ten cents), these smaller theaters catered to working-class and lower-level white-collar audiences.


          Moving Picture Pavillion, Bay Shore

            Amusement Park, Baltimore, n.d.

In addition, small theaters soon became common attractions at amusement parks, where they began showing movies in the summer of 1902 (see Figure 7.11 [32]). Edison, Lubin, Biograph, and Vitagraph began actively targeting amusement-park theaters, whose success helped to fuel the boom in both “cheap” and “high-class” vaudeville houses. In turn, the mutually beneficial relationship between motion-picture producers and vaudeville exhibitors profited from significant changes in the ways in which producers distributed their products. In 1903-1904, some producers who had previously provided exhibitors with complete packages—films, projectors, and even projectionists—turned to the practice of renting only reels of film, typically at substantially reduced prices. In other words, these suppliers—notably Lubin, the Kinetograph Co. (an Edison partner located in New York), and George Spoor (the leading exhibition service in the Midwest)—abandoned the exhibition business and settled for a more limited role as distributors. As a result, the reel of film itself—not the contract that called for the producer to furnish exclusive programs—became the interchangeable commodity around which the industry revolved. The commercial implications were profound.[33]

Citing the contemporary trade press, Richard Abel reports that between the summer of 1903 and the summer of 1904, the number of exhibition sites available to distributors doubled. The increase was due mainly to the rapid growth of “cheap” vaudeville and the expansion of all kinds of venues throughout the Midwest and Far West. Obviously, such expansion would have been possible only if distributors could supply the increasing demand for movies. It goes without saying, therefore, that movies were available to a growing number of exhibitors. But which movies were they? Who was making them? American producers, argues Abel, were in no position to mount production on the necessary scale. For one thing, no American company had more than one studio in which to shoot interiors; although both Edison and Biograph began construction of new facilities in late 1905, they weren’t operational until the fall of 1906.[34]

The Toll Taken by Litigation

In fact, far from increasing, U.S. production had been largely stagnant since 1901. Charles Musser notes that between 1899 and 1902, Eastman Kodak’s sales of raw film stock had actually dropped from about $135,000 to under $90,000 annually. In December of 1900, Biograph reported net earnings of $6,200; in December of 1901, the total was $98.00. Interestingly, however, the firm reported fairly stable output—around 450 new subjects annually—for the May-June fiscal years of 1898-1899, 1899-1900, and 1900-1901.[35] Biograph’s crisis was not caused by a slump in production. Rather, the drastic financial falloff at Biograph not only reflects an era of instability in the U.S. industry that lasted until about 1904, but gives striking evidence of its severity. Biograph’s distress was due, more than to any other single factor, to constant legal warfare.

Disputes over Patents: Edison v. American Mutoscope
  The Edison Company had received patents for both its method of taking pictures and his machine for exhibiting them in 1897. There was a time, of course, when Edison had been the world’s only motion-picture producer, but as competitors entered the field, the company developed a twofold strategy:

  1. Maximize the number of independent exhibitors who demanded its products.
  2. Reserve all production under its control, whether at Edison itself or through a network of suppliers who paid licensing fees to Edison.[36]

As soon as its patents were securely in hand, Edison had initiated a series of patent-infringement suits as a means of pursuing this strategy.

See the moving picture


  Robert K. Bonine, Cutting Sugar in Honolulu,

   American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., 1901

Edison sued Biograph in May 1898, and although the case would not be resolved for nearly three years, when it came, the preliminary ruling was a potentially devastating blow to the defendant. In July 1901, a federal judge ruled that Biograph’s recording and projecting devices had “taken the substance” of the inventions that Edison’s suit sought to protect. In other words, Biograph was guilty of patent infringement and Edison deserved compensation (see Figure 7.12).

