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Downtown: Nickelodeon


Pittsburg Gave Birth to the Movie Theater Idea

From The Dispatch, 16 November 1919, by E. W. Lightner.
First Exclusive Motion Picture House in All the World Stood on Smithfield Street;
Was a New Thing in Thrills Then, and 7,000 Attended the "Nickelodeon" Every Day

"Epur si muove!" exclaimed Galileo Galilei insistently in the days of the Inquisition, proclaiming his theory of the revolution of earth and other planets around the sun and also their axial diurnal revolution, in contravention of the long-entertained and absurd conviction that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was flat. Galileo perfected the theory of Copernicus.
That was the scientific discovery and establishment of a mighty moving picture show, but in this day, when it is known to every school child, it doesn't possess an approach to the inspiration evoked among all school children by the moving picture shows of film and camera and theater which are far more fascinating to them than the movements of the solar system, things of beauty and joys forever. It may not be doubted that if these wonderful spectacles had been suddenly sprung upon the church and the public 300 years ago, when the immortal Italian was under detention and his writing listed in the index expurgatorius, they would have been suppressed as diabolical inventions and their operators declared disciples of the Black Art.

First Moving Picture Theater
If Pittsburg did not have the honor of the invention of the moving picture, it has the undisputed distinction of the first theater devoted exclusively to exhibition of moving picture spectacles. They had a fragmentary presentation for a few years previously; a brief, isolated, lonely existence; halting, trembling, flickering as little stunts sandwiched in variety or vaudeville entertainments; fragments which were hardly prophetic of the great future which was then in the making for the wondrous exhibitions of this day. To such a marvelous height of perfection have they reached that it may seem impossible to attain any striking advance; yet it is the assertion of scientists of the camera and the film, of mysteries of light and kinetic forces, that we are only beginning to see down a long vista of vastly more amazing accomplishments.
The first exclusive moving pictures theater in Pittsburg and the world was opened in 1905 by Harry Davis and John P. Harris in the Howard Block, west side of Smithfield street, between Diamond and Fifth avenue. Curious to say, the second exclusive picture theater of the world was opened in Warsaw, capital of Poland, by a Pittsburg Polander, who saw the Davis-Harris adventure and recognized the possibilities of presenting so wonderful and profitable a development in his native country.

The Primitive Exclusive
With a ready cunning for adaptation, the proprietors of the Smithfield street "movie" named it the "Nickelodeon," combining the price of admission with "odeon," the ancient name of Grecian theaters, where under a roof plays were rehearsed and presented. The front of the theater was covered with burlap, on which with greater or lesser art was depicted all sorts of fetching symbols, possibly more conservative in motif than some of the brilliant pictorial masterpieces of this day displayed in front of myriads of such houses, and telling thrillingly of frequent changes of motion plays within and the famous "stars" which had part in their making.
No "barker" paraded himself to the front of this theater to shout with insinuating voice: "Here you are, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys! Walk right in and see the most wonderful exhibition of any time, ancient or modern, everything life-size and moving exactly as in real life!" But to attract attention a phonograph was placed in the lobby which discoursed attracting music, classic and unclassic. This, however, was a musical invitation of rather short life, as the neighboring storekeepers made vigorous objection. It wooed and won the passing public and drew them into the theater while otherwise they might have found attraction among displays of things mercantile. The phonograph was courteously discontinued, but the little theater continued to be filled daily and refilled and filled again.

