Merely to meet expenses, then, the average
nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of
4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000
a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million
people a day are needed before profits can begin,
and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big
thing, this new enterprise.
The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen
performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls
are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen
chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red
color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in
black and white,
and sometimes, but not always,
The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five
feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year
or the year before it was probably a second-hand
clothier's, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the
counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller's booth where the show-window was, an
automatic musical barker somewhere up in the
air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and
the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must
take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses.
This is the general rule.
But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and
put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia there
is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America.
It is said to pay not only the theatrical license,
but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.
To-day there is cutthroat competition between
the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence.
Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting
firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and
there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give
prompter service to their own theatrelets than to
those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is
clearly toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent
theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this
may be on the little showman who is forced out,
it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.
The character of the attendance varies with the
locality, but, whatever the locality, children make
up about thirty-three per cent of the crowds. For
some reason, young women from sixteen to
thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many
middle-aged and old women are steady patrons,
who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss
In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English-speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut
out as they are by their alien tongues from much
of the life about them, can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.
As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish
or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.
Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages
a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and
fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there
is little competition, however, the manager
merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out,
I'd Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the
angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple's
The moving pictures were used as chasers in
vaudeville houses for several years before the
advent of the nickelodeon. The cinematograph
or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there
are seventy-odd names for the same machine)
was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said
to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.
The first very successful pictures were those of
the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City,
Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all
over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.
The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five
rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was
another popular success. The contest being at
night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc
lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras
were used. While one was snapping the fighters,
a second was being focused at them, a third was
being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve
in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film
were exposed and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3
inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the
rate of thirty pictures to the second.
The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a
temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded,
Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no
amount of money would he ever again in his life
fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he
Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have
learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are
now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to
the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one
rate as the other.
By means of a ratchet each separate picture is
made to pause a twentieth of a second before the
magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to
life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is
dropped and another substituted, to make in turn
its twentieth of a second display.
The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate
at which they are taken, though chase scenes are
usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and fast-moving automobiles slower, than
Within the past year an automatic process to
color films has been discovered by a French firm.
The pigments are applied by means of a four-
color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact, the
process remains a secret of the inventors. The
stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application
of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8
inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown
upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is
that it applies the pigment in slightly different
outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet
long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent
more than black and whites. Tinted films
browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so
forthare made by washing, and sell at but one
per cent over the straight price.
The films are obtained in various ways.
"Straight" shows, where the interest depends on
the dramatist's imagination and the setting, are
merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire
camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio
with property-room, dressing-rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank,
who are content to make from $18 to $25 a
week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the
cameras, but in this country most of the artists
who play in the film studios in the daytime play
also behind the footlights at night.
The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts "face-perfect," then he gives the word, the lens is focused,
the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while
the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living,
dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.
Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the
outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all
automatically without human help, often require
a week to take. The process is ingenious. First
the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of
the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is
stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an
inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter
of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened
again and another picture is taken showing the
quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The
camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and
chalked; another exposure is made. When these
pictures so slowly obtained are run off rapidly,
the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the
scissors, chalk and needle is produced.
Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the
screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move
of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at
varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole
day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being
pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.
Such eccentric pictures were in high demand
a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story
show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories
suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishing how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to
render their thoughts into English suitable for the
The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they
cannot rely on the playwright's lines to make their
meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery,
where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise
inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the
The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish
between good and bad acting, though they do not
mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scene, by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of
which I have spoken, the men, women and children maintained a steady stare of fascination at
the changing figures on the scene, and toward
the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied,
lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was
as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest
bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera
To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There
must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and
are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long.
One studio manager said: "The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started, we used to give just flashesan engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piecewe've got to give them a
story; they won't take anything elsea story with plenty of action. You can't show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger
story, better story with plenty of actionthat is our tendency."
Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper
classes, but during the past century civilization
has been permeating steadily downward. The
leaders of this democratic movement have been
general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it
the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the
people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in
the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million
of them a day have so found a new interest in
The prosperous Westerners, who take their
week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York,
pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem
play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show
in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have
driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from
Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play,
a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a
Bowery nickelodeon. What is the difference?
The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs
of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their
experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra
The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at
the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the
introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble
more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.
Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel "beneficial" or not? It is amusing, certainly; and,
therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have
always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the
Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no
longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on
the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make
a grand tour yourself. Don't care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is "beneficial" or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.
The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film
world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical worldas far apart, let us say, as The
Master Builder and The Gay White Way.
If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot
help being struck with this fact. For instance, in
a current number, one firm offers the following
variety of attractions:
Another firm advertises in huge type, in the
trade papers:LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST
Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures,
3114 feet . . . Price, $373.68
Extra for coloring . . . . 125.10
The presentation by the picture machines of
the Passion Play in this country was undertaken
with considerable hesitation. The films had been
shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so
little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance,
that the presenters feared the Passion Play might
be boycotted, if not, indeed, in some places,
mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest
success ever known to the business.
Last year incidents leading up to the murder of
Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out
completely and were withdrawn. Film people
are as much at sea about what their crowds will
like as the managers in the "legitimate."
Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life
of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a
good many people are disturbed by what they
do know of the thing.
Those who are "interested in the poor" are
wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good
influence, and asking themselves gravely whether
it should be encouraged or checked (with the
help of the police).
Is the theatre a "good" or a "bad" influence?
The adjectives don't fit the case. Neither do they
fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely
the theatre democratized.
Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance.
Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion,
Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were
doing a "sister-act"? What is the motive which draws crowds of poor people to nickelodeons to
see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere
mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.
Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth
year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau,
where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands
of dollars and days of time, they view a similar
spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.
It is reasonable, however, to believe that the
same feelings, whatever they are, which drew
our rich to Oberammergau draw our poor to the
nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional
reactions produced in the spectator by the
Passion Play are "beneficial" or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or
an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more,
than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion
Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.
Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and
make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify
the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know
more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just
as the one fundamental instinct of the youth,
which most systems of education have been
vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what
the man knows.
In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are
below the reach even of the yellow journals. For
although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the
machine is but a toy, a "chaser," in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which
strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which
teaches living other than living through the senses
alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the
psychological moment, it has awakened to bis
first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of
an artist of the future, who otherwise would
have remained mute and motionless.
The nickelodeons are merely an extension
course in civilization, teaching both its "badness"
and its "goodness." They have come in obedience
to the law of supply and demand; and they will
stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums
they are the finest and must survive.