The Nickelodeon Era (1905-1915)

The Nickelodeon Era, lasting from 1905-1915, can be described as a period of business boom in the film industry characterized by a tumultuous change in film exhibition practices. The industry's newfound emphasis on exhibition led to the creation of thousands of nickelodeon theaters across the nation.[1] The nickelodeon theaters were an early 20th century form of movie theaters that showcased programs of short films. Prior to the creation of the nickelodeon theaters, moving pictures were primarily shown in vaudeville houses as a supplement to a vaudeville program. Beginning in 1905, many of these vaudeville houses were converted into nickelodeon theaters that showcased films as the main event. Admission to these theaters was a nickel (hence the term nickelodeon), and the theaters themselves were small, typically seating a maximum of two hundred people. The programs usually featured a series of short films with live sound accompaniment. Nickelodeons were extremely popular entertainment venues, largely because they offered a cheaper form of entertainment than vaudeville houses, making the cinema accessible to mass audiences of blue-collar workers. However, the expansion of the film industry in the late teens led to the demise of the nickelodeon theaters and the end of the nickelodeon era.

The Nickelodeon Boom (1905-1910)

John Harris and Harry Davis opened the first nickelodeon theater in Pittsburgh in 1905. Harris and Davis are credited with coining the term nickelodeon, a word that combines the Greek word for theater, odeon, with the five-cent price of admission. The success of this first theater, appropriately named the Nickelodeon Theater, prompted entrepreneurs nationwide to open theaters of their own.[2]

By 1908, 8,000 nickelodeon theaters existed nationwide and by 1910 that number increased to more than 10,000.[3] This number included more than 300 nickelodeons in New York City alone, and more than 100 nickelodeon theaters each in Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco.[4] In 1910, an estimated 26 million Americans attended the nickelodeons on a weekly basis, a figure that accounted for 20 per cent of the nation’s total population.[5]

The spread of the nickelodeon theaters can be attributed to several factors. First, during the early 1900’s film exhibitors switched from selling to renting films. This conversion gave theater owners the freedom to showcase a variety of films, allowing them to change their programs multiple times per week. This encouraged theater patrons to make moviegoing a part of their daily routine. This development, combined with the shorter work-week, helped establish movie-going as an everyday form of entertainment.[6]

The nickelodeon theaters also provided an accessible form of entertainment that was cheaper than the vaudeville shows. The cheap admission prices of the nickelodeons introduced movie-going to a mass, working-class audience, many of whom were immigrants.[7] The majority of the nickelodeons were strategically placed in business centers and working class neighborhoods. These locations made the theaters accessible to blue-collar workers, many of whom visited the nickelodeons during their breaks or on their way home from work.[8] To members of the working-class, the nickelodeons offered a form of escape from the harsh realities of daily life. The featured programs of the nickelodeon theaters fostered this notion of escapism.

The Nickelodeon Programs

The nickelodeon shows customarily opened with a song, usually one of the popular ballads of the day.[9] The program that followed included a feature length film, or a series of short films, coupled with musical accompaniment or a vaudeville skit. The films covered a variety of genres including comedy, melodrama, western, slapstick, and social problem films. With the intention of continually attracting patrons, a nickelodeon theater would change its film program three to five times per week.[10] The live music that accompanied the nickelodeons included ensembles of pianos, drums, violins, and pipe organs. The genres of music showcased in the theaters included mixtures of classical music, jazz, hymns, and popular songs. In addition to song accompaniment, some nickelodeon owners included sound effects in their film exhibitions. Theater musicians were frequently hired to synchronize live sound effects with the onscreen image.[11] Theater owners also integrated sound into their programs by attempting to synchronize recorded sounds with the onscreen image through the usage of phonographs. Although experimentation with the phonograph sound system continued throughout the nickelodeon era, the synchronizing process was not yet perfected and these sound systems were minimally successful.[12]

Most films showcased during the nickelodeon era came from international production firms, most notably [[é|Pathé]] , Gaumont, Cines, Hepworth, and Nordisk.[13] The films produced during the beginning of the nickelodeon era were designed to keep the audience constantly entertained. As a result, the majority of these films featured simple, linear plot lines that integrated fast-moving action with episodes of vaudeville spectacle and slapstick humor. The films themselves were spectacles intended to distract and transport the audience from their daily reality.[14] Two examples of such films include two popular Vitagraph films released in 1908 titled When Casey Joined the Lodge and A Policeman's Dream. The plot lines of both films are simple and action-packed: When Casey Joined the Lodge features two Irishmen at a lodge initiation fighting each other with bricks, while A Policeman's Dream involves two boys awakening a daydreaming police officer by setting him on fire. Beginning in 1907, the nickelodeon theaters began to integrate more complex narrative films into their programs in the hopes of appealing to middle-class audiences.

