History of Nickelodeons
May 22nd 2013
The Nickelodeon was the first type of indoor exhibition space dedicated to showing projected motion pictures. Usually set up in converted storefronts, these small, simple theaters charged five cents for admission and flourished from about 1905 to 1915.
"Nickelodeon" was concocted from nickel, the name of the U.S. five-cent coin, and the ancient Greek word odeion, a roofed-over theater, the latter indirectly by way of the famous Odéon in Paris, emblematic of a very large and luxurious theater much as Ritz was of a grand hotel. For unknown reasons, in 1949 the lyricist of a popular song, Music! Music! Music!, incorporated the refrain "Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon...", evidently referring to either a jukebox or a mechanical musical instrument such as a coin-operated player piano or orchestrion. The meaning of the word has been muddied ever since. In fact, when it was current in the early 20th century, it was used only to refer to a small five-cent theater and not to any coin-in-the-slot machine, including amusement arcade motion picture viewers such as the Kinetoscope and Mutoscope.
The earliest films had been shown in "peep show" machines or projected in vaudeville theaters as one of the otherwise live acts. Nickelodeons drastically altered film exhibition practices and the leisure-time habits of a large segment of the American public. Although they were characterized by continuous performances of a selection of short films, added attractions such as illustrated songs were sometimes an important feature. Regarded as disreputable and dangerous by some civic groups and municipal agencies, crude, ill-ventilated nickelodeons with hard wooden seats were outmoded as longer films became common and larger, more comfortably furnished motion picture theaters were built, a trend that culminated in the lavish "movie palaces" of the 1920s.
The name "Nickelodeon" was first used in 1888 by Austin's Nickelodeon, a dime museum located in Boston, Massachusetts. However, the term was popularized by Harry Davis and John P. Harris, who opened their small storefront theatre with that name on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 19, 1905. They called it the Nickelodeon, joining "nickel" with the Greek word for an enclosed theater adopted by the famous 18th century Odéon in Paris. Although it was not the first theater to show films, in 1919 a news article stated that it was the first theater in the world "devoted exclusively to exhibition of moving picture spectacles". Davis and Harris found such great success with their operation that their concept of a five-cent theater showing movies continuously was soon imitated by hundreds of ambitious entrepreneurs, as was the name of the theater itself. Statistics indicated that the number of nickelodeons in the United States doubled between 1907 and 1908 to around 8000, and it was estimated that by 1910 as many as 26 million Americans visited these theaters every week. Nickelodeons that were in converted storefronts typically seated fewer than 200, patrons often sat on hard wooden chairs, the screen was hung on the back wall, and a piano (and maybe a drum set) would be placed to the side of or below the screen. Larger nickelodeons sometimes had the capacity for well over 1000 people. Louis B. Mayer came of age just as the popularity of the nickelodeon was beginning to rise; he renovated the Gem Theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts, converting it into a nickelodeon that he opened in 1907 as the Orpheum Theater, announcing that it would be "the home of refined entertainment devoted to Miles Brothers moving pictures and illustrated songs". Other well-known nickelodeon owners were the Skouras Brothers of St. Louis.