Is the two-dollar-a-seat picture theater in sight?
One might believe from the trade periodicals serving the motion-picture industry that nickelodeons began to disappear about 1909-1910 in favor of movie palaces and that blue-collar crowds were being replaced by refined upper-class bejeweled audiences arriving at the theater in automobiles, while the films to be seen were all educational, high-class, and respectable. It was the task of the trade periodicals to promote this concept of improvement. But if one reads the small type and between the lines, it appears that changes were not achieved as easily as the industry hoped. In defending the industry against attack, the trade periodicals revealed the continued opposition in the press and in politics to the conditions of the nickelodeons, making it clear that not all theaters had become safe and clean, much less respectable.
Nickelodeons were no longer such great producers of golden eggs as they once were: "If you look for nickelodeons with 175 seating capacity yielding $200 and $300 per week … " you won't find them anymore, advised the World at the beginning of 1910. "The days when the boom was at its height, when one reel and a song won nickels galore, are past never to return. " In San Francisco, out of a dozen or more houses on "Nickelodeon Row" on Fillmore Street, only two were left in the fall of 1911, and their time was thought to be limited.1
While this chapter examines some of the newer "palatial" theaters, it should be remembered that the old-style nickelodeons continued to exist in large numbers, particularly in the urban ghettos, and some of them far past 1915. In the spring of 1911 in New York City, sanitation measures were being recommended for Lower East Side five-cent theaters like these:
Some of these places are perfectly filthy, with an air so foul and thick that you can almost cut it with a knife. The floor is generally covered with peanut shells, and as there is no stove to spit on everybody spits on the floor. Imagine this in the summer time, and epidemics of various kinds raging in the crowded districts. No wonder the societies and health authorities try to bar children from the moving picture shows! (Moving Picture World, 11 March 1911, p. 539).
Even the lonely traveling motion-picture showman, that relic of the pre-nickelodeon days, could still be found somewhere, carrying his own projection equipment to isolated places. In April 1911, Mr. H. H. Greenfield wrote from Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, enclosing his subscription to the Moving Picture World:
My brother and I are on the road. We have a new Motiograph, purchased last year, and some very good films, including "The Huguenot," "Italy's Marvelous Cavalry," the "Burning of Rome" and a good assortment of really funny half-reel comedies. We give them five reels and six assorted songs, the music being supplied by a large Victor gramaphone. The show goes well and we have received many compliments, but we don't find there is much in it, as the expenses are high (Moving Picture World, 17 April 1911, p. 838).
In rural southern Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, in 1911, a "touring car" gave oneand two-night stands showing moving pictures. This show was under the direction of Mrs. Chris Taylor, traveling with her son Walter, William Wind, and William Avery, all of Kewanee.2
The unique quality of the motion-picture audience, people kept saying as the middle classes were seen to enter the improved theaters, was its democratic mixing of the classes. This could be true in small towns, but in the large cities, as J. M. Blanchard of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, pointed out,
New York Dramatic Mirror, 21 December 1910">
the picture shows "cater to an entirely different class of people" from the picture show patrons in smaller cities—"the thirty thousand population class," as he put it. "We cater to our best people, " he said, the reason being that in towns of that size the picture show "must have them all." They need the money. From this standpoint and from watching his patrons he argued that it is a mistake to suppose that picture spectators cannot see through intricate plots. Intelligent people, he found, wanted films that stimulate thought ("The 'Spectator's' Comments, " New York Dramatic Mirror, 21 December 1910).
In the large cities one did not find "an entirely different class of people," but it is true that the type of audience depended a lot on where the theater was. The very poor living in the crowded tenement districts were probably attending the fetid nickelodeon described above. In Chicago, a visitor to the Orchard Theater, capacity five hundred, found that "the audiences, though of almost every nationality, are most well behaved and thoroughly enjoy the entertainments."3
In New York, the "better classes" were reported to be attending in the evening at one theater where children were seldom seen; another theater drew almost all children of the better classes, and at another, businessmen and women attended all day and night. It was also said that there were different audiences for different brands, such as the Biograph audience, and the Pathé audience, although nobody explained how they were to be distinguished. The Audubon Theater in Washington Heights, New York City, had a family atmosphere and an audience composed of young people "of the better class" plus a sprinkling of older people. A reporter visiting the new Parkway Theatre in New York at 110th Street and Central Park West, "one of the best parts of the city, inhabited by people of wealth and social position" (in 1910), wrote, "We … were agreeably surprised at the high-class character of the patrons; … quite a family aspect."4
The uplifters promoted the movie theater as a place for family entertainment. It was important to preserve the family unit in a time when industrialization, urbanization, and immigration had created new patterns threatening to the old stability. "Family" was the name of one of Philadelphia's movie houses, indicating the atmosphere the owner hoped to create.5 The National Board of Censorship declared:
Moving pictures are now the most important form of cheap amusement in the country. They reach the young immigrants, family groups, the formative and impressionable section of our cities, as no other form of amusement…. They are the only theaters which it is possible for the entire family of the wageworker to attend (Moving Picture World, 22 April 1911, p. 879).
