Before the Nickelodeon: The Era of Traveling Moving Picture Shows
We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful 1920s movie palaces, complete with columns, statues, and enormous lit-up marquees. And their ancestor, the Nickelodeon, is fairly well known–those small, crowded little theaters that charged a nickel to see the latest show. But before the late 1900’s heyday of the Nickelodeon and even before the existence of Hollywood itself, many people first saw films at traveling motion picture shows.
These seem to have popped up sometime in the 1890s and were popular throughout the 1900s. They were descended from both magic lantern shows and the fancy exhibitions put on by inventors, showcasing their newly-patented cameras and projectors to a genteel audience. But the wonder of the moving picture couldn’t be contained in those staid lecture halls for long. To many enterprising men in the Victorian era (mainly gents were interested in this line of work), the novelty of cinema presented a unique and interesting way to make a living.
How would you become the proud owner of a traveling show? Well, you would’ve heard about it either from attending the shows themselves or by seeing advertisements in local newspapers. Such ads offered film equipment and catalogs that provided the “how-tos” of the traveling show business. These catalogs sometimes served as one-stop shops for everything from the latest films to special carbon lights to “snappers,” tiny handheld devices that made a “click” sound to let the projectionist know he needed to change the slide.
For to be a truly successful exhibitor, you see, you wanted to provide a full evening’s worth of entertainment, not simply run a number of films without any fanfare. Thus, the shows also included music and slideshows accompanied by “intensely interesting lectures” (as the catalogs would say). Not only were projected slides already popular, but they were also meant to give people a break from staring at moving pictures. It’s an interesting fact that in the early days of cinema, there was a lot of concern over eyestrain. One catalog from 1907 explained: “The stereopticon views are restful to the eyes, while the motion pictures are somewhat tiring, hence an exhibition covering a period of an hour and a half and consisting of only motion pictures would become tiresome…” (Imagine what the writer would’ve thought of our commonplace, multi-hour superhero movies!)
Catalogs also doled out practical advice, such as the following: “Never say ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t believe I am equal to the undertaking.’ Such thoughts should never enter the mind of any man.” “Never appear before your audience with your clothes in an untidy condition. Give careful attention to your linen, shave often, keep your hair nicely trimmed, and attend carefully to anything which will add to your personal appearance.” They could also be refreshingly blunt: “Do not undertake to go before the public until you are thoroughly familiar with the operation of your outfit and can go through the different operations almost unconsciously…theatrical people who have been on the stage all their lives practice the new play for weeks and even months in advance, and you certainly should not find it a hardship to practice for at least a few days.”
The amount of money that could potentially be made, in a line of independent work that involved entertainment and travel, was hard to for many ambitious young men to resist– catalogs promised that a traveling show could make a profit of about $1,000 to $5,000 per year. In today’s money that about $25,000 all the way up to a whopping $120,000.
So what were these “moving picture shows” like? They were sometimes in tents with black interiors (which made it easier to view films), but often they were hosted in schools, churches, courthouses, and community halls. Not only was it easier to simply rent a public space, but the refined nature of these establishments helped audiences associate traveling shows with respectability.
Lecture topics might cover “The Grand Canyon,” “The Sights of Paris and the Exposition,” “Around the World in 80 Minutes,” or even timely subjects like “The Slums of New York” or “The Battle of Manila.” Presentations of Passion Plays and other Biblical stories were also popular. There were also illustrated songs slides and comic slides which were often, shall we say, “of their time.”
And as far as films, the amount and variety to choose from was almost bewildering–everything from travelogues to short comedies to one-shot dramas to documentaries on just about any subject. Titles could be charmingly old-timey: A Pastry Cook’s Jokes, Fat and Lean Wrestling Match, How Buttons Got Even With the Butler, A Mysterious Portrait, A Fatal Attempt to Loop-the-Loop on a Bicycle. Most were under two minutes in length, and only cost exhibitors a few dollars apiece. The longest films–the epics of their day–ran about ten minutes long and might cost as much as $100 dollars. These included such titles as A Trip to the Moon and Life of an American Policeman.
Beginner exhibitors usually stuck to small towns at first, since the lack of competition made it easier to establish a successful show. They were responsible for all their own publicity–sometimes an “advance man” would travel ahead to put out newspaper ads and put up eye-catching posters. Such a poster might say, for instance:
A Trip to the Holy Land
ILLUSTRATED PANORAMIC LECTURE ENTERTAINMENT
To be given in the Interest and for the Benefit of the Church.
61 PANORAMIC VIEWS 61
Will be Illuminated by Powerful Condensed Light, produced by a recently patented apparatus.
A MOST INTERESTING DESCRIPTION OF EACH VIEW
Will be given as it is shown, and considering the interest of all mankind
in this the oldest inhabited spot on earth, this exhibition is something which
EVERY ONE SHOULD SEE.
While it depended on the exhibitor, many shows were advertised as educational or else touted as “beautiful effects” that were “suitable for all.” Sleepy rural areas and mining towns were often good business since traveling shows were the only way residents could experience the novelty of films.
By about 1908 the heyday of the traveling moving picture show was over, although in some areas they persisted into the 1910s. They were replaced by the wildly popular nickelodeons, which of course eventually evolved into the big theaters we’re familiar with today. But I’m sure back in the 1920s some people still reminisced about the “olden days,” when folks would come from miles around to experience the wonder of moving pictures in humble churches, little schools, and makeshift tents.
I am much indebted to my main source material, Darren Nemeth’s 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 122, a reprint of an extremely rare catalog specifically aimed at traveling exhibitors. Nemeth also includes background information on traveling motion picture shows and other supplemental materials. Highly recommended for silent era researchers!
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.