Decidedly Continuous
The original and only "Nickelodeon" was opened at 8 o'clock of the morning and the reels were kept continuously revolving until midnight. A human queue was continuously awaiting the ending of a performance and the emptying of chairs. Inside an attendant would announce, "show ended," and spectators would be hustled gently to the street and new spectators welcomed, seated as quickly as possible, and the picture would again respond to the magic reel. If a "barker" was not thought recherche for the street, a refined "lecturer" was employed for the inside who would eloquently describe and explain the mysteries of the picture.
In this little house, an Aladdin-like transition from a storeroom to a theater, no fewer than 7,000 patrons were entertained nearly every day. It was a new thing in thrills. From 8 o'clock of the morning until 12 o'clock at night visitors streamed in and out and nickels streamed into the box office. The fewer than 100 seats had each and all of them occupants who were held "spellbound" with amazement by the moving picture and wonder as to the means of production.
It was in the broadest sense of the phrase a "theater for the people." Not only did it attract the young million, but the million of the grownups as well. It was an absorbing and educational entertainment for a nickel, or just five little bronze pennies.
What a vital consideration for those who could not afford the higher prices for variety or "legitimate," and who could appreciate a moving picture when possibly the spectacle of live and moving actors would be less readily understood and appreciated.

How They Multiplied
The financial and pictorial success of this primary venture was so substantial that other storerooms were eagerly sought by the original projectors. A larger central house was imperative and the Lyric came into existence as an annex to the Grand Opera House. The city was soon dotted with what were nicknamed "store theaters." Little time elapsed until the Davis-Harris theaters numbered 18, scattered throughout various sections of the city, north, south, east and west. Others came into the great "movie" game until the main streets of the city everywhere, with their gaudy-colored, sensational, thrilling posters and brilliant night illuminations flamed every few blocks and in desirable districts every block. Nothing like it had ever been known in the history of "shows." The little house in Smithfield has grown to be the Grand, the finest moving picture theater in the world.
Leading theatrical managers plunged into a very maelstrom of production. It was a maelstrom of indescribable conception; training of armies of actors to be caught by the eye of the camera; famous actors of famous comedy, drama, tragedy, forsaking Shakespeare, Sheridan, Jonson, Moliere, Corneille, and the modern dramatists and giving their names and genius to photoplays; immortal playwrights succeeded by up-to-date writers of scenarios to be acted realistically and vociferously, to be produced pictorially and silently; high and low life exhibited on a screen all true and vivid--a veritable maelstrom, but one transforming effort into vast constructiveness instead of destructiveness and utter ruin, which is the fabled business of maelstroms.
There are now nearly 20,000 moving picture shows in operation in the United States, which has always had the lead in invention and production, though the equipment for the original Nickel-odeon was brought from France. For several years previous to America's entrance into the European War, when the prevailing fee was five cents, the receipts were estimated to average about $150,000,000 a year. With the war and the high cost of everything and the war tax, prices were increased [100] per cent, but as there was no great decrease of attendance and little decrease in the number of houses it may be assumed that the average receipts are above $200,000,000. Figures of investment are not obtainable, but it is certain that in houses and all processes of production, including enormous salaries paid to "stars" of various and all magnitudes, constant evolution of new and costly films, all the paraphernalia of this vast "industry," the amount of investment will run far into the hundreds of millions.

Evolution to Perfection
My first view of a moving picture spectacle was in the Empire Theater at London, England, in 1897, and then as merely a part of the evening's performance at that great variety theater. An attempt was made to reproduce the Queen's jubilee, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the enthronement of Queen Victoria, which took place in 1887. It was the grandest pageant ever seen in London. In the cinematographic presentation at the Empire every feature of the brilliant pageant danced a jig. Stately royal coaches with their stately burden; thousands of soldiers, stately horses with stately military riders; long processions of them fairly dance a jig throughout the entire reproduction of the reel. Eyes were blinded, tempers were roiled, even the humorous lost patience in the presence of the long line of the ridiculous. It had an effect of dizziness, almost of nausea.
Much of the same fault intruded into the early performances in America and all the ingenuity of Yankee inventors was brought to bear on attempts at remedies. Wonderful is the progress that has been made, as Pittsburgers, who remember the old Davis-Harris "store theater" in Smithfield street, and who have witnessed productions of the last year or two will heartily attest.
Possibly it is no exaggeration to assert that in no other branch of mechanical and chemical science has such advancement been made within a similar period.
Behold the march forward at quickstep!
The first moving pictures of record came with the invention of the phenakistoscope in 1833, by Plateau, a blind man of Ghent, Belgium, a mere toy; then in rapid succession came the zeotrope, the production of ribbon film in 1888; in 1890 the Friese-Green camera, capable of making 10 exposures a second; the kinetoscope of Edison in 1894, and his vitascope a few years later; all these pictures being merely small rolls revolving in a little wooden chamber and to be viewed through a slit; the initial machine for producing the moving picture, magnifying it and projecting it on a screen being the invention, in 1895, of Lumiere, a Frenchman of Lyons, who called it a "cinematograph," a word which is constantly used in Europe, in England abbreviated to "cinema."
It was a development of this invention of Lumiere which was brought from France to equip the little theater in Smithfield street, the first in the world devoted to exclusive use in a theater apart from all other forms of entertainment.