An editorial in the Kansas City Star urged the whole family to patronize the nickel theater, from baby to grandpa, and even the dog would be welcome. It was intended for everybody. "Broaden your horizons," suggested the Star, and help keep it a clean and decent place.6
In the small mill town of Butler, New Jersey, there was Goldie's on Main Street, one of the two picture houses in town, seating 450 and running independent films and "fairly good vaudeville for a country theater." There was one illustrated song with each show, "a young lady of the town alternating with the projectionist," who left the booth while an usher projected the slides for him. Goldie's had a family patronage, where everyone knew everyone else.7
At that Boston Bijou theater managed by Mrs. Edward H. Clement, "the character of which is such that its good name has gone out into all the surrounding towns, … the refined touch of an educated woman is evident in every detail," commented another woman, Louise Chadwick, who added:
The ticket-taker is a quiet refined girl—not the giggling, gum chewing kind; … the man at the ticket receiving box is most gentlemanly; the woman in charge of the coat room is a lady who might well grace a drawing-room; the ushers, all women, are courteous and thoughtful, and the show itself beyond possible criticism. There is no comedian, with his disgusting and stale bowery jokes; the illustrated song is not twanged out to a rag-time tune, accompanied by pictures so crudely colored that one wonders where, in these days of color-photography, such crudeness could have been found. And as to the pictures themselves, not one is presented that has not some strong lesson to teach ("The Current Problem and Opportunity of the Moving Picture Show," Moving Picture News, 11 January 1913, p. 20).
In 1912 Mrs. Clement gave a paper on "Standardizing the Moving Picture Theater," which she read at a meeting of the Massachusetts State Conference of Charities. Among the celebrated managerial methods she discussed was the inclusion of classical music. "I have found my audience at the Bijou listening with unmistakable enjoyment to the music of Florina, to solos from La Boheme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly and many other operas, and I do not believe that my audience is the only one which is capable of enjoying just such music," declared Mrs. Clement. A woman of sound business sense as well as refinement, she obtained her musical performances from student musicians, which cost her "only a nominal amount."8 Earlier that year, "resenting the treatment accorded them at some of the moving picture houses" in Denver, Colorado, a group of blacks opened their own theater under the management of Mrs. Laura Hill, "a social leader among the negroes."9
In 1914, Mrs. A. C. M. Sturgis took over the Lafayette Theater, in Washington, D.C., and according to press reports, "from the attendance and the aspect of the theatre outside and in, the observer is aware that the Layfayette has changed hands, and this to advantage." Mrs. Sturgis then explained her policy:
I mean to keep the Lafayette clean, comfortable and well ventilated. By the frequent use of the big exhaust fans, the air in the theatre is changed in four minutes, and by the hourly spraying with a perfumed deodorizer the atmosphere is kept healthful and pleasant. It is attention of this nature that is a strong point in a woman's management of a picture house. Already I have been able to increase the attendance of women and the young folks. My program will include the best that can be afforded by a five-cent house. I am making arrangements to show the suffrage play, "Your Girl and Mine," and I mean to do all that I can to interest the women in the Lafayette, and I am inviting suggestions from my patrons as to what they want. That is the best way to create good fellowship between manager and patrons and an effective manner of studying your attendance (Motion Picture News, 19 December 1914, p. 37).
An exhibitor in Goodell, Oklahoma, with a four-hundred-seat theater, reported that he had
three classes to cater to: first the cowboy spirited ones; the "will-be-married-some-day" class, and the old, old ones [who] like the rest, [love] that good old comic. But, alas, we get all cowboy, or all love stories or all comic. Why? Because the exchange has not got the time to fool with us "little folks" as they call us in small country towns, although the advance agent will give all kinds of promises (Moving Picture World; 5 August 1911, p. 301 ).
