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Nickelodeon City

Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905-1929

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Nickelodeon City
    Book Description:

    From the 1905 opening of the wildly popular, eponymous Nickelodeon in the city's downtown to the subsequent outgrowth of nickel theaters in nearly all of its neighborhoods, Pittsburgh proved to be perfect for the movies. Its urban industrial environment was a melting pot of ethnic, economic, and cultural forces-a "wellspring" for the development of movie culture-and nickelodeons offered citizens an inexpensive respite and handy escape from the harsh realities of the industrial world.Nickelodeon Cityprovides a detailed view inside the city's early film trade, with insights into the politics and business dealings of the burgeoning industry. Drawing from the pages of the Pittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletin, the first known regional trade journal for the movie business, Michael Aronson profiles the major promoters in Pittsburgh, as well as many lesser-known ordinary theater owners, suppliers, and patrons. He examines early film promotion, distribution, and exhibition, and reveals the earliest forms of state censorship and the ensuing political lobbying and manipulation attempted by members of the movie trade. Aronson also explores the emergence of local exhibitor-based cinema, in which the exhibitor assumed control of the content and production of film, blurring the lines between production, consumption, and local and mass media.Nickelodeon Cityoffers a fascinating and intimate view of a city and the socioeconomic factors that allowed an infant film industry to blossom, as well as the unique cultural fabric and neighborhood ties that kept nickelodeons prospering even after Hollywood took the industry by storm.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7386-7
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. 1 NICKELS AND STEEL: An Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    In the spring of 1914, one quiet Sunday morning, they posed for the photograph. Oscar stood self-assuredly, hand on hip, while Stephanie, neatly dressed, was shadowed in the booth. The neighborhood boy’s blurred attendance at the photo’s edge was likely accidental, unnoticed until the photographer made his print. The Gorseks were pleased with their theater—the grandly named Theatorium—as well as its new display. The draped American flags did double duty, announcing their proud patriotism while colorfully promoting their newest offering, Pathé’s two-reel Civil War photoplay,In The Days of War. “Feature” films like this one were a recent...

    (pp. 16-49)

    Poor Sol Leight. All he really wanted was to collect “as many nickels as possible while the rush [was] on.” On June 19, 1905, John P. Harris and Harry Davis had opened on Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh a theater they called the Nickelodeon. Unlike those already successful showmen, however, in the fall of 1905 Leight could not afford to pay the rising rents in the city’s downtown Golden Triangle. So instead he leased a small storefront from Hy Gerwig on Penn Avenue in the Strip, just around the corner from the Chautauqua Lake Ice House, in a busy area...

    (pp. 50-103)

    In 1914, thePittsburgh Moving Picture Bulletinbegan with two goals: to sustain development of a local community of men (and a few women) who shared the movies as business and passion; and to promote the long-needed increase in theater admission prices in Pittsburgh beyond the profit-thin nickel. Almost a decade after Harris and Davis helped spark nationwide nickel madness, virtually every movie house in Pittsburgh continued to charge its patrons the same five cents, regardless of size of theater, type of neighborhood, or length of show. From the grandest new theater in the city’s wealthiest enclave to the smallest...

    (pp. 104-153)

    In the first week of June 1916, theBulletin’s editor had an inch left over at the bottom of page twelve. Into that otherwise easily missed space went a brief and somewhat bewildering accolade for exhibitor Harry Mintz. Mintz was the owner of the Evaline, a two-hundred-seat theater in the largely Italian immigrant neighborhood of Bloomfield. According to theBulletin, Mintz was “running a Swat-The-Fly stunt that is doing him tremendous business.”¹ No photograph was included with this odd if positive notice, and no further explanation of Swat-the-Fly was forthcoming in a later edition of theBulletin. However puzzling this...

    (pp. 154-207)

    In many ways, it was just another stunt—an attempt by one minor independent production company to grab the spotlight and call attention to itself. The difference this time, however, was the publicity seekers were not looking to ballyhoo a theater, star, or particular film. Rather, on June 3, 1916, Vim Comedies, a short-lived but prolific studio specializing in one- and two-reel slapsticks, ran a brief ad in a number of New York City morning papers:

    That varmint, Censorship, has been maraudin’ round too long—an’ we’re goin’ to get him Friday night at the Garden an’ string him up....

    (pp. 208-247)

    Apparently, Charlie was cheap. Charlie Silveus was the owner and operator of the Eclipse Moving Picture Theater in Waynesburg Pennsylvania, a town of four thousand residents some fifty miles south of Pittsburgh, not far from the West Virginia border. In the (re)telling of this comedic routine, we are reminded that Pittsburgh was at once both a cityanda region. To delineate Pittsburgh, to determine where its moving picture history begins and where it ends, is not simply a matter of topography. The minstrel’s humor is local; those in the Waynesburg audience that laughed that night did so because they...

    (pp. 248-254)

    Charlie Silveus died in 1957. His local films, however, remained—saved by his son, Charles Jr., who continued to run the family’s restaurant in Waynesburg after his father’s death. Charlie Jr. eventually grew old, retired, and, unlike his father, moved away from the town where he had been born and raised. In preparation for his departure, the son divided his possessions into those he would take and those he would discard. His father’s reels of film would be left behind. Although Charlie Jr. had not followed his father into the movie business, he knew enough about the incendiary dangers of...