100th Anniversary of First-Ever U.S. Movie Theater

Our own NPR movie critic reflects on the 100th anniversary of the first public movie theater in the United States. On June 19, 1905, the Nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh, Penn.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

A hundred years ago Sunday, America's first motion picture theater opened to the public. Its name, the Nickelodeon, combines the price of admission with `odeon,' the ancient Greek word for theater. Film critic Bob Mondello says the price has gone up now, but the experience remains timeless.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Before the Nickelodeon opened in 1905, people had heard this noise...

(Soundbite of film running through projector)

MONDELLO: ...the sound of film running through a projector, but they'd heard it in vaudeville houses, sandwiched in between the juggler and the comedy act, ghostly shadows flickering on a white sheet draped over a pole. Patrons could barely make out the images of a couple dancing to an orchestra no one could hear, or a man sneezing. But the mere fact that they moved was kind of a miracle then. Only later did it occur to anyone to use these shadows to tell a story.

It was a vaudeville impresario, Harry Davis, who first had the idea of devoting a theater exclusively to shadows. He bought a machine called a cinematograph from a Frenchman named Lumiere, and on the west side of Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh, he set up a hundred chairs and a piano all facing a framed screen in a redecorated storefront. His first attraction was a narrative film that had been causing a sensation for a year or so among the middle-class folks who could afford vaudeville tickets which cost a whole quarter. Davis envisioned an entertainment everyone could afford, so he made it available for a nickel, a 10-minute thriller called "The Great Train Robbery."

(Soundbite of piano music)

MONDELLO: A train holdup with guns blazing, a posse assembled, a chase on horseback. "Great Train Robbery" was, in 14 quick scenes, pretty much everything Westerns would later become. Filmed in New Jersey, not Montana, but no less thrilling for that. At the end, there was a bonus scene that had nothing to do with the story, but that caused quite a ruckus. The bandit, actor George Barnes, pointed his revolver at the lens and shot point-blank directly into the camera, which meant, of course, directly at the audience. People were absolutely terrified. No one had ever seen such a thing. Definitely worth a nickel.

(Soundbite of piano music)

MONDELLO: Unlike at his vaudeville theaters, where shows played twice a day, Davis didn't have to pay performers at the Nickelodeon, so he could keep it open from eight in the morning until midnight with several shows an hour. And he packed in customers, thousands every day. Within months, Davis had opened more than a dozen Nickelodeons in Pittsburgh. These storefront theaters were, in fact, the most explosive development in the history of entertainment. Within two years, there were more than 8,000 across the country, but already their days were numbered. Advances in projection allowed bigger screens, which meant more seats, and soon enormous movie palaces sprang up with full orchestras replacing mere pianos, and then sound replacing orchestras.

(Soundbite of movie; music)

Unidentified Man: Mary, my little Mary.

MONDELLO: Other forms have come along, each threatening to eclipse cinema the way cinema eclipsed the stage. Television cut into movie crowds in the 1950s, but then screens got wider, pictures got grander, theaters got multiple, and audiences came back. Then the videocassette was going to make going out to movies obsolete, but video just became a new revenue stream for Hollywood.

There's still something seductive about the communal nature of sitting in a theater, laughter that builds bigger than it ever could in your living room, sniffles that turn to sobs when shared. Some movies work fine on a tiny screen stuck into an airplane seat, but though it's been a full century since Nickelodeon audiences first screamed in terror on Pittsburgh's Smithfield Street at the flickering shadow of smoke puffing silently from the barrel of a black and white gun pointed right at them, in all that time, no movie has ever worked better as a solitary private experience than it does in a movie theater. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of piano music)

CHADWICK: Bob's a regular critic for our friends at "All Things Considered."

(Credits)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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