Biograph managed to block the court order that would have closed it down completely, but pending a judgment of monetary damages, the company drastically reduced its investment in production. During an eight-month period in 1901-1902, Biograph added 171 films to its catalog, but all were less expensive actualities. Most of these films were shot by a peripatetic cameraman named Robert K. Bonine (1861?-1923), who traveled across the U.S. and to the Far East to take actuality footage recording scenes from the Yosemite Valley to the streets of Tokyo. In 1906-1907, he would perform much the same function for Edison.[37]

In March 1902, an appeals court not only reversed the earlier court decision, but invalidated all of Edison’s principal patents. Free to resume production, Biograph turned out about 110 films between May and September 1902, although very few were multishot films with actors. Moreover, Biograph had already committed to converting its entire catalog of 70mm films to the 35mm format. The process took about a year, and during that time, Biograph devoted much of its resources to shooting duplicate versions of films and helping clients make the transition from 70mm to 35mm films. Production was severely limited until the fall of 1903, when the company’s 70mm service was finally phased out.

Conflict over Copyrights: Edison v. Lubin
  Meanwhile, Edison’s legal aggressiveness had also taken its toll on other domestic producers. When the original decision was handed down against Biograph, Sigmund Lubin (see Chapter 4.1) was also forced to curtail his activities. In fact, he moved his offices to Germany, from which he continued to sell films, and returned to the U.S. only after the decision in Edison v. American Mutoscope had been reversed in Biograph’s favor. When he reopened, however, Edison promptly sued Lubin for copyright infringement. Lubin’s lawyers responded by arguing that Edison’s copyright policies were inadequate. In June 1903, the courts handed down yet another decision that had serious repercussions for the entire U.S. industry.[38]

See the moving picture


    Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze,

             W.K.L. Dickson, Edison, 1894

Back in 1894, Edison had filed its first copyright, registering Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze as a photograph (see Figure 7.13) under an 1870 extension of copyright protection to such creations as photographs, paintings, and sculptures that would be used by the motion-picture industry until 1912. Typically, producers submitted to the Copyright Office not reels of flammable nitrate film, but rather rolls of paper strips—contact prints made on photographic paper from original negatives (see Figure 7.14).[39] Because it was registered and protected as a photograph, the motion picture did not have to qualify as a “dramatic composition”—an imprecise legal category consisting of shifting criteria ranging from coherence of plot to accountability for moral content.

Visual Intelligibility and Virtual Inertia
  In addition, the motion picture enjoyed what the courts called visual intelligibility: the performance of its content was indistinguishable from the notational system that resulted when its images were assembled. In 1908, for example, the court ruled that the performance of a song on a player piano did not infringe the composer’s copyright: the notational system that made possible the performance (the perforated player-piano roll) bore no visual resemblance to the notational system for recording the composition (the score).

In Edison v. Lubin (January 1903), a federal judge ruled that its principle of visual intelligibility—its construction as a series of indistinguishable pictures—was necessary to the performance of the motion picture. He went on to reason that the unique notational system of the motion picture—the property that would make it eligible for copyright protection—supported and conveyed not individual frames, but rather the film as a complete recorded performance.

Unfortunately, current legal practice protected the motion picture only by regarding it as a photograph. The law was therefore inadequate to account for the specific notational system that made possible the film’s performance. Until adequate legislation was enacted, only individual frames could be protected; in order to protect a whole film, a producer would have to copyright every individual frame. Neither Edison nor anyone else had foreseen such a requirement, and for all intents and purposes, from that date no motion picture was protected by U.S. copyright law. Edison appealed, but the immediate impact of the decision shook the entire industry: it made no sense for any American producer to invest in the creation of new properties as long as the law could not protect its right to the financial rewards. Domestic production ground to a virtual halt for several months.

Ironically, even Lubin’s production of original subjects dwindled to almost nothing. At Edison, the Mutoscope reversal had already weakened the company’s standing in the industry, and following the Lubin ruling, Edison instituted a virtual four-month ban on production. Edison’s legal maneuvers had already forced Vitagraph (see Chapter 4.1) to cease production completely, a situation that lasted from January 1901 until the Mutoscope reversal in March 1902.


