You saw it here first: Pittsburgh's Nickelodeon introduced the moving picture theater to the masses in 1905

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The world's film industry started in Pittsburgh, 100 years ago today, in a dingy storeroom teeming with working-class immigrants, sexual tension, danger and the still-fresh thrill of seeing moving pictures.

A ceremony and plaque on Smithfield Street celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Nickelodeon, which opened in June 1905. The plaque, replaced with one honoring the Nickelodeon's founder, has a few inaccuracies: the two moving pictures it mentions were produced at least two years after the Nickelodeon opened and the title of one film is given as "The Battled Burglar" -- the correct title is "The Baffled Burglar."
Click photo for larger image.

The mix was so volatile that during the first day, 450 people watched movies at the new theater, which its owners dubbed the "Nickelodeon." By the second day, more than 1,500 people stood in line to see movies there, and eventually the Smithfield Street site became known as the world's first modern movie theater.

Others were taking note. Social activists grew worried about children spending too much time at the movies, because of their violent and sexual themes. Some were afraid of the immigrant labor pool attracted to the silent films -- which didn't need to be in English to be understood -- and others feared the idea of women in dark rooms mixing with strange men.

But the most important thing of all, at least for Pittsburgh's essential place in film history, was the mere sight of hundreds of people lining up to pay 5 cents to see a 15-minute moving picture show.

Movies became a business because of Pittsburgh. Thousands of copycat nickelodeons were built in cities all over the country on the Nickelodeon model, and a system of producing films and then distributing them to theaters nationwide grew in order to feed the new phenomenon.

A Hill District film distribution company got into the theater business, eventually becoming the Metro Film Co. and later Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. Members of the Warner and Selznick families -- later legends in Hollywood -- saw movie theater and distribution techniques for their first time in Pittsburgh, before taking them west.

So, for a flash of time after the Nickelodeon opened on June 19, 1905, Pittsburgh was the epicenter of the film world. But the spark quickly went out, and 100 years later, the city's place in film history is mostly ignored, even in the city itself.

Pittsburgh mayors celebrated the theater's history in 1929 and again at its 50th anniversary in 1955, and a plaque by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania sits near its former site at 433-435 (now 441) Smithfield St. "This was the beginning of the motion picture theater industry," it says.

A hundred years later, that plaque, near a Sbarro pasta franchise, is about all that is left of that history. Pittsburgh film boosters are tying Wednesday's local premiere of George A. Romero's "Land of the Dead" at the Byham Theater, Downtown, to the anniversary to bring some attention to the part the city played.

"People have no idea about its incredible history," says Carl Kurlander -- screenwriter, Pitt film professor and co-founder of Steeltown Entertainment -- who helped to plan Wednesday's event.

Reality check

That being said, many long-standing claims made about the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon may not be true.

There were other stand-alone theaters in New Orleans and Los Angeles before the Nickelodeon opened, says Michael Aronson, an assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of Oregon, who is writing a history of the Pittsburgh nickelodeon boom. And other theaters had carried the name "nickelodeon," for a combination of their admission price and the Greek word for "theater."

Also, the films often cited through the years as opening at the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon in 1905 -- a comedy called "The Baffled Burglar" and the melodrama "Poor but Honest" -- were also likely incorrect. According to records kept by the American Film Institute, those films were not produced until several years later.

Other historical references say the first movie shown was "The Great Train Robbery," but that legendary 1903 film was already so well-known (it previously had a summer-long run at Kennywood, for instance) that patrons probably would not be flooding into the Nickelodeon to see it again two years later.

But the importance of the theater, whatever the details, is not in question, says Aronson, who earned his doctorate from Pitt in 2003. It was still the template for all the theaters -- and the new movie industry itself -- that followed it.

"It's like saying Starbucks didn't invent coffee in a cup, so they didn't have an impact on our culture," Aronson said.

"It was the effect that mattered. In the Pittsburgh Nickelodeon, clearly everything came together at the right time, and everything took off."

Risky business

The two men who dreamed up the Nickelodeon, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1948, "could as well have been called Frankenstein for the chancy monster they had nourished."

Pittsburgh was suffering through a heat wave on Monday, June 19, 1905, with the temperature reaching 89 degrees. Newspapers reported on a fight at the monkey cages of the Highland Park Zoo, which was touched off by an argument over Darwinism and evolution.

