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Mary Pickford | Article

Entertainment Before the Movies

Today, motion pictures are a popular entertainment -- screened in theaters, at home, even in cars and airplanes. Yet the devices and techniques for making movies are barely over a century old. What did Americans do for entertainment before filmmaking technology existed?

Library of Congress

The Piano Craze
Before recorded music existed, playing music and singing were marks of accomplishment for young women, especially after the 1820s, as more Americans prospered and could aspire to luxuries like parlor pianos. The nation's first great songwriter, Stephen Foster, wrote popular "high culture" songs for proper young ladies — his "Beautiful Dreamer" is an example. He also wrote minstrel songs, to appeal to a different audience.

Touring Minstrels
Minstrel shows were a popular working class entertainment in the decades before the Civil War. White performers with blackened faces sang and danced in skits that presented caricatures of slaves. The audiences participated actively and the atmosphere could get rowdy. Performing companies of minstrels toured around the country.

Shows for Families
The popular theatrical shows of the 1850s and 1860s were often lewd, and designed for a male audience. The shows presented a variety of entertainment: dancing girls, comics, singers and musicians. In an effort to attract bigger audiences, performers and managers adapted their material for families. By keeping ticket prices low and the jokes clean, business owners drew in huge crowds. The new shows became known as Vaudeville.

All-in-One Entertainment
In Vaudeville's heyday, from the 1880s to the 1920s, Americans made it their favorite form of entertainment. Defined by its blend of cultural traditions, the genre with the French name incorporated minstrelsy, Yiddish theater, and the English music hall (a Victorian version of the variety show). Performers of all kinds toured the country in troupes, putting on shows in big cities and small towns. A typical performance included 12 or more acts ranging from comedy to circus. Vaudevillians were well-rounded performers with an impressive repertoire of skills that included juggling, acrobatics, singing, dancing, and magic.

Bad Reputation
Members of traveling Vaudeville troupes might spend months, even years on the road, making only enough money to get by. With transient lifestyles and unusual skills, actors were looked upon with suspicion and grudging admiration. Many families went into to acting to pay their bills, including the Gish and Smith families. Charlotte Smith, Mary Pickford's mother, disdained the theater's reputation, but allowed Mary to go on stage. It was the only way to support the family.

A Broadway Legend
Broadway theater was the pinnacle of entertainment for the wealthy -- and the career ambition of every actor. David Belasco worked his way through the ranks of stage manager and playwright to become one of Broadway's elite producers. Belasco's career began when he was hired to manage the Madison Square Theater in 1882. He also co-wrote hit plays with Henry C. De Mille. He would later mentor De Mille's sons, William C. and Cecil B., in playwriting and the art of drama. Belasco was known for the physical and emotional tests he would force upon his actors: he would strike an actor to provoke a reaction, and in fits of rage over a performance, he would tear his watch off and smash it with his heel. Often his displays were calculated: he was known to wear a fake watch. Some of his productions were "The Girl I Left Behind Me" (1893), "Heart of Maryland" (1895), "Zaza" (1899), and "Madame Butterfly" (1900).

The Great White Way
Broadway's exclusive shows catered to the upper classes, with matinee tickets costing as much as $2.50 in 1908 (around $50 in today's dollars). Theaters were full of plush, velvet seats and ornate architecture. In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison's practical system of electricity transformed the gas-lit theaters. The first electric marquee illuminated Times Square in 1903 and soon every theater was advertising in bright lights, giving Broadway its nickname: the Great White Way. And another Edison invention, the motion picture camera, was about to create its own transformation of American entertainment.

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