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Pittsburgh and the Birth of the Film Industry

on Tue, 01/01/2013 - 00:00

Nickelodeon City
Much has been written about Pittsburgh’s ability to lure major motion picture productions to the region during the early part of the Twenty First Century—including the high profile The Dark Knight Rises—but the city actually played a key role during the early days of the film industry as well. Although the initial commercial exhibition of a motion picture occurred in 1894 in New York City, for instance, future offerings were primarily shown by traveling entrepreneurs, much like the vaudeville acts of the time.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the first theater designed exclusively for the presentation of motion pictures opened for business, and the location of that establishment was on Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh.

In his book Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905-1929 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), film historian Michael Aronson traces the history of that theater—known as the Nickelodeon—as well as the budding film industry that grew out of its conception. The name “Nickelodeon” was derived from the price of admission being only a nickel, while the theater itself was the brainchild of John P. Harris and Harry Davis, two local “showman” who had already achieved success in traditional theater and “dime museums” by the time the year 1905 rolled around.

“In its inception, the Nickelodeon was never intended to be particularly meaningful, influential, or revolutionary, just profitable,” Aronson writes. “No celebratory photographs were taken on opening day, no newspaper ads were placed, and no business records appear to have been saved. Simply put, the Nickelodeon was not started by these men with an explicit plan or a distinct vision to change the course of film history. Instead, the Nickelodeon was part of a larger set of overlapping businesses in which two hustling entrepreneurs relentlessly experimented with their pitch and product, shows and theaters.”

While the Nickelodeon may have been just another business venture to John Harris and Harry Davis, the instant success of the establishment encouraged others to open similar theaters not only throughout the city, but around the entire country as well. These “nickelodeons” flourished via a continuous stream of short motion pictures that often changed daily, keeping the content fresh for an ever growing segment of the population that was both curious and willing to pay the relatively cheap price of a nickel for their entertainment.

In order to accommodate the increasing demand for new motion pictures, side businesses were soon established to facilitate the rental of films to the various nickelodeons within a set region. Because the city is surrounded by three rivers that offer easy access to many major metropolises, Pittsburgh quickly became a hub within this “film exchange” trade.

The advent of the feature film and the growth of the movie studio system eventually led to a more streamlined method of distribution for motion pictures, but three of the initial entrepreneurs who opened film exchanges within the confines of the Steel City played key roles in the further development of the film industry nonetheless.

Harry and Albert Warner were two brothers from Ohio, for instance, who got caught up in the nickelodeon craze and briefly relocated to Pittsburgh to launch Duquesne Amusement in late 1906, a small but ultimately successful film exchange in the city. The siblings ultimately sold their business and took their profits with them to California, where they founded the legendary Warner Brothers Studios with fellow brothers Sam and Jack.

Richard Rowland and James Clark, meanwhile, were native Pittsburghers who likewise initially entered the film industry by opening a film exchange. In 1910, General Film Corporation purchased their business for millions of dollars, making Rowland and Clark very rich men in the process. The two used the proceeds to open a number of movie theaters within the region, including the Regent in East Liberty.

With its outside Italian façade, elaborate goldfish-filled marble fountain, upholstered opera chairs and air conditioned environment, the Regent is more representative of modern day cinemas than the nickelodeons of its time. It was also a reflection of the changes within the film industry as it moved away from short films to longer “features” and began to attract a more upscale clientele to go along with its initial working-class patrons.

While James Clark was content with his substantial entertainment holdings in Pittsburgh, Richard Rowland soon left the Steel City for New York and California. He founded Metro Pictures in 1915, which produced the World War I drama The Four Horses of the Apocalypse, the film that launched the legendary career of Rudolph Valentino. When actors Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith banded together to form their own motion picture studio, United Artists, in 1919, Rowland uttered a quip that has been part of our modern day lexicon ever since—“The inmates are taking over the asylum.”

Richard Rowland eventually sold Metro Pictures to exhibitor Marcus Lowe, who already owned Goldwyn Picture Corporation. When Lowe merged his film operations with that of Louis B. Mayer in 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM, was born, giving Pittsburgh direct ties to two of the major motion pictures studios of not only the Twentieth Century but the Twenty First as well.

As Michael Aronson explains in Nickelodeon City: Pittsburgh at the Movies, 1905-1929, the time was ripe by 1905 for theaters designed specifically for the exhibition of motion pictures to take hold in the United States, and Pittsburgh was the perfect locale for that first theater. Early motion pictures were short in nature, and with its relatively cheap price of only five cents, the initial audience for these films was the same working class that dominated the Pittsburgh region.

With the eventual consolidation of the industry and development of the studio system in Hollywood—along with larger conglomerates dominating the physical theaters throughout the country—the small, local nickelodeons died out, along with Pittsburgh’s influence on the industry.

One cannot evaluate the history of motion pictures, however, without including Pittsburgh and the original Nickelodeon as part of the discussion. As Michael Aronson succinctly writes, “If the movies were once chiefly believed to offer audiences an experience unvaried by space, place, person, or time, this literal snapshot of the Theatorium, a theater started by immigrants and run by their American-born children in a neighborhood of mill workers and their families, is a visible reminder of a history of the motion pictures as much determined by exhibition and consumption as by production, as much by Pittsburgh as by Hollywood.”

Anthony Letizia

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