Film History: From Vaudeville Houses to Deluxe Theaters

 
          Vaudeville houses existed long before nickelodeons and movie theaters. The main idea behind a vaudeville house was to display live acts, each lasting between five to ten minutes to an audience. While the upper class wouldn’t venture into these houses, by the late 1800’s they were the dominant form of mass entertainment. The acts often showed the unusual, or comedic acts, and various other entertaining acts such as magician performances. Their success was probably due to the very cheap admission price, between five to ten cents. There was also a weekly change of acts and this worked out perfectly because performers would travel from all over the country to perform their acts to different audiences in different states. That way there was always something new to the audience and the performers were constantly in employment. This method was called the interstate vaudeville circuit and was one of the main reasons why people were drawn to these houses week after week. 

          However, the significance of vaudeville houses to motion picture history can be traced back to when the Lumiere brothers arrived to the US. Once there, they would hook their cinematograph to the magic lantern and project their short films to a live audience in vaudeville houses. Edison naturally felt that they were a threat to his growing empire of film business since prior to their arrival people could only watch these short films individually through a kinetoscope. People were getting tired of these single film presentations and the idea of watching a short film with a large audience seemed a lot more appealing and therefore Edison imitated the Lumiere brothers and projected his short films in vaudeville houses across the nation as well. One can clearly see how vaudeville houses triggered the idea of a modern theater. The friendly atmosphere and crowded audience lead to nickelodeons. Nickelodeons would then coexist with vaudeville houses but primarily focused on short films instead of acts. Later on deluxe theaters were built and they became the go to place for film fans, yet it all started with these old fashioned vaudeville houses that introduced the simple idea of an audience sitting together to enjoy some sort of entertainment for a low admission price. This helped the film industry find its target audience, everyone.   

        The deluxe theater plays a very significant role in establishing the early development of film. The reason for that being is because prior to these theaters being built, nickelodeons and vaudeville houses would only play short films. One may very well claim that the rise of deluxe theaters lead to the decline to both vaudeville houses and nickelodeons. While nickelodeons and vaudeville houses co-existed often playing short films and acts with nickelodeons playing more fictional short films than having acts performed and vaudeville houses vice versa, both were the public’s main source of entertainment. However by 1915 and the success of feature films, everything changed. Deluxe theaters were newly constructed and built unlike nickelodeons which evolved from vaudeville houses. These theaters were not a conversion of any sort, for feature films could not play on nickelodeons and so they had to build deluxe theaters. 

          Now that the film industry was booming, the deluxe theater offered a lot more than the old fashion entertainment houses. Firstly, they were a lot larger having the ability to hold a capacity of up to 6000 seats. There was the casual weekly change of program and each week the decorative exterior would light up a new movie title in colorful light bulbs. They also offered a better service for a lot of labor was required to operate a deluxe theater from ticket sales to ushers walking customers to their assigned seats, etc. Naturally with better service and a cleaner environment, the prices went up. Instead of paying five or ten cents, tickets cost between one and two dollars. Therefore films were no longer for the lower class only, and eventually the middle and upper class would consider films as an appropriate form of entertainment. S.L. Rothafel can be credited with making deluxe theaters such a pleasant environment, for his motto was to treat the audience like kings and queens. He later added a cooling system and theaters were air conditioned for the first time in history. However with all these special services such as printed programs, and air conditioned theaters, the film industry never lost its audience for everyone could afford to attend these theaters every once in a while. In fact, these deluxe theaters only made motion pictures the dominant form of entertainment. 

The Virginia Theater in 1921

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19 responses to this post.

  1. Great piece from a fascinating time period — the evolution from live acts to nickelodeons to feature films. Oh, for the days of the movie palace…

    Reply

    • Thank you! That time period fascinates me. I’ve read countless books about the history of motion pictures and I never get tired of it.

      Reply

      • Hi,

        I own a (Boutique Movie Theater) beautiful island, Hilton Head Island, SC and planning on doing a documentary on the history of the movie theater industry.I am looking for historical facts. Please contact me. We are doing changes that have never been done. We are in the middle of a revolution in this industry and the story has never been told! “Without awareness, change can’t happen” Nelson Campbell director/writer of (PlantPure Nation and Forks Over Knives”
        luciemann@hotmail.com

  2. Lovely post Wael. Vaudeville (/ early cinema) history is a subject I never tire of either. I’m also fascinated by the similar history of British music hall. (My great-grandmother saw Will Hay on a musical hall stage in the days before his film career and maintained to her death that his films – some of the finest British comedies – weren’t anywhere near as funny as his stage act.)