                Selig Polyscope Company,

                        Chicago, ca. 1904

Although Edison had also sued the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope Company (in December 1900), Selig mounted a successful defense, and by the end of 1901, Selig’s output was equal to that of Edison and Lubin. By the fall of 1902, however, Selig was reduced to selling dupes of European films and making only promotional films subsidized by Colorado railroads. Selig produced no new acted films until the copyrights issue had been settled.[40]

An Upsurge of Imports
  And yet we know that vaudeville and related forms of entertainment expanded, demanding a continuous supply of motion-picture subjects to fill out a portion of their programs. Where did the films come from? Charles Musser reports that in late 1902, a Biograph program available to New York theaters consisted mostly of actualities (the German Navy on maneuvers, tourists in Yosemite Valley, two scenes of local color from Turkey), with one comedy and one trick film (shots of people diving into the ocean run backwards) for the sake of variety. All but one of these items were produced by European companies and distributed in the U.S. under various agreements with Biograph.[41]

Vitagraph, meanwhile, had resumed production almost as soon as the Mutoscope decision freed it from its obligations to Edison. Between January 1901 and May 1902, however, all Vitagraph programs were merely variations playable on a backlist of 246 non-Edison films. These included 56 films (mostly actualities and news footage) distributed by England’s Warwick Trading Company (see Biographical Sketch 5.2), 45 films (almost all trick films) made by Georges Méliès between 1897 and 1900, 31 films (including comedies, dramas, and trick films) made by R.W. Paul in England (see Chapter 3.1), 29 films made by G.A. Smith in England (see Chapter 5.1), and 16 films made by the French producer Gaumont (see Chapter 6.1). Of the 246 films available to Vitagraph, 117 were British and 66 French.[42]

As the only other American producer who continued to compete, Lubin openly duped films from both Edison and various foreign manufacturers. Edison, meanwhile, had long depended on Vitagraph for duped prints of Lubin’s films. When Georges Méliès’ brother Gaston arrived in the U.S. to protect Star-Film’s interests in early 1903 (see Biographical Sketch 3.2), he found that Biograph was paying royalties on Méliès releases not to Star-Films, but to Biograph’s British partner Warwick, who regularly exported duped prints of Méliès subjects to the United States.[43]

“No Moving-Picture Show Is Considered Complete without Pathé Pictures”


 One of many versions of the Pathé-Frères

                red rooster logo, ca. 1904

The giant French production company Pathé-Frères (see Chapters 6.1-3) opened a branch office in New York in August 1904. To prevent American companies from duping its films already circulating in Europe, Pathé adopted the practice of distributing its new releases in the United States before making them available elsewhere. It no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time, but Pathé soon discovered that both Edison and Lubin were simply buying films from Pathé’s own New York office, duping them as usual, and distributing them to satisfy increasing demand for a very popular product. Pathé responded by underselling Edison on the price of positive film stock, charging exhibitors twelve cents per foot to Edison’s fifteen.

The Collapse of Edison’s Quality Strategy
  At the same time, Lubin followed up his court victory by putting further pressure on Edison’s price structure, dropping his own price to eleven cents per foot. Together, the moves by Pathé and Lubin undercut Edison’s plan to set up a two-tier system of films based on quality: Edison planned to charge premium prices for higher-quality films, such as The Great Train Robbery (see Chapter 5.2) and Life of an American Fireman (see Chapter 4.2), but was forced to respond to the price-cutting tactics of Pathé and Lubin by cutting its own prices. Before long, prices and profit margins dropped at Edison, Lubin, Biograph, and Selig, and, ironically, American firms found that they could best compete in the market for the most popular subjects by continuing to dupe European films.[44]

Pathé, therefore, still had to contend with the pirating of its films by American competitors, but the practice also made Pathé movies more visible in the rapidly growing U.S. market. “The best advertising for our films,” declared the company’s New York branch manager in December 1903, “is the fact that so many concerns dupe them.”[45] In addition, while no American producer operated more than one studio until late 1906, Pathé was already mass-producing an extensive and varied catalogue of films at three facilities in France.

See the moving picture


         Gaston Velle, L'Album merveilleux,

               Pathé-Frères, France, 1905

Equally important was Pathé’s reputation for quality, especially that of the stencil-colored films which it had first introduced in 1903. Pathécolor had given the French company commercial prominence in the United States by the summer of 1905, and Pathé enjoyed that position for another five years. “The French,” admitted Thomas Edison in 1908, are still “somewhat in advance . . . [in] artistic merit.” In the same year, the trade publication Show World conducted a survey of films available for U.S. distribution: “The popularity of the Pathé product,” the editors concluded, “is so great that no moving-picture show is considered complete without Pathé pictures.”[46]