Not all the exchange men were so uncaring. One day in the summer of 1911, when the morning train arrived in Laramie, Wyoming, with no film on it, an exchange manager named Buckwalter drove hundreds of miles from Denver overnight in a pouring rain on unmarked roads, in a big Packard, to deliver the program in time. Bets were placed on his making it. He did.10
Throughout this period, programs continued to grow longer, until, as already noted, by the time of the feature-length film, many audiences were already in the habit of attending an evening's entertainment instead of going from one theater to the next or just dropping in for half an hour. It would prove more difficult to get them to adjust to the idea of attending at the start of the performance, accustomed as they were to a variety show. In the "Family Theater" of Philadelphia mentioned above, the program consisted of two reels and a song. The Philadelphia theaters were not engaging in the long-program competition then going on in New York, where it was said that "the duration of the average entertainment ranges between forty minutes and an hour and a half. That is our experience at moving picture theaters in New York City. Probably the rule generally applies." The Open Air Theater Park at 138th Street, operating in the hot summer months of 1909, had a program lasting three hours. This undoubtedly included a lot of vaudeville and illustrated songs. They supplied a place for checking baby carriages and all kinds of refreshments at five cents a portion. By 1913, programs commonly contained from five to eight reels: I am speaking about short films, still usually shown for a five-cent admission, not the ten-cent houses, where feature films were shown.11
When new theaters were built, replacing the store show houses, conditions of moviegoing improved tremendously. Lary May's research has shown that many of the new theaters built from 1908 to about 1916 borrowed a lot from the classical styles, associated, May suggests, with classicism and reason. The "balance, clarity and angularity of these styles" were equated with order. Later, as this period came to a close, exoticism and romantic rounded arches and curves began to be employed, but the first condition, in 1908, was to bring a sense of control and order and safety to the movie houses. Whether the architectural styles selected were only related to the architectural fashions of the whole society or were more specifically tied to the needs of the motion-picture industry, I am not really sure. However that may be, builders of film theaters had a lot of help from the trade periodicals, which published whole sections of their journals dedicated to theater design and decoration.12 The introduction to a surviving Decorators Supply Company catalog of the period illustrates perfectly the concern for high-toned surroundings:
The Motion Picture Show Places have become a fixed institution in this country, they have found a permanent place as American Enterprises, and are here to stay. Recognizing this fact, we have assembled in this catalog a few illustrations showing the beautiful effects obtained by using our ornamentation for the enrichment of exteriors and interiors of said theaters. Of the many hundreds of places we have furnished the ornamental work for in different cities, we have reproduced here a few characteristic ones. We want to interest you, prospective Theatre Builder, in the fact that only through the medium of our class of ornamentation can you hope to have your place rank in beauty and attraction with the best in the country. The time is past when a cheaply fixed up place will pay. You must make a strong effort to get a fine Show Place to make money. The few prices we have inserted in this catalog will convince you that you can well afford a nice, ornamental front for a reasonable price. Pick out the illustration you desire to have, write to us, give us the measurements and conditions existing at present at your place, and we will make you a correct design showing what can be done with your theatre with our ornaments. We will also make the working drawings for the carpenter, plasterer and electrician, in conjunction with showing our ornaments, so that you can make all changes at the building from drawings furnished by us.
