Before the Nickelodeon: The Era of Travelling Moving Picture Shows

After conducting my official “pull names written on slips of paper out of my cloche-style hat” drawing for the copy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ’19 program, I’m happy to announce that the winner is:

jimmoore2017

Congrats, Jim! If you don’t hear from me first, you can contact me through the form on the About Silent-ology page. Once I have a mailing address I should be able to send it to you in the next few days. And now, my latest post (a version of this article has appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column):

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 too–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 travelling motion picture shows.

Image result for vitascope projector show

A Vitascope projector show at an existing theater.

These seem to have popped up in the 1890s and were popular throughout the 1900s. Descended from magic lantern shows, they were also similar to the fancy exhibitions put on by inventors to showcase their newly-patented cameras and projectors to genteel audiences. 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.

stereopticon ad

So how would you become the proud owner of a travelling show? Well, you’d probably hear about it by attending the shows themselves or by seeing advertisements in local newspapers. Ads offered both film equipment and catalogues providing the “how-tos” of the travelling show business. These catalogues often 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 alert the projectionist to change the slide.

To be a truly successful exhibitor you wanted to provide a full evening’s worth of entertainment, not just run a few films and call it a day. Thus, shows would include music as well as slide shows accompanied by “intensely interesting lectures” (as the catalogues would promise). Not only were slides already popular, but they were also meant to give people a break from staring at films. It’s an interesting fact that in the early cinema days there was much concern over eyestrain. One catalogue 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 multi-hour superhero movies!)

Image result for antique slide set maggs

An example of an antique slide set. (Image from Maggs.com.)

Catalogues also doled out practical advice, such as:  “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–catalogues promised that a travelling show could make a profit of about $1,000 to $5,000 per year. In today’s money that’s about $25,000 to a whopping $120,000.

Stereopticons Advertisement, 1905

New York Clipper, Dec. 9 1905.

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 travelling shows with respectability.

The Murray Co. Circus Canvas Advertisement, 1905

New York Clipper, August 1905.

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 song 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 single-scene dramas to documentaries on countless subjects. 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.

Barre Evening Telegraph, Barre VT, March 19, 1902.

Barre Evening Telegraph, Barre VT, March 19, 1902.

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 travelling shows were the only way residents could experience the novelty of films.

Morning Appeal, Carson City NV, Oct. 8 1902.

Morning Appeal, Carson City NV, Oct. 8 1902.

By about 1908 the heyday of the travelling 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 catalogue specifically aimed at travelling exhibitors. Nemeth also includes background information on travelling motion picture shows and other supplemental materials. Highly recommended for silent era researchers!

8 thoughts on “Before the Nickelodeon: The Era of Travelling Moving Picture Shows

  1. Fascinating! I love this kind of information about the earliest days of film. I can see why these shows would have been so popular and lucrative, especially in the rural areas. It must have been really exciting for them to go to such a program, especially if it were well-prepared (and rehearsed :-)).

    The ads for the shows are really interesting to look at today. In the Alonzo Hatch ad, I wonder what the “diagram” at People’s Shoe Store is?

  2. Lea, I love your respect for history! Opinion seems to be rampant these days, so much so that one could say anything and there will be some who will completely believe it. I find this very frustrating in regard to film history. Thank you for sharing history that is well supported by secondary materials!👍🏻

    • Well I appreciate that very much! 🙂 I try very hard to be accurate and use good sources, as well as keep “presentism” out of the picture as much as I reasonably can.

  3. Oh my god. This is EXACTLY the thing I’ve always wondered about! I always needed clarity on this! And, yet again, you delivered it!

    “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. ”
    That’s a killer last line. You know it’s true, too.

    Tell me if you feel the same way; this whole silent era has so much to know, love and appreciate, that I feel that even though I’ve read plenty, I’m constantly having my mind blown (by you, usually!) with little nuggets, bits of trivia, anecdotes and stories that I missed or never knew about it. I mean, sometimes you shine on a light on something, using information gotten out of books Ive already read! And I’m like….how did I miss that?

    Seriuously I can read all about the first twenty years (1890-1910) all the day long. Though, of course, i can also read about the next twenty years all the day long also! 😛

    Fantastic work, still yet again. Thank you! It’s all clear now to me!!!! 🙂

    • Very happy to hear it, my friend!

      As much time as I’ve spent and still spend on researching this unique era, there’s always so, so much to discover. The countless ways different performers influenced each other, for instance.
      Or the way a single newly-discovered film can change how we view a director or a topic. And then there’s all those intriguing lost films–what can we learn about those? Sometimes I feel like Silent-ology’s just getting started! Which is a lovely thing.

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