Supplying the “Feature Film”
  In the years 1900 to 1903, says Richard Abel, Americans who watched movies in vaudeville theaters were particularly fond of “‘magical subjects’ and ‘mysterious films,’ especially the longer spectacle plays like Cinderella, nearly all of them French.”[47] Charles Musser adds that by mid- to late 1903, American audiences were expressing a clear preference for “story films,”[48] and although longer, more elaborate films were more expensive to produce, the popularity of European movies had sent a clear signal to American producers at least a year earlier. At Edison between April 1902 and January 1903, Edwin S. Porter turned out a series of multishot story films ranging from The Gay Shoe Clerk to Life of an American Fireman (see Chapter 4.2). But not until an appeals court reversed the Lubin decision in April 1903 did U.S. producers resume the effort to capitalize on the market for more ambitious story films. So-called “feature” films usually meant acted multishot narratives built out of loosely joined sequences and sometimes linked by intertitles.

Domestic Features
  Many Edison “features,” such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (Figure 7.15—see also Figure B4.13), A Romance of the Rail (Figure 7.16 [49]), and The Great Train Robbery (all directed by Porter in 1903), were, as Musser puts it, “specifically American in the their subject matter and depended heavily on the domestic market for sales.”[50] Biograph released similar subjects, such as Kit Carson and The Pioneers (both made by Wallace McCutcheon in 1903), and both companies quickly emulated such British crime-and-chase films as Daring Daylight Burglary and A desperate Poaching Affray (see Chapter 5.2).

See the moving picture


             Edwin S. Porter, Maniac Chase,

                         Edison, USA 1904

Biograph’s The Escaped Lunatic (1903), a ten-shot tale of an asylum escapee and the largely comic pursuit of his guards, appears to be the first American movie structured around the chase. There are actually several chase episodes. In one, the splicing of the same shot in forward and reverse motion creates an invisible cut to enhance the lunatic’s exceptional skill in climbing a rope. In another, a long shot is cut into a scene in which the escapee and a guard struggle on a bridge, with the interpolated shot camouflaging the trick whereby a dummy is substituted for the guard before he is hurled into a rocky stream far below.[51] Edison remade the same film as Maniac Chase in 1904 (Figure 7.17).

The Vogue for “Magical Subjects” and “Mysterious Films”; or, The Duping of Méliès
  Up through 1903, however, many American producers, including Vitagraph, Lubin, and Selig, continued to favor longer story films that followed the formulas—fairy tales, trick films, and other theatrical spectacles—that had been popularized by Méliès and Pathé-Frères. In 1903, when vaudeville still provided the venue and format for motion-picture exhibition, Méliès opened his New York office not only to counter the pirating of his films, but also to reinforce the claim that he was uniquely qualified to supply the kind of high-quality “acts” that American vaudeville needed on a consistent basis: he was, after all, a theater proprietor as well as one of the world’s most important film producers.

See the moving picture


               George Méliès, Jeanne d’Arc,

                   Star-Films, France, 1900

As we’ve already seen, Méliès’ Cendrillon (Figure 7.18 [52]) was one of the biggest hits with U.S. audiences in 1900 (and continued to play in vaudeville theaters up through 1902). Le Voyage dans la lune was the most popular attraction of 1902 and La Royaume des fées (Figure 7.1) of 1903. Méliès also scored notable successes in the United States with Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of ArcFigure 7.19 [53]), a 13-minute historical epic shot in 1900, and Le Petit chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood, 9 minutes) and Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard, 11 minutes—Figure 7.20), two féeries made in 1901 and released in the U.S. in 1901-1902. In 1904, U.S. theaters extended the Christmas-season run of Méliès’ 24-minute Voyage à travers l'impossible (Impossible Voyage [1904—Figure 7.21]), a follow-up to Le Voyage dans la lune in which a troupe of muddled scientists journeys to the sun in a fantastic land-sea-air vehicle.