Among the first improvements suggested for the nickelodeons, it was recommended that theater seats should have a wire hat holder beneath the seat and on the back of each seat a small ring through which ladies might thrust a hatpin to hold their headgear instead of being obliged to keep them in their laps. Furthermore, it was noted: "All theaters should have a sloped floor. The day of the flat floor is past." That might be, but more theaters still had flat floors than sloped ones.13
All kinds of amenities were brought in to make the new theaters comfortable, elegant, and refined. The unwashed might be made to feel a little out-of-place, and the better classes more assured. Marble, beveled glass, polished oak and walnut, dazzling electric lights, lavish carpeting, and huge mirrors began to appear in newly redecorated theaters. Restrooms became a necessity rather than a luxury with longer programs, and these were finer facilities than many customers had at home. Exhibitors were told that the "well-conducted motion picture houses have uniformed attendants." These gave an appearance of order and encouraged good conduct.14
Automobiles, not yet in the possession of every family in America, were a sure sign of "the better classes." Ownership of automobiles signaled good wages for actors and success for the exchanges and exhibitors. Bill Steiner of the Imperial Film Exchange in New York claimed to be the first to use an automobile to institute a film delivery and pickup service. His idea was taken up by C. Calehuff of Philadelphia, who sent a specially built car on the rounds. Automobiles were also a mark of high-class customers if they parked in front of your theater. "Around the Bijou, you see no crowds of dirty urchins hanging about, but there are plenty of automobiles," they said of the newly built theater in Springfield, Massachusetts, when it opened in April 1910. Furthermore, the press reported, "the house is lighted up during the running of the pictures—a great gain with the best people." When the new T. N.F. Theater opened in "aristocratic Flatbush," it had to overcome neighborhood resistance in the exclusive Midwood residential section. Here, the owners offered claim-check parking for the automobiles, and it was a great success. In St. Louis, meanwhile, the Gem Theater was said to be "coining money and at night you can see a string of automobiles in front of the house, showing that the best society of St. Louis is not averse to motion pictures." And when Kinemacolor pictures played at the Herald Square
Theater in New York City, the automobiles outside convinced Robert Grau that the patronage was not of a transient character. "The audiences come … in automobiles, carriages, and they arrive … at the exact hour," he noted, while the headline on his story asked, "Is the two-dollar-a-seat picture theater in sight?"15
Thomas Saxes new Princess Theater in Milwaukee "opened a new era in elegance" in 1910. Seating nine hundred, it boasted a pipe organ and a seven-piece orchestra, electric fountains in the lobby, retiring rooms, and beveled plate-glass and mahogany doors. At this time in Milwaukee, the majority of the theaters regularly employed a lecturer for all the films and for giving out the announcements. The exhibitors followed a pattern of changing the film program three times a week instead of daily, and they employed uniformed women ushers. The reporter of this "fad" thought it should not be a job for a young girl, and perhaps with reason, because Milwaukee appears to have had a difficult problem in controlling the male patrons. In June 1911 it was decided to make lighted theaters mandatory. Not only that, but theater owners agreed to station mature married men at their doors, to lessen the danger of "mashing." In Chicago in 1910, it was also "the policy of the first class theaters … [to employ] lady ushers."16
Classical music in a movie theater, as in Mrs. Clement's Bijou in Boston, was a sign of uplift. A visitor to a large Chicago theater where Biograph's A Fool's Revenge (based on Rigoletto) was playing noted with pleasure that "a pleasant variation from the eternal ragtime was a refined deliverance of classical music corresponding to the character of the picture, including Schumann's 'Traumerei' and Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata.' The first time, indeed, we ever heard Beethoven in a five-cent theater. " A visitor to the Empress in Washington, D.C., was "somewhat astonished to hear 'The Barcarole' from 'Love Tales of Hoffmann' being played in a truly artistic style. This strain continued during the love passage … but as soon as the theme of the story changed, so did the music."
Elektra, Vitagraph's film version of "the powerfully tragic story of ancient Greece that forms the basis for the famous Richard Strauss opera, " appeared the same season that the opera was performed. One might think the subject was chosen mostly for its timely news value: the dissonance of Strauss's score had made the opera quite a sensation. However, the film was accepted as another example of high culture by its audiences, even though Vitagraph advertisements advised exhibitors to "bill it like a circus—it will draw bigger crowds than any film you have ever had." The film was reported to be roundly applauded, which motion-picture audiences "of the better kind" rarely did. It was shown at Keith and Proctor's Bijou Dream on Twenty-third Street, where the pianist chose to accompany it with popular modern music, which seemed ridiculous to the reviewer. There were letters praising the film from exhibitors who showed it to "refined and intelligent" audiences in Lima, Ohio, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The manager of the 1,700-seat Shubert Theater in New Orleans, who used four reels for a program and normally changed the program three times a week, held over Elektra for four days. "The class of patrons we have are made up of the best people in the city," boasted the manager.18
