1900s: Film and Theater
1900s: Film and Theater
The first decade of the twentieth century was one of the last decades in which entertainment was still largely local and noncommercial. Movies were still in their infancy. Broadway had not yet gained a reputation as the center of serious and popular theater. Most Americans sought their entertainment in small local theaters, at vaudeville shows, and—in a growing number of cities—in storefront nickelodeons. Although wealthier Americans in large cities could attend serious professional performances of opera and of classic plays, such as the works of Shakespeare, most Americans enjoyed rougher, less polished fare. In the 1900s, twenty-first-century-style film and theater—polished productions that can be enjoyed by the masses in a variety of locations—simply did not exist.
The most popular form of entertainment in the decade was vaudeville. The core of a vaudeville show was variety: each show contained nine to twelve acts, with comedy, stunts, dramatic skits, and singing. Vaudeville acts toured from city to city, and the best and most famous made stars of some of the performers. The impact of vaudeville on later forms of popular culture—especially radio and TV—was enormous, as many vaudeville performers went on to become the first stars of radio and TV. Another popular form of live entertainment was the minstrel show, a form of variety show in which the performers often presented stereotypical and racist impersonations of African Americans. Many white performers performed "blackface" minstrelsy (MIN-strul-see), which meant that they applied makeup to look black, but minstrel shows also offered a rare opportunity for African Americans to appear on stage. Buffalo Bill Cody (1846–1917) and his Wild West Show provided another form of entertainment, a variety show meant to dramatize the mythical American West.
Film was in its infancy at the beginning of the decade, but it soon made great strides. Technological limitations only allowed films to be about thirty seconds long, limiting the ability of film to tell a story, and they contained no sound. Early films were thus novelties, and they were often shown along with live entertainment, as in a vaudeville show. The creation of the silent film The Great Train Robbery in 1903 revolutionized the industry, however. At about twelve minutes long, the film told a dramatic story about a train robbery, and it thrilled audiences across the country. Throughout the decade more and more Americans began to see short films in nickelodeons, essentially storefront theaters that charged a small admission fee. By 1908, it was estimated that eighty million nickelodeon tickets were sold every week. By the 1910s, the rise of more skilled directors and famous "movie stars" would make film one of the most popular forms of entertainment.