As Abel observes, the Edison Company promoted its dupe of Cinderella as a special attraction for the Christmas season of 1900. In 1901, Edison advertised Little Red Riding Hood as its Christmas release—at which time it again offered Cinderella. For Christmas 1902, Edison promoted Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella. Clearly, pirated Méliès’ films, even when duped, had an extended shelf life: they could be shown and reshown until the print disintegrated. And of course, they appealed to precisely the audience coveted by vaudeville managers: middle-class mothers and their children.[54] These lessons certainly hadn’t been lost on Edison, whose catalogues also featured such in-house products as The Mystic Swing and The Artist’s Dream (both 1900—Figure 7.22), trick films that borrow character types from Méliès, and Jack and the Beanstalk (1902—see Chapter 4.2), a ten-shot fairy tale that distributed its narrative action from shot to shot in imitation of Méliès’ Barbe-bleue.[55]


Abel contends that “Pathé’s well-crafted, well-packaged films . . . promoted the new product category of moving pictures in the United States to a degree unmatched by any others.”[56] Whether or not this claim is valid, one fact is clear: Pathé-Frères was the leading supplier of motion pictures in the United States when a new mode of exhibition transformed the practice of moviegoing—indeed, every facet of the motion-picture industry—in this country.

The Advent of the Dedicated Movie Theater

Harry Davis, a Pittsburgh entertainment entrepreneur, opened an amusement arcade in April 1905.[57] When the room showing movies proved to be a big draw, Davis moved his motion-picture show to a larger venue, which he opened in June as the Nickelodeon (combining the five-cent price of admission with the Greek word for theater). The new establishment (Figure 7.23 [58]) was so successful that nickelodeons—specialized storefront motion-picture theaters—began appearing in Pittsburgh at the rate of five to eight per month during the first half of 1906; by June, there were 42 nickelodeons in the city.


  Princess Theatre, Detroit, ca. 1909

The phenomenon spread rapidly, and by February 1907, Chicago had 158 motion-picture theaters; by June, there were more than 400 in New York, and by mid-1908, Philadelphia boasted more than 200. By 1910, nickelodeons were attracting 26 million people per week; gross receipts for the year were over $90 million.[59] The rapid proliferation of “nickelodeons,” says Charles Musser,

created a revolution in screen entertainment. They would alter the nature of spectatorship and precipitate fundamental shifts in representation. Their explosive demand for product would not only increase film production but force its reorganization. It is not too much to say that modern cinema began with the nickelodeons.[60]

Film historian Russell Merritt identifies the three most important facets of this revolution, which transpired between the years 1905 and 1914: the nickelodeon, he says,

  1. Provided motion pictures with the first exhibition venue of their own.
  2. Established a stable pattern for the distribution and exhibition of movies.
  3. Shaped and built an audience on which the movies were to depend for four decades.[61]

From “Nickel Dump” to Legitimate Theater
  Initially, the nickelodeon’s chief attraction was price. At five cents to ten cents, the cinema was accessible to many people who couldn’t afford other forms of entertainment, such as “high-class” vaudeville and the legitimate theater. The biggest segment of the audience consisted of the urban working class, including the large immigrant populations of the nation’s major cities. Often, the operators, too, were immigrants, many of them—like furriers Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew—men who’d earned money in some other trade and were looking for new investment opportunities (see Figure 7.24 [62]).


  Auditorium Theatre, Toronto, ca. 1910

Storefront theaters were usually located in urban commercial districts and along the densely populated streets of working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. At first, they were small, seating from 100 to 200 people, and more functional than elegant in their appointments. “Many of the neighborhood theaters,” recalls culture historian Edward Wagenknecht, who became a regular moviegoer in 1906,

were merely converted storefronts. Sometimes they did not even trouble to remove the plate-glass windows (after all, the building might be used for another purpose six months hence) but merely pasted the posters up against them on the inside. . . .

My own first neighborhood theater . . ., the Family Electric Theater [in Chicago,] occupied a hall with boarded windows . . . in a large building. . . . There was no box office. The proprietor . . . stationed himself at the end of a long, dingy corridor, and you passed in, handed him your nickel, and took your seat. . . .

