This Day in History: June 19th

This Day In History: June 19, 1905

ComiqueTheatreThe first baby step toward red carpet galas and Brangelina was the introduction of the first nickelodeon theater on June 19, 1905 in Pittsburgh, PA. The nickelodeon, whose odd name was a combination of the five cent admission price and “odeon,” the Greek word for theater, became an instant smash.

The idea began with a showman named Harry Davis, the owner of several playhouses and penny arcades in the Pittsburgh area. Moving pictures had already been invented, and Davis noted they were always big crowd pleasers when he showcased them at his various enterprises.

Davis shrewdly realized that moving pictures were going to be the Next Big Thing, so he decided it was worth the investment to show them in a stand-alone venue, instead of merely making them an additional attraction at his other entertainment businesses.

In partnership with his brother-n-law John Harris, Harry Davis bought a building on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh for an estimated $40,000. It seated 96 patrons with standing room for at least 100 more. It was decorated in mock-opulence to emulate the opera houses of the time, so the generally working-class audiences could feel they were in the lap of luxury.

The day the nickelodeon opened its doors, 450 people paid their nickel to watch a moving picture. The next day, 1,500 people turned up to see what all the fuss was about. Before long, 7,000 were patronizing the theater – which was open from 8 am until midnight – on a daily basis.

Naturally, concerned citizens almost immediately began denouncing the nickelodeon, worried that kids were spending too much time at the movies being exposed to violent and sexual themes. Others were aghast at the idea of women mixing with strange men in a dark room, while some were put off by the immigrant laborers attracted to the silent picture shows, which could be enjoyed no matter what your mother tongue.

This first theater inspired entrepreneurs across the country to open their own nickelodeons to cash in on the moving picture craze. In just two years, over 2,500 nickelodeons had opened nationally; however, the craze was relatively short-lived.

Within five short years the original nickelodeon in Pittsburgh was torn down to make way for a larger movie theater, and many old nickelodeons met the same fate. The only evidence to mark the existence of the old movie house is a bronze plaque hanging near its original Smithfield St. address that reads: “This was the beginning of the motion picture theatre industry.”

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