The World editors kept track of the motion-picture theaters advancing on Broadway and pointed out as a sign of progress the Savoy Theater on Thirty-fourth Street, which became a movie house in 1910. This street was "the center of things in respect of fashion." Two years earlier, they wrote, there was not one good theater in New York specializing in moving pictures; now there must be a dozen. "Small country towns can boast of moving picture palaces that put to shame any New York show…. The farther West we go, the more the picture is in evidence as the amusement of the classes."19
In San Francisco the first nickelodeon to be erected in the heart of the aristocratic residential district was built in the fall of 1910 at Presidio Avenue and Sacramento Streets. That same fall, Charles Keeler, a writer and a prominent member of the literary colony of Carmel-by-the-Sea, opened a movie theater where he promised to show films that would stimulate an interest in art and industry, for an audience that would include the Board of Education of Berkeley and the faculty of the University of California.20
Clune's Theater in Los Angeles opened on 10 November 1910. It seated nine hundred and had three projectors plus two stereopticons (at a time when having two projectors was already the sign of a high-class house). For an admission price often and twenty cents (for loge seats at the back), one got five full reels of licensed films on the first run, two illustrated songs, and one "song specialty," adding up to a program of an hour and a half. If those were really full reels, that means the projectionist at Clune's speeded them up at a tremendous rate. An eight-piece orchestra and two singing booths, one on each side of the screen, were available for the music.21
About this time Keith and Proctor's six houses in New York and New Jersey gave up having any illustrated songs, although they still used illustrated lectures and vaudeville with the movies. The manager of the Bijou in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, announced soon after, "I have discontinued using illustrated songs, as they are all trashy." He had a "high-class patronage" and wanted no more Westerns or melodramas or the silly comedies from Europe. But if he avoided these categories, there was not much left to fill his program.22
When Bedding visited the theaters of Cincinnati, Ohio, that month, he found:
Today things have changed, the dirty little dumps, with small seating capacity and poor ventilation are fast passing away to make room for large, palatial houses, and the moment that the exhibitors called the attention of the public to a much better class of houses, a new class of spectators appeared and are now eager for motion pictures (Moving Picture World, 14 January 1911, p. 1069).
Still, efforts to upgrade the movie theater could misfire. In Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town with poorly paid workers, the brand-new Colonial Theater closed after two months in 1911. It had 350 seats, waiting rooms, lavatories, and a well-equipped projection booth and used an expensive licensed service in addition to vaudeville—but the admission price was ten cents. There was not a large enough public in Lowell able to pay that on a regular basis.23
With special films and a knowledge of showmanship, great things could be achieved even in poor neighborhoods. In Providence, considered a poor factory town, Dante's Inferno played the Opera House at fifty cents admission to crowds who came out in the pouring rain. W. Stephen Bush from the Moving Picture World was appearing there and lecturing with the film. The Joliette Theater, Boston, gave its annual presentation of The Passion Play throughout Holy Week every year from 1906 and reported in the fifth year, 1911, that these weeks had given the theater its biggest attendance. The manager had printed fliers, more than half of them in Italian, giving the synopses of the thirty-nine scenes in the picture—an indication of the ethnic neighborhood from which the Joliette drew its customers. The manager of the Virginian in Washington, D.C., got the schools to take up the subject of "The Fall of Troy" in their history courses and then ran the film for four days during the Easter holidays, filling the house with students. The same energetic showman-manager showed slides of the terrible Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York, accompanied by a funeral dirge.24
In 1914 New York City began to catch up with the development elsewhere of the "palatial" movie theater. Two big movie theaters opened up on Broadway, the Vitagraph and the Strand. The forward-looking Vitagraph Company leased the Criterion, which was at Forty-fourth Street, renamed it the Vitagraph Theatre, and opened it on 7 February, while the Strand, at Forty-seventh Street, opened 11 April.