Other Marvelous Uses
Although this article is intended particularly to afford a glimpse of the evolution of the moving picture show from the "store theater," seating 100, with its flickering figures, to the almost perfect action of today; and from the little house to the magnificent theaters, such as the Grand, with its perfect appointments, and which will seat 2,500 spectators, a word should be said of the employment of moving picture machinery in science and, in fact, in all departments of human activities. The popular desire will always be for production of the pictorial comedy, drama, melodrama and tragedy. The mass demand a "story." This is magnificent, but it isn't all.
By the combined use of the X-ray, the microscope, the lightning camera, the enlarging lens and minor features of the magic mechanism, the very circulation of the blood in our veins and arteries may be shown on the screen; the beating of the heart and the breathing of the lungs; the corpuscles of which the blood is composed; and it may be possible soon to make a supreme picture of the movement of human brain cells in the act of thinking.

Universal Propaganda
Vibratory action, by far too rapid to be caught by the eye, is transfixed in the camera by a speed of 2,000 exposures a second, and the film may be run from the reel at a rate of 1,500 inches per second. The imperceptible vibration of the wings of a fly, a bee or a humming bird may be caught by these lightning cameras and the speed of the reel slowed so that the action of the wings is perceptible on the screen. Bacteria, by far too minute to be seen with the naked eye; bacilli, which feed on vital functions of the human body; even gaseous atoms, by the combined employment of microscope and camera, may be shown in motion. The growths of plants and flowers, from their appearance above the soil through every process of their development to full bloom or the ripe grain, has been caught by the wizard camera and projected on the screen, the photograph having been snapped at intervals during months, the pictures showing the entire development within a few minutes.
Aside from placing before the eyes of an unscientific public wonderful discoveries of scientists, the moving picture has already been employed for propaganda in business; partisan politics, to exhibit the history and accomplishments of one party, which, of course, is superior to all others; trade evolutions of mighty mercantile moment, religious and missionary activities, futility and foolishness of mob outbreaks, movements of soldiery, battle scenes, wherein fierce attacks lasting many hours, are told on the screen in one hour or less; machinery of peace and reconstruction, crimes and their punishment, evolution of the prison from days when convicts were tortured, to merciful and reformatory methods of recent times; contrast of city slums with the wholesome and beauty of the farm and country; every phase of human life--and these invaluable uses of the moving picture are yet in embryo, their vast possibilities merely in their inception.
The world at large, all the localities of it and all the peoples of it, are being brought to the knowledge of the peoples of every city and town and hamlet as they could be brought in no other way, for the mass can be taught by pictures when it would not read books and will understand pictures when it would have small comprehension of or interest in books.
The last issue of the London Times to reach the exchange table of The Dispatch has an editorial article in which it remarks that "the Belgian Government, engaged in the task of rebuilding the country, has recognized the value of the film for propaganda purposes and when King Albert visits the United States pictures explaining the work that has been already accomplished will be shown far and wide. Little attention has yet been paid to this particular development of the cinematograph in this country, but it will more and more force itself upon public attention. A few enterprising business concerns are already making use of the film. One of the largest engineering firms in Great Britain is securing a pictorial record of every side of its work, which is to advertise the undertaking all over the world, while one or two cities have decided to use this method of bringing their advantages before possible purchasers of land and builders of factories."


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