Spurred by heavy industry, metropolitan Pittsburgh was in the middle of a massive growth spurt, going from 775,000 residents in 1900 to more than 1 million, 10 years later.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Images and memorabilia from the first Nickelodeon are hung throughout the North Side townhouse of Joel Hahn, pictured beside a portrait of his grandfather, John P. Harris. Hahn and his siblings took part in the ceremony, above, honoring the theater's 50th anniversary.
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By 1905, John P. Harris and his brother-in-law, Harry Davis, were already seasoned Pittsburgh showmen. Harris, who with his father ran the Harris Comedy and Specialty Co., produced vaudeville shows and showed Pittsburgh's first moving picture in 1897, eight years before the Nickelodeon opened.

The short films were just curiosities then, often called "chasers," since they were shown at the end of the live acts to drive patrons from theaters. They were also shown at "dime museums," such as the ones Davis ran in Downtown Pittsburgh, along with so-called freak shows and other late Victorian-era entertainment.

The movies were usually only 30 seconds to five minutes long, and over the years piles of the one-reel films stacked up in the vaudevillians' storage spaces. Although the facts are sketchy, Harris (who would go on to become a state senator in 1922) seemed to come up with the idea of taking the moving pictures and showing them full time in a theater. Davis, who owned property on Smithfield Street, hooked him up with a vacant storefront to try it in.

Their Nickelodeon was open from 8 a.m. to midnight, showing a handful of films in 15- to 20-minute segments, usually accompanied by live piano. Typically, the show would include a stop-action film called an "actuality," showing something like a flower growing or a building getting demolished; a film of an exotic country such as China, called a "scenic"; plus short comedies and melodramas.

The comedies were largely slapstick, often getting easy laughs by showing chase scenes in reverse, with people running and jumping over fences backward. Police got conked over the head, and cameras tried to glimpse women's petticoats.

With the variety of subjects, it was no wonder they were popular. By shuffling the patrons out at 15-minute intervals 16 hours a day -- and by staying open on Sundays, the one day of the week laborers had off in those days -- the Nickelodeon quickly had thousands of customers per day. Others quickly opened their own storefront theaters to make money off the craze, and, within two years, there were more than 2,500 nickelodeons nationwide.

Theater owners blared music and decorated their facades with electric lights and loud colors to draw patrons. Once inside, the crowd sat in folding chairs or stood to watch the films, which flickered on a white muslin sheet.

Scary movies

Cynthia Hahn, at age 12 in 1955, operates a projector used by her grandfather, John P. Harris, who opened the Nickelodeon on Smithfield Street 50 years earlier.
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The technology was primitive. At the Nickelodeon, a projectionist used carbide tanks to produce light and water loaded with salt to conduct electric current. The film ran through the projector into a bag hung in front of the machine.

(The Pittsburgh Nickelodeon's original hand-cranked projector is on display at the "Points in Time" exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.)

Many theaters used open flame to illuminate the crowded rooms -- which had standing-room-only crowds -- inevitably leading to disasters. Five months after the Nickelodeon opened, an explosion injured 30 people at another Pittsburgh theater. "Amusement is turned to horror," read the headline from a November 1905 paper.

There were other fears, resulting from mixing men and women in the cramped spaces, watching movies.

Hollywood celebrities joined local dignitaries and the family of John P. Harris (his grandchildren are at left) in Pittsburgh to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the movie theater. The gathering included actresses Anita Ekberg and Jarma Lewis, center (in town for the premiere of her 1955 film, "The Cobweb"), and Dan Dailey, second from right.
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"There were not many social spaces at that time that allowed sexes to intermingle in the dark for extended periods of time," said Aronson, the Oregon professor. "The middle class already had a fear of immigrants and a fear of the dangerous other. Sex was bound into that."

Some called for the movies to be shown with the lights on. Others created film review boards, which, of course, still exist today, to monitor the moral themes of the films.

In a 1907 look at the nickelodeon boom in the Saturday Evening Post, Joseph Medill Patterson wrote that "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)."

Remains of the day

The Pittsburgh Nickelodeon was demolished within five years, and movie theaters and the films themselves became larger and more refined. But the importance of the tiny, 96-seat storefront on Smithfield never went away.

"It was a new thing in thrills," E.W. Lightner wrote in the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1919. "The [viewers in the] fewer than 100 seats ... were held spellbound with amazement by the moving picture and wonder as to the means of its production."


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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