Oil paintings of the Vitagraph players were hung around the foyer of the former Criterion, and it was all newly decorated for the occasion. The program for the opening night included a live pantomime performance by John Bunny and the other Vitagraph players called "The Honeymooners," and a two-reel film comedy, a brilliant parody of the melodrama, called Goodness Gracious; or, Movies as They Shouldn't Be, followed by a four-reel feature film, A Million Bid, directed by Ralph Ince. The dramatic critic of the New York American attended the formal opening and reviewed the performance. A week or so later, the Vitagraph Theater installed a Hope-Jones symphonic orchestra, a $30,000 instrument manufactured by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. This was no ordinary movie theater, changing its films every day or twice a week: as in the legitimate theater, the film program was to be played there as long as there was sufficient public to see it. The seats were sold on a reserved basis, for twenty-five cents up to a dollar. It was not a "poor man's entertainment."25
It was Roxy Rothapfel, managing the new Strand at Forty-seventh Street, who really understood what attracted the middle-class audience. Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothapfel started out as an exhibitor in the small town of Forest City, Pennsylvania, population 4,279. In the beginning of 1910 his special qualities as a showman must have come to the attention of somebody at the Moving Picture World, because he was invited to contribute a column on topics of interest to the exhibitor. (In the same issue in which his articles began, F. H. Richardson initiated his long series of technical columns for projectionists, and exhibitors in general, commenting on all aspects of exhibition.) Rothapfel's first columns were on the importance of the order in which the films were shown, and the question of whether music should be continuous throughout the performance.26
But his future was not as a columnist. A year later, the great showman was found at the Lyric in Minneapolis at the Christmas season of 1911, staging "The Passion Play." This theater had a capacity of seventeen hundred seats, and "The Passion Play" was shown there for four days in early December, returning the entire week of 18 December. There was a prelude of two silent films with no music and no sound effects: Wild Birds in Their Haunts and The Holy Land, both from Pathé. When the audience was settled in, the doors closed, the house darkened, the stage curtain lowered. There was a distant pealing of chimes. "The Holy City" was played by the pipe organ. The curtain was raised and perfume of lilies wafted over the house. Twenty choirboys in white vestments were onstage. The baritone sang "Holy City," the choirboys joined in, a pale blue light was gradually diffused, fountains played with pale blue lights beneath, and several dozen roses were carefully strewn on the steps and stage. Then, with the showing of the feature, there was a performance of "Holy Night," "Adeste Fideles," "Christmas Carol," "Praise Ye the Father," "The Palms," and "Calvary." All this before Rothapfel even made it to New York City.27
In November 1913 Rothapfel was in New York, managing the Regent on 116th Street, a high-class place charging ten, fifteen, and twenty-five cents. "Few of the old-fashioned 'illustrated singers' survive to this day," it was said, but Rothapfel hired "real artists." When the Strand Theatre opened in the spring of 1914 a few blocks up Broadway from the Vitagraph, it was also under Rothapfel's management. This movie palace seated 3,500 people. Roxy's opening program included a concert by the orchestra, conducted by Carl Edouarde, a song short, orchestral music, the Strand Quartet, a comedy film, and for the feature film, The Spoilers. Roxy insisted on conducting rehearsals with the orchestra and the film in advance of the first showing of every program. Films in his theater would be accompanied by a full orchestra that was prepared to interpret the film, not just play along with it or against it. The careful pacing of the whole performance from opening concert through the short subject and the feature was an ingredient in his success.28
Even small-town managers were capable of the Rothapfel type of showmanship, as Ropthafel himself had demonstrated back in Forest City in 1910. A little town in Indiana in 1911, population twelve hundred, had three picture shows, and the competition must have been rather intense. The manager of one of them, which seated 275 people; reported this success:
On last Saturday we had the great Reliance picture, "The Vows," and during the last scene where the young man is brought back to the church by his sweetheart, Miss Worth sang "The Rosary" (Nevin) behind the screen, accompanied by Miss Kolmorgan on the organ, and Mr. Karl Kurtz (an efficient drummer) on the chimes, and the effect was very beautiful and very much appreciated. We are very particular about trying to put on the effects at our place and we spare no trouble or expense to prepare for them. … On last Saturday we showed to over one-sixth of the entire population of the town, and that in the face of the fact that there are three other picture shows here, and the church people with a special production of "Esther" were playing at the opera house (Moving Picture World, 11 March 1911, p. 538).
