Today, I want to tell you about the first Nickelodeon, which opened on this day in 1905 on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the first venue to be dedicated solely for the showing of film. Previously, films had been shown as part of a programme of entertainment featuring otherwise live performers. Only ten years after the Lumière brothers had projected their first moving pictures, people were growing tired of the medium and the film was often shown at the end of the evening as a signal that it was time to clear the building. Things were, in America, not looking great for cinema.
Then two brothers-in-law called Harry Davis and John P Harris decided to open a small store front theatre. Both were already in the entertainment business. Davis was a one time carnival hustler who owned several dime museums, penny arcades and playhouses in the city. Harris and his father ran a company that produced vaudeville shows and had screened Pittsburgh’s first moving picture in 1897. They named their new enterprise ‘Nickelodeon’. ‘Nickel’, because that was how much it cost for a ticket and the ‘odeon’ part came from the Greek word ‘odeion’, which meant enclosed theatre. Their theatrical connections meant they were able to decorate the interior building in an opulent theatrical style, relatively cheaply. They created an atmosphere that most of their clientele could not otherwise hope to experience. Their tiny theatre though, could accommodate only ninety-six people seated on folding chairs with standing room for more. They showed a programme of short films totalling about fifteen minutes in length. They opened at eight o’clock in the morning, closing at midnight. It was incredibly popular. On the first day 450 people turned up, on the second day there were 1,500. soon they had more than 7,000 visitors a day. Their audience were queuing round the block day and night. Opening on Sundays meant that people could also come on their day off.
It was such a great idea that loads of people started opening five cent theatres. Four years later, there were 8,000 of them. By 1919 there were 20,000 moving picture houses in the United States. Shortly before the First World War, there were so many cinemas that all those five cents added up to around 150 million dollars a year. In Pittsburgh alone, there were over a hundred five cent cinemas. Film production companies flocked to the city. So did film exchanges, which hired out film reels to the new cinemas. Production companies vied with one another to make more and more elaborate films. That meant that films became longer, which was good for everyone. Distributors were paid according to the length of the film, so they made more money. The cinema owners found it easier because they didn’t have to spend so much time editing a complicated programme of short films and, for film makers, it was a whole new opportunity to experiment with the medium. So, that’s how a multi-million dollar industry was built up, five cents at a time.
Silent film was wonderful entertainment for newly arrived immigrants who didn’t yet have much grasp of the language. All kinds of people flocked to see comedies, dramas, adventures and a sort of early documentaries called ‘actualities’. The film could be speeded up to show the opening of a flower or slowed down show the beating of a hummingbirds wing. There is a rather long and florid article written in 1919 which concludes “…the mass can be taught by pictures when it would not read books and will understand pictures when it would have small comprehension of, or interest in books.”
Not everyone was in favour of the Nickelodeon though. There were those who were not happy about men and women being allowed to spend such a long time sitting together in the dark. Some called for the films to be shown with the lights on, others gathered together to form ‘film review boards’ to judge the morals of the film being shown. There were plenty who concerned that seeing violent films was having a bad influence on children. The Nickelodeon was though, eventually, a victim of it’s own success. As films became longer, ticket prices doubled. That led to the building of larger and more comfortable cinemas. The original Nickelodeon on Smithfield Street was demolished after only five years to make way for a bigger movie theatre.