From 1907 till the end of the nickelodeon era, filmmakers attempted to create films that integrated narrative complexity and clarity. These films were based on a continuous chain of narrative causes and effects primarily motivated by character psychology. All aspects of film style, including staging, camera positioning, lighting, and editing, were used to achieve narrative continuity.[15] Two popular international films during this time period were The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (1908, Charles Le Bargy, and André Calmettes), and Il Caduta de Troia or "The Fall of Troy" (1910, Giovanni Pastrone).[16] These prestigious films were extremely popular because they used narrative complexity to portray well-known literary and historical events while simultaneously integrating elements of spectacle. An important American director who experimented with continuity and storytelling during the nickelodeon era was D.W. Griffith (1875-1948). In Griffith's popular film The Lonely Villa (1909), he uses a continuity editing technique known as intercutting to portray two simultaneous events occurring in separate locales. Throughout the remainder of the nickelodeon era, filmmaking transformed from a vehicle of spectacle into a legitimate medium of storytelling.

The Theater Design

The nickelodeon theaters were small, makeshift theaters that were transformed from former dance halls, opera houses, and remodeled stores into America’s first cinemas.[17] The exteriors of the nickelodeons were designed to attract prospective theater patrons. White, incandescent light bulbs lit the facades of the theaters and illuminated the theater's name on the front of the building. Nickelodeons in urban centers featured huge electric and painted signs advertising exciting moments from current feature films as well as upcoming attractions.[18] Music and noise were also important to the advertising scheme of the theaters. Exhibitors incorporated phonographs into their theater’s exteriors to resound the sound of a trumpet, hoping to attract potential customers.[19] The loud, vibrant exterior of the nickelodeons contrasted with the plainness of their interior design.

The interiors of nickelodeon theaters were pitch-black and packed with rows of wooden chairs and benches. The typical nickelodeon theater could seat anywhere from fifty to two-hundred people. The seating arrangement was uncomfortable, and the darkness of the theaters caused movie-goers to stumble up and down the aisles as they searched for their seats. The practical reason for the lack of lighting was the nickelodeon-era film projector, a mechanism that required complete darkness in order to achieve a clear onscreen image.[20] Critics of the nickelodeons claimed that their dark interiors posed not only a safety threat, but a moral threat as well. Social reformers claimed that the dark environment encouraged intimacy and promiscuity among young couples who attended the movies together. In response to these criticisms, the opulent theaters and picture palaces that marked the end of the nickelodeon era often featured some form of interior lighting, as well as ushers who patrolled the theater in search of these overtly affectionate couples.[21]

The Nickelodeon Audience

The nickelodeon audience primarily consisted of working-class families. Despite the fact that these blue-collar workers supported their theaters, film exhibitors frequently complained that these movie-goers as a group lacked “class.” Theater owners consequently focused their efforts on appealing to the middle-class as a potential audience.[22] This desire for an affluent audience can be seen in the location of some of the original nickelodeon theaters. In spite of their popularity among blue-collar workers, the largest nickelodeon theaters were rarely built in working-class neighborhoods. Instead, many of these theaters were opened on the edges of business districts near white-collar shopping centers. This location made the nickelodeons closer to the middle class yet still accessible to blue-collar workers.[23] By 1908, film exhibitors were using more overt methods to attract middle-class patrons. Theater owners attempted to entice wealthier audience members by targeting the middle-class woman and her children. Although few professional men would consider subjecting themselves to the “low-class” entertainment that the nickelodeon’s offered, middle-class women were far more likely to attend the theaters throughout the day, either as a break from shopping or after picking their children up from school. One method that the nickelodeon theaters employed to attract middle-class women and children was offering them reduced admissions. By 1910, women and children were charged half price admission in all of Philadelphia’s nickelodeons. Filmmakers during the nickelodeon era similarly attempted to appeal to the middle-class woman. Many of the original screenplays written during the nickelodeon boom featured female protagonists and plot lines that addressed women’s issues.[24] Exhibitors also tried to appeal to the social consciousness of the middle-class woman by exhibiting films that extolled religious and moral values, such as Pathé's popular Passion Play (1910), a film that portrayed "the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Ascension in twenty-seven beautiful scenes."[25]