The appeal to religion and church people was important, because they were the respectable society in most small towns, and often in the cities as well. On the other hand, films on religious subjects often fell afoul of interdenominational sensibilities. The National Board of Censorship explained after some complaints that it did pass a film called The Nun, because their task was to decide whether or not a film was immoral, not whether it was in poor taste.29
When Kalem previewed its five-reel feature From the Manger to the Cross for church people in the fall of 1912, it was highly praised, but it ran into some trouble with hostile clergymen. After years of the film industry's using religion as uplift, it was now asked whether religious films were suitable for showing in a theater for entertainment purposes, reviving the troubles that passion plays had encountered at the end of the previous century. The clergymen wondered if From the Manger to the Cross could be treated with proper reverence in a theater. It might be sacrilegious to charge admission to see a religious film. From the Manger to the Cross was made "on the original locations" in the Middle East, and the backgrounds appeared to be much more real than the old painted flats of earlier passion plays, which were more like the illustrations in a Sunday School picture book. It was almost as though the old Sunday School book were now illustrated with photographs of movie stars. From the Manger to the Cross shared with those earlier films the tableau style of production, but the camera was a little closer and the people and the surroundings had a tangible solidity that may have contributed to that feeling of sacrilege. The critic W. Stephen Bush concluded that its chief claim to greatness was its realism (in a statement that implied the film did not have other claims). Perhaps the film was also considered rather dull, after all, like many of the uplifting films, in the context of the numerous other films in 1912 that employed dynamic editing systems to bring excitement, suspense, and thrills to their audiences. Such pretentious films as From the Manger to the Cross were no longer as much in demand. The film Pilgrim's Progress, an hour and a half of religious biography and allegory, Louis Reeves Harrison decided, was "too rich an offering for … ordinary mortals." It would be suitable for churches and schools, he thought, but not for motion-picture theaters. In fact, by 1914, a number of churches were being turned into movie theaters.30
As one exhibitor frankly acknowledged:
Fact of the matter is, folks in this town don't care for the big educationals and classics. They want short snappy stuff, a live Essanay or Edison comedy, a spirited Kalem railroad or adventure film, but let me advertise a religious piece or Shakespeare and it means an off day in the box office (Moving Picture World, 9 November 1912, p. 643).
At the end of 1912 W. Stephen Bush editorialized that cooperation among exhibitors had achieved the "checking of cheap vaudeville and the spread of the Sunday exhibition." The next most pressing problem, he thought, was the price of admission. The names "nickelodeon" and "nickolet" were badges of cheapness and were obsolete. The five-cent theaters should be reserved only for the old films. Feature films, showing in big theaters, were getting as much as two dollars, and were bringing in a higher class of people. There was also, he observed, a higher quality in films now.31
According to Louise Chadwick:
The dimes of the higher grade people are as good as those of lower; moreover, one often hears people say that they would rather pay an extra nickel to see something worthwhile and be reasonably sure of not finding himself wedged in between uncleanly people—a feature of the moving picture show that militates no little against its patronage by decent people and will have some time to be reckoned with (Chadwick, "The Current Problem and Opportunity of the Motion Picture Show").
On 20 October 1913 Loew's Herald Square Theater in New York City began a first-run program of five reels, with admission fifteen cents everywhere in the house in the evening. Four days later, the new Nostrand Theater opened in Brooklyn, the first of the New York City houses to be enlarged from 299 to 600 seats under the new ordinance. It had a sloped floor, two projectors, restrooms, and music provided by a violinist and pianist. The prices of admission were ten and twenty cents. There was one afternoon show and two in the evening, and they used the General Film Exclusive Service (for which they paid top prices), changing the program every other day. The Vitagraph matinee idol Maurice Costello, just back from a round-the-world trip, made a personal appearance for the opening of the Nostrand.32
But then, over in East New York, a study conducted by the local exhibitors' association showed that all the exhibitors were running four reels for a nickel and on weekends, five reels for ten cents. In Pittsburgh, it was reported: "It seems to be the policy here for the exhibitor to give as big a show as he can give for five cents. The Lyric is the only one that sticks to the three reels." And Denver, as we know from an earlier chapter, was still "Nickel City of the West."33
Buffalo, New York, was experiencing a theater building boom in mid 1914. It was said that "Buffalo has become a permanent motion picture center and … the popularity of film drama here is constantly increasing." The Palace, a downtown theater on Main Street, opposite Shelton Square, was expected to cost $150,000, and "architecturally, will be a revelation." The interior decorations of Rothapfel's Strand in New York City were to be used as a guide for the new Palace. This was only one of several large new houses being built at that time: "In the larger houses capacity audiences are the rule every evening. At the new Elmwood, Allendale, and Strand hundreds are seen every evening waiting in the lobbies. It looks as though the five-cent house was doomed, as the big houses are getting all the business."
According to Daniel Savage, manager of the local General Film office:
There is not any possible way for the exhibitor to keep the admission at five cents, as the trend of the trade is for better and larger productions. … Up until three years ago the manufacturer produced one-reel subjects and would spend from $300 to $700; at the present time the lowest they consider is $2,500 to an unlimited amount, to get a satisfactory picture. The only outcome that I can see is the larger houses charging accordingly (The Motion Picture News, 13 June 1914, pp. 47-48).