The Family Electric Theater was a rather dismal place, and indeed the fact that films had to be shown in darkness handicapped them greatly with many Americans of the time. Darkness was evil, or if not it might easily become a cloak for evil. This feeling was so strong that there were places where customers were allowed to sit in the light and watch the pictures through holes in a curtain.[63]

Such places were often called “nickel dumps,” and as late as 1913, Variety reported that “in many neighborhoods, the better class of citizens [keep] away from the movies because of the strange seat fellows that a nickel [makes] possible.”[64]

Nickelodeons, therefore, should not be confused with the picture palaces that appeared after World War I, but they didn’t remain necessarily small or “dumpy.” Beginning in the latter part of 1906, larger, more comfortable theaters started to appear, especially in the New England states. The largest theaters, whether newly built or revamped, seated from 500 to 1,700 people, and as Merritt points out, they not only got bigger, but they also moved away from urban centers and working-class neighborhoods and into residential suburbs and other more “respectable” locations.[65]

The Nickelodeon Audience: A Class Profile

The early nickelodeons thrived on the business of immigrants and working-class patrons. Indeed, their pricing structure and exhibition practices made more effective appeals to working- and lower-class audiences than did those of most competitors in commercial entertainment. Vaudeville and legitimate theaters, for example, charged scaled admission fees: for more money, the customer got a better seat. By contrast, the nickelodeon practiced economic and recreational democracy: patrons sat in whatever seats were available when they walked in.[66]

Generally speaking, then, the audience that discovered the nickelodeon presented what Miriam Hansen calls a “distinct class profile”:

[T]he converted theaters, storefronts, or saloons that proliferated . . . after 1905 attracted not only those segments of the working class who, with some effort, could afford mainstream amusements but also millions of people who had next to no disposable income or recreation time. The latter group, mostly recent immigrants . . ., had never before been considered an audience in a commercially significant sense, except by such marginal enterprises as ethnic theater, music halls, puppet shows, dime museums, or penny arcades. The nickelodeons filled this market gap with their low admission fee . . . and flexible time schedule (continuous shows of variable length could be attended on the way home from work or shopping). . . .

The nickelodeons offered easy access and a space apart, an escape from crowded tenements and sweatshop labor, a reprieve from the time discipline of urban industrial life. They encouraged modes of reception and viewer behavior that were closer to the traditions of working class and immigrant culture than to the more advanced forms of commercialized leisure. The neighborhood character of many nickelodeons—the egalitarian seating, continuous admission, and variety format, nonfilmic activities like illustrated songs, live acts, and occasional amateur nights—fostered a casual, sociable if not boisterous, atmosphere. It made moviegoing an interactive rather than merely passive experience. To whatever extent and frequency this type of theater experience actually took place, the conditions that enabled it clearly deviated from the middle-class standards aspired to by other spectator pastimes, especially “high-class” vaudeville.[67]

Bear in mind, however, that nickelodeon operators did not wholeheartedly seek this patronage. “The five-cent theater,” argues Merritt,

may have been widely regarded as the working man’s theater, but the less frequently reported fact was that the [nickelodeon] catered to him through necessity, not through choice. The blue-collar worker and his family may have supported the nickelodeon
. . ., but no one connected with the movies much wanted his support. . . . The exhibitor’s abiding complaint against nickelodeon audiences . . . was that moviegoers as a group lacked “class.”

Even when community opposition had kept motion-picture showmen out of the suburbs, they’d opened their theaters along commercial paths already blazed by vaudeville—which is to say, locations chosen for their appeal to a broad audience that included middle-class suburbanites as well as working-class urban dwellers. Instead of in the workers’ ghettoes and shopping areas, they clustered on the outer fringes of lower-class life, closer to the business districts frequented by the middle class.[69]


      John Sloan, Movies, Five Cents, 1907

“Everything Is Clean and Neat”: Cultivating “Mixed-Sex Patterns of Social Interaction”
  The exhibitor’s target audience, of course, included women and children. In Boston, when one theater started giving women free admission to all pre-noon shows, another responded by charging them half price for all screenings—a practice that soon became typical. Advertisements at Keith theaters promised that “everything is clean and neat, the attendants are polite and the best of order is maintained, and the ladies and children can enjoy the pictures in comfort and peace” (see Figure 7.25).[70]

This trend was reinforced by the gradual conversion into full-time motion-picture venues of many legitimate theaters that were unable to compete with the movies. These theaters siphoned business away from the nickelodeons, but there was plenty of patronage to go around: between 1908 and 1914, weekly movie attendance in America ballooned from 26 million to nearly 50 million people.[71]

