The American Movie Industry: The Business of Motion Pictures

By Gorham Anders Kindem | Go to book overview

2
Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan, 1906-1912: Beyond the Nickelodeon

Robert C. Allen

On 19 June 1905 on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh a vaudeville entrepreneur, Harry Davis, and his partner, John P. Harris, opened a theater devoted to the showing of motion pictures. Audiences on that opening night sat in seats salvaged from a defunct opera house and, for their fivecent admission charge, watched The Great Train Robbery unroll on the screen to piano accompaniment.1 There was little more to the performance. The Nickelodeon, as the theater was called, could boast only ninety-six chairs, a piano, projector, and screen. Yet, with the possible exception of Koster and Bial's Music Hall, the Nickelodeon Theatre is the most famous theater in which motion pictures were shown before 1914. It was here, according to most film historians, that movies in America entered a new era. Inside this dingy little storefront and the thousands like it that, we are told, sprang up in the wake of its success, the motion picture found its own exclusive exhibition outlet and a new audience of working-class Americans. The movies had outgrown their role as minor adjuncts to vaudeville performances, and while the middle-class patrons of variety thumbed their noses at this upstart amusement, the nickelodeon proceeded to revolutionize American mass entertainment in only a few years' time.2

Most students of American film history are familiar with the descriptions of nickelodeons in secondary sources. "Concentrated largely in poorer shopping districts and slum neighborhoods," writes Jacobs, "nickelodeons were disdained by the well-to-do. But the workmen and their families who patronized the movies did not mind the crowded, unsani-

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