Here is a case history of how exhibitor Harry Nichols raised admission prices from nickels to dimes with some of that Roxy-type showmanship: When Nichols took over management of the Garden Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut (population 85,000) in January 1914, it was a nickel house with a thousand seats. It was on its last legs and barely surviving. Step by step, he got a better film program and used gimmicks to attract a larger public, giving away gold pieces, admitting children under twelve free at matinees when accompanied by an adult, and sending a weekly program schedule to all who requested it. Then he redecorated his theater. He bought new tapestries covered with roses and placed giant artificial rose bushes and vines onstage and all over the house, including the lobby. These were advertised as fireproof, tested by the fire commissioner. His stage he called "futurist," in honor of the modern-art movement. Futurism, although little understood by American popular culture, had become a fad word for anything rather outré or excessive. This "futurist" stage had an Oriental living room on the right, and on the left a den, with special lighting effects. In keeping with the search for suitable family theaters, then, he presented a kind of illusion that his stage was a home, albeit a rather more modish home than most in his audience had. The Oriental motif in interior decoration was becoming very fashionable. In back of the curtain there was a transparent screen through which various tableaux could be seen. Early in December 1914 this was a shipwreck scene. The spectators waited until the curtain rose, and the multicolored lights played on the scene, to eagerly applaud whatever special effects were presented for their delight and amazement. The Famous Players program was playing there until October, and Nichols booked his Sunday features on the open market. The daily program consisted of five-reel features with two or three single ones as "fillers." The Paramount program began after that, with such films as The Virginian with Dustin Farnum and The Lost Paradise with H. B. Warner. Nichols then reached the point where he dared to change the prices from a nickel to ten and fifteen cents. He admitted:
Of course, it's going to drive away my five cent patrons, but it means that a better class is coming in. … I am going to put on a new three piece orchestra consisting of violin, piano and cello. Right now I am sending out 5,000 pamphlets to my clientele telling of the new change in program and increase in prices. I plan to run only one show an evening when I start the Paramount, although I may be obliged to run two of the reels a second time for the tardy ones. I propose to increase my force of girl ushers by two more, making four in all. Pretty good plan, don't you think so? (Motion Picture News, 19 December 1914, p. 116).
Paramount Pictures Corporation's Christmas greeting to the trade in 1914 was: "The Dawn of a New Era: Better Pictures, Finer Theatres, Higher Admission Prices. " By that time the business had grown to the extent that lists were available naming 20,192 moving-picture theaters in the United States and Canada, and for the United States alone, 795 exchanges, 70 film producers, and 34 manufacturers and dealers in motion-picture equipment.34
Some commentators felt that the new middle-class audience might have special sensibilities. When the Champion Film Company released The Blood of the Poor, a tragedy of a poor Jewish tailor and a rich landlord, in January 1912, a trade critic thought that it would be "hailed in certain quarters," but he added, "Subjects of this character are calculated to arouse class prejudice unless treated in the most delicate manner and it is open to question if good can result from accentuating the social differences of the people."35
Considering the number of films of the period that dwelled on similar subjects, it is unlikely that the audience was really that sensitive. Rather, such statements only reflect the uncertainty, the insecurity, of some segments of the industry vis à vis "the better classes," as they came into the theaters.
In 1910, "Spectator" Frank Woods was asked by a correspondent, "Which is the most correct, motion pictures' or moving pictures?' " Taking this inquiry quite seriously, Woods went over the history of use of the two terms and concluded that "motion pictures" had begun to replace "moving pictures" as films improved. The pictures were no longer in constant movement, acting had improved, and "motion pictures" was a better term for a period of uplift. Accordingly, he undertook to change the name of his weekly column from "Moving" to "Motion Picture Notes."36
Hay and Nicholas of the Haynic Theater in Fairmount, Minnesota, wrote to their local paper in 1913, asking them to avoid the use of the word "movies." "It is unpardonable slang, emanating from the gutter, and its use is deplored by everyone who wishes to see the photoplay occupy the dignified position which it deserves." This was a losing battle, though. When Louella O. Parsons published her manual for scenario writing in 1915, she called it How to write for the "Movies."37
Whatever the audiences now filling the moving-picture theaters were, they were in the process of being welded together, and not only by the conditions of the theaters. As the reviewer recalled the showing of The Lonely Villa in the Fourteenth Street nickelodeon where the woman exclaimed, "Thank God, they are saved!" he commented, "The entire audience was one person and the woman who spoke voiced a common feeling."38