The majority of moviegoers—indeed, 75 percent—were males, but motion-picture exhibitors had clearly succeeded in appealing to their broader, more “respectable” target audience. “In Atlanta,” reported The Atlantic in January 1915, “you may often see automobiles parked two deep along the curb in front of the motion picture theater, which hardly suggests an exclusively proletarian patronage.” Exhibitors, observes Charles Musser, worked not simply to attract women and children, but to cultivate “mixed-sex patterns of social interaction,” and by 1914, reports on the “new” motion-picture audience could say confidently that “men now take their wives and families for an evening at the movies, where formerly they went alone to the nearby saloon.”[72]


nickelodeon   Storefront motion-picture theater that flourished in the United States from 1905 to 1914


[24] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 297. On the commercial crisis, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, Ch. 10; Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, Ch. 1. For a reliable though slightly outdated overview, see “A Period of Commercial Crisis: 1900-1903—Storefront Theaters Struggle, Biograph Struggles, the american biograph, Edison Story Films, Sigmund Lubin,” (2013), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[25] The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History (1939; rpt. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968), p. 5.

[26] On the “chaser theory,” see Allen, “Contra the Chaser Theory,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, pp. 105-15. See also Musser, “Another Look at the ‘Chaser Theory,’” Studies in Visual Communication 10:4 (May 2013), pp. 24-44; Allen, “Looking at ‘Another Look at the “Chaser Theory,”’” Studies in Visual Communication 10:4 (May 2013), pp. 45-50.

[27] “Contra the Chaser Theory,” p. 108.

[28] The Rise of the American Film, p. 5.

[29] On the White Rats’ strike, see Allen, “Contra the Chaser Theory,” pp. 113-14. See also Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 276-77; M. Alison Kibler, Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1999), Ch.1; Frank Cullen, with Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly, Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Volume I. (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 1196-98.

[30] See The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 365-68.

[31] The Red Rooster Scare, pp. 3-4.

[32] For Figure 7.11, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 168, 371-75; Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, pp. 2-6.

On amusement parks and audiences for early cinema attractions, see esp. Lauren Rabinowitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (2004; rpt. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2012). For a feminist discussion of the moviegoing experience at early venues, see Rabinowitz, “Temptations of Pleasure: Nickelodeons, Amusement Parks, and the Sights of Female Sexuality,” Camera Obscura 8:2 23 (1990), pp. 70-89. See also Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1986). In The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2009), pp. 132-33, Jennifer M. Barker analyzes amusement-park attractions as spectacles of bodies in motion. For a discussion of how later silent films recalled the amusement park experience, see Carter Moulton, “Joywheels and Gyrations: Amusement Park Sequences in Late Silent Era Films,” CineAction, no. 93 (2014), pp. 4-12, at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[33] See The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 366-67.

[34] See The Red Rooster Scare, esp. pp. 22-29.

[35] The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 303, 305, 264.

[36] Charles Musser, “The American Vitagraph, 1897-1901: Survival and Success in a Competitive Industry,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, p. 52.

[37] This section is based on Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 303-13. For more on Robert K. Bonine, see Musser, “Moving towards Fictional Narratives: Story Films Become the Dominant Product,” in The Silent Cinema Reader, ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer (2004; New York: Routledege, 2006), esp. pp. 100-01; Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: Univ. of California Press, 1991), pp. 367-71, at (accessed July 4, 2016). For a Bonine filmography, go to “Robert K. Bonine—Filmography (as Cinematographer),” When in Time (2013), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[38] See esp. Janet Staiger, “Combination and Litigation: Structures of U.S. Film Distribution, 1896-1917,” Cinema Journal 23:1 (1983), pp. 41-72; rpt. in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), pp. 189-210; and Jeanne Thomas Allen, “Copyright and Early Theater, Vaudeville, and Film Competition,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, pp. 176-87. See also Peter Decherney, Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet (New York: Columbia, Univ. Press, 2012). Material on Edison v. Lubin can be found at The Thomas Edison Papers, Rutgers University (2013), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[39] See Kemp R. Niver, “Paper Prints of Early Motion Pictures,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, pp. 258-63; Library of Congress, “Early Motion Pictures Free of Copyright Restrictions in the Library of Congress,” Moving Image Research Center (2016), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[40] See esp. Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, Ch. 10. On Selig Polyscope and founder William N. Selig, see Andrew A. Erish, Col. William N. Selig: The Man Who Invented Hollywood (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 2012). See also Kalton C. Lahue, Motion Picture Pioneer: The Selig Polyscope Company (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1973); Anthony Slide, Early American Cinema, rev. ed. (1970; rpt. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994), pp. 26-30; Deac Rossell, “William N. Selig (‘Colonel’),” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed July 4, 2016). Margaret Herrick Library, William Selig Papers (Beverly Hills, CA: 2014), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[41] The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 312-13.

