Nickelodeon movie theater

From Academic Kids

For the Nickelodeon Theatre in Columbia, SC, see the page on the Columbia Film Society.

Nickelodeon is an early 20th century form of small, neighborhood movie theaters in which admission was obtained for a nickel. By 1907, one estimate (based on basic business economics) was that an average of over two million people attended the nickelodeons daily. The popularity of these affordable, entertaining, and highly profitable venues was such that their numbers mushroomed to approximately 8,000 in the U.S. by 1908.

Nickelodeons were usually minimally converted main street storefronts, formerly used as shops (or even livery stables). Most were small, with fewer than 200 seats, 200 being the threshold then in place in many cities where the nickelodeon had to take out theatre licenses instead of the much cheaper amusement license. The auditorium was small: one story high, typically 25 feet wide and 70 feet deep. Its seats were usually simple kitchen chairs and its walls were often painted red.

Nickelodeons in competitive markets had a piano or organ, playing whatever music the pianist or organist knew that seemed appropriate to a scene (e.g. classic ragtime for a chase sequence, or what was called at the time "Eliza-crossing-the-ice" music during the scary moments).

Still, for a nickel you could be transported into a fantasy world on the screen, and kids couldn't wait until the next episode of the serials on Saturday afternoons to see what was going to happen next to their heroes.

The first nickelodeon was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905. 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 he opened in 1907 as the "Orpheum Theater", and announced that it would be "the home of refined entertainment devoted to Miles Brothers moving pictures and illustrated songs" [1] (, [2] (

Their numbers declined as cities grew and industry consolidation led to larger, more comfortable, and better-appointed movie theaters.

Types of "moving pictures"

Nickelodeons would show films which were typically fifteen to twenty minutes in length, and in a variety of styles and subjects, such as short narratives, "scenics" (views of the world from moving trains), illustrated song slides, local or touring song and dance acts, comedies, melodramas, problem plays, stop action sequences, sporting events (e.g. the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons championship fight or the 1899 Jeffries -Sharkey fight) and other features which allowed them to compete with vaudeville houses.

The titles of a few of the films released in 1907 and distributed to nickelodeons by the Miles Brothers (Herbert and Harry) partially illustrate this diversity.

These are taken from a 1907 article published in The Saturday Evening Post:

  • Catch the Kid (directed by Alf Collins; a scream)
  • The Coroner's Mistake (comic ghost story)
  • The Fatal Hand (directed by J. H. Martin; dramatic)
  • Johnny's Run (directed by Frank Mottershaw; comic kid chase)
  • Knight-Errant (directed by J. H. Martin; old historical drama)
  • A Mother's Sin (directed by J. H. Martin; beautiful, dramatic and moral)
  • The Romany's Revenge (directed by Frank Mottershaw; very dramatic)
  • Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy)
  • Sailor's Return (highly dramatic)
  • Village Fire Brigade (directed by James Williamson; big laugh)
  • Wizard's World (fantastic comedy)

Other 1907 films also distributed to nickelodeons by the Miles Brothers:

  • Anarchist's Mother-in-Law
  • Boss Away, Choppers Play
  • Cambridge-Oxford Race
  • Cheekiest Man on Earth
  • Female Wrestlers
  • Great Lion Hunt
  • Indian Basket Weavers
  • International Contest for the Heavyweight Championship: Squires vs. Burns
  • Jim Jeffries on His California Ranch
  • Life and Customs in India
  • The Naval Nursery
  • The Petticoat Regiment
  • Shriners' Conclave at Los Angeles
  • Squires, Australian Champion, in His Training Quarters
  • That Awful Tooth
  • The White Slave
  • A Woman's Duel

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