Early Movie Audiences
Beginning in the late 1890s, film was becoming the new popular entertainment in cities and towns across the United States. The first film screening in America took place in April 1896 at a New York City music hall, Koster and Bial's. Its success attracted many entrepreneurs into the business.
Makeshift theaters sprung up all over the country. Business owners converted old shops or restaurants into exhibition halls. Patrons sat at tables and watched "flickers" projected onto a screen of muslin or bed sheets while a single musician played frenzied interludes, known as "the Russian hurries," on piano or violin.
The first movie houses were dubbed "nickelodeons," combining the price of admission with the Greek word for theater. By 1908, there were nearly 8,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S. and in two years the number had grown to 10,000. Flashing marquees, glossy posters, noisy phonographs, and player pianos made a great commotion outside the establishments, sparking people's curiosity about this new, dazzling medium.
Mixed Bag of Entertainment
At the Nickelodeon audiences saw a film shown in a mixed bag of live entertainment — singing, dancing, comedy acts, and sound effects. The shows were fifteen to ninety minutes long and changed every couple of days — or sometimes even daily. The film segments could be quickly produced with only rudimentary story lines. The novelty — and the low price — of the moving pictures filled theaters nationwide. A Broadway ticket was quite expensive, but even those with meager salaries could afford a ticket to the nickelodeon. Theater doors opened to people in all walks of life, but initially the seats were filled with European immigrants and the poorest citizens.
Early film entrepreneur Adolph Zukor described the medium's appeal: "You have to understand what was happening in this country to see why movies were catching on. From 1900 to 1910, about nine or ten million immigrants poured in, and because nickelodeon movies were new, cheap, silent and set up no language difficulties, they became a popular pastime." Filmmakers soon realized the potential to incorporate simple plots and humor into their craft, and immigrants delighted in the films. The films told the stories of their lives, relating day-to-day events with humor and melodrama. These simple themes united the audience and their common plight. Often the immigrants did not know English, but these films, with their exaggerated gestures, were lessons in language and culture. The stories soon became part of their social lives and their conversations.
The Democratic Art
While these new members of American society embraced the movies, the upper classes scorned them. Social elites regarded the cinema as cheap, frivolous, and of poor quality. However, an article in The Nation, called the movies "A Democratic Art," and noted that Russian author Leo Tolstoy would have applauded the new art form, as a portrayal of the common man. While at first, movie audiences were located in poor areas of a city or town, business owners began to appreciate the broader appeal of film exhibition and opened theaters in nicer neighborhoods. Middle and upper class patrons started to go to the movies conveniently located in their own neighborhoods. The result was the popularization of movies as mass entertainment.