[42] Musser, “The American Vitagraph, 1897-1901: Survival and Success in a Competitive Industry,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, p. 60.

[43] Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 278, 331, 333, 364.

[44] Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 331, 398, 412; Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 23-24.

[45] Quoted by Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, p. 28.

[46] Quoted by Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, pp. 65, 64.

[47] The Red Rooster Scare, pp. 6-7.

[48] The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 331, 337.

[49] For Figure 7.16, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 351; Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, p. 15. On the “railway subgenre,” see Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 260-65, at (accessed July 4, 2016); Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1997), Ch. 1.

[50] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 351.

[51] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 352.

[52] For Figure 7.18, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 68.

[53] For Figure 7.19, see Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975), pp. 49-50; Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, p. 7.

[54] The Red Rooster Scare, p. 10.

[55] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 325.

[56] The Red Rooster Scare, p. 20.

[57] This section is based on Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 417-28. See also Rutgers University, “Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs: The Early Nickelodeon Era,” The Thomas Edison Papers (2012), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[58] For Figure 7.23, see Robert C. Allen, “Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan, 1906-1912: Beyond the Nickelodeon,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, p. 162; Pearson, “The Early Cinema,” p. 36; Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 430-31. See also Timothy McNulty, “You Saw It Here First: Pittsburgh’s Nickelodeon Introduced the Moving Picture Theater to the Masses in 1905,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (June 19, 2005), at (accessed July 4, 2016); Elizabeth Bartels, “More Than Your Nickel’s Worth: The Nickelodeon,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book (Spring 1910), at (accessed July 4, 2016).

[59] Russell Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976), p. 63.

[60] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 417.

[61] “Nickelodeon Theaters,” p. 59. On the advent and influence of the nickelodeon, see Michael G. Aronson, Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), Ch. 2; Ben Singer, “Manhattan Nickelodeons: New Data on Audiences and Exhibitors,” Cinema Journal 34:3 (1995), pp. 5-35; Sumiko Higashi, Robert C. Allen, and Singer, “Dialogue: Manhattan’s Nickelodeons,” Cinema Journal 35:3 (1996), pp. 12-24. See also Aronson, “The Wrong Kind of Nickel Madness: Pricing Problems for Pittsburgh Nickelodeons,” Cinema Journal 42:1 (2002), pp. 71-96; André Gaudreault, “Movies and Chasing the Missing Link(s),” in American Cinema, 1890-1909: Themes and Variations, ed. Gaudreault (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2009), esp. pp. 137-39; Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2010), pp. 215-16.

[62] For Figure 7.24, see Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988; rpt. New York: Anchor, 1989), esp. pp. 16-23; Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 371-73; Steven J. Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 17-18.

[63] The Movies in the Age of Innocence (1962; rpt. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971), pp. 10-11.

[64] Quoted by Ross, Working-Class Hollywood, p. 18.

[65] “Nickelodeon Theaters,” pp. 76-77. See also Robert C. Allen, “Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan 1906-1912: Beyond the Nickelodeon,” Cinema Journal 18:2 (1979), pp. 2-15. Rpt. in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, pp. 162-75; The American Movie Industry, ed. Gorham Kindem (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 12-24.

[66] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 432; Ross, Working-Class Hollywood, p. 18.

[67] Babel and Babylon, pp. 61-62.

[68] “Nickelodeon Theaters,” p. 67.

[69] “Nickelodeon Theaters,” p. 78.

[70] Quoted by Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 432. See also Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters,” pp. 75-78; Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 39-40, 125-28.

[71] Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters,” p. 75. See also Allen, “Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan, 1906-1912,” pp. 170-71; Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, p. 20.

[72] Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 432; quoted by Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters,” p. 75.

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