The Decline of the Nickelodeon (1910-1915)

The decline of the nickelodeon theaters can be attributed to several factors. Beginning in 1915, the largest Hollywood firms began the process of vertical integration, a system under which each firm controlled the production, distribution and exhibition of their films. Thus, the goal of each firm became distributing and exhibiting their films to the largest possible audience. The industry's dominant firms consequently began competing with one another to own the most extensive theater chain possible. With the goal of attaining the largest possible audience, the small nickelodeon theaters were slowly replaced by larger, more luxurious theaters, such as the opulent picture palaces of the 1920's.[26]

The collapse of the Motion Pictures Patent Company (MPPC) also influenced the decline of the nickelodeons. During the nickelodeon era, members of the MPPC's oligopoly dominated the film industry. In order to avoid patent infringement, producers, distributors, and exhibitors had to pay a fee to Edison and AM&B, the two companies that originally formed the MPPC. However, a significant portion of the film industry refused to pay this fee. These members of the industry formed independent production companies that competed with the Motion Pictures Patent Company. Despite this competition, most nickelodeon theater chains remained under the control of the MPPC. During World War I, several production companies in the MPPC collapsed, leaving the majority of nickelodeons without a means of production and distribution. The nickelodeon theaters were excluded from the industry by the surviving independent firms, who regarded the theaters as an outdated form of entertainment. As a result, the nickelodeon theaters were forced to either enlarge or change format to conform to the new industry standards.[27]

Competition between the theater chains themselves also contributed to the demise of the nickelodeons. By 1910, any town or neighborhood that had one successful nickelodeon had acquired two or three competing theaters on the same street.[28] Increased competition among the nickelodeons in both urban and rural areas led to the creation of a second generation of theaters that attempted to replace and outdo the earlier nickelodeons. Exhibitors remodeled their old theaters or built entirely new ones in response to the competition. These newer models were the precursors of the picture palaces; they featured larger auditoriums that could seat five hundred or more, as well as more elegant interiors and exteriors. The entertainment itself was upgraded to include more expensive feature films. As the theaters improved, the ticket prices rose and the nickelodeons lost many of their working-class patrons as steady customers. Instead, the more sophisticated ambiance and entertainment attracted wealthier, middle-class families. Exhibitors, who had attempted to attract middle-class viewers throughout the nickelodeon era, did little to retain the working-class audience. By 1915, the nickelodeon theaters and their working-class audience were replaced by opulent movie theaters and a wealthier clientele.[29]


Fuller, Kathryn H. (1996). At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN: 1-56098-639-5

Fuller, Kathryn H. (1996). "'You Can Have the Strand in Your Own Town': The Struggle between Urban and Small-Town Exhibition in the Picture Palace Era," in Gregory A. Waller (ed.), Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition, pp. 88-99. ISBN 978-0631225928

Merritt, Russell (1976). "Nickelodeon Theaters 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies," in Tino Balio (ed.), The American Film Industry, pp.59-79. ISBN: 0-299-07000-X

Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell (2003). Film History: An Introduction. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. ISBN: 0-07-038429-0


  1. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p. 47.
  2. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, pp.49-51.
  3. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.63; Fuller, At the Picture Show, 48.
  4. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.49.
  5. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.63.
  6. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p.37.
  7. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p.37.
  8. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," 65; Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, 38.
  9. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.61.
  10. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p.37.
  11. ^ Fuller, Ath the Picture Show, pp.70-71.
  12. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.71.
  13. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p. 38.
  14. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.65.
  15. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, pp.43-45.
  16. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p.41.
  17. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.60.
  18. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.56.
  19. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.59.
  20. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.60.
  21. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.62.
  22. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.47.
  23. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.65.
  24. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.73
  25. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.74.
  26. ^ Fuller, "'You Can Have the Strand in Your Own Town,'" p.88; Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, pp. 144-145.
  27. ^ Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.79.
  28. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.73.
  29. ^ Fuller, At the Picture Show, p.73; Merritt, "Nickelodeon Theaters," p.79.