    Reply

    • I wish we’d live at times like these when nothing was digital. As for “The Others”, I believe it’s one of the greatest horror films ever made. I wish you best of luck with your piece and I also epect a link to it once you’ve written it 🙂

      Reply

  3. This is intriguing piece about the origin of theaters we’re familiar with. I’m not good at film history and haven’t read many books on it, so this is quite helpful to me.

    Now or then, the audience are always important. Too bad we’re sometimes treated with useless big-budget junks nowadays.

    Reply

  4. Interesting how movies killed vaudeville, while at the same time becoming the only way that those acts have been preserved to the present day. I also wonder if early actors in films could display a wider range of emotions that is common nowadays not only because they were in silent films (and so had to use body language much more than modern performers do), but also because they all had training in live theatre, whether it be vaudeville or plays. And certainly, one had to be very good to make it in vaudeville.

    Reply

    • I never thought of it this way 🙂 Thanks. Yeah movies killed vaudeville but also gave it eternal life. As for the evolution of acting, I agree it started out very physical with overacting facial expressions and gradually became more and more real. I will say though that the actors back then probably had a lot more confidence. It’s easier to represent anger by shouting then expressing a convincing facial reaction.

      I think filmmakers nowadays should realize that not everything should be expressed through words or memorable lines. Sometimes a wordless scene can be ten times as shocking and haunting then with the inclusion of “in your face” dialogue. Come to think of it, most incidents in life occur in utter silence.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Don on May 25, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    What this made me think of is the track of time on cultural structures. What I mean is that through all time technology has caused shifts in what humans ‘do.’ I always think of the printing press and how it changed the industry of information. Then there are these places that we gather based on our cultural interests just for enjoyment. Theater. Live, recorded, whatever. It’s always part of any society. Always. For me nowadays, I’d rather watch most recorded media at home. Technology and production has made it so affordable to set up a decent playback environment and I can bring my own popcorn (slam to the vending prices). I’d rather see live events when I go out in crowds.

    It is interesting to see what it’s turning into. In ‘Brave New World’ published in 1932, Huxley’s theater people go to ‘Feelies’. Feelies plugged right into your neurotransmitters and completely tricked out your brain by adding touch to sight and sound. That always made me think of the root of Movies; Moving Pictures to Talkies and how it evolved to Feelies. In most ways we’re trying to do that with 3d, etc. to keep it alive.

    Anyhow, there’s a few movies I was glad to see in a theater crowd. Kill Bill 1 was probably better because of the crowd that night. When I was younger I’d see a movie a week, but now, maybe I’ll go out and see a couple in a year. Nice article. Take care.

    Reply

    • Thank you, Don.

      Some films I’d rather see with an audience and some I’d rather see at home. But theaters belong to cinema. It’s like having a private stage with actors doing a play just for you. It doesn’t work that way. Some films are meant to be experienced by a huge body of people. We share laughs and scares and it’s beautiful. It’s the only place I can think of where a large group of people experience the same excitment and emotion. There’s a connection between a film and the audience. I’ve seen films without crowds in private screenings only to love them much more when experienced with the warmth of surrounding everyday people.

      The printing press was the second revolutionary movement in mass communication. (The first being phonetic writing from 1000 B.C.) and the third revolution are computers saving digital data. There’s a link to all of them. All three share the concept of writing and sharing it with a crowd. If anything they should build mre bigger and classier theaters not find a way to replace them. It’s called expanding to what we have. Like the printing press and the computer, it’s expansion. The FCC decision to make films available at home before their theatrical releases is a step back. The future seems dull, I can sense a couple of hundred years from now people won’t need to leave their living room for anything…how depressing.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Film Appreciator on May 27, 2010 at 11:54 am

    What an insightful article!! And written in a very readable fashion too. Thanks for that.

    I find myself thinking about how film would have evolved in my country, India, that is. There are definitely a lot of parallels in the sense that the actors of the yesteryear, even here, had a wide range of emotions that they would clearly display. It probably could be attributed either to a change in the way movies are being made/perceived (an evolution of directorial ethos to reflect the times, to stay current) or to the fact that most people who star as leads in movies being made today in India start as novices with no experience in acting. Some of them, to their credit, do get better with experience. Now, this practice of overemphasizing your facial or bodily movements can be quite out of place at times but it can also be very relevant and appropriate to a situation while in some cases it can be downright funny too.

    Can you suggest some interesting books you have read on film history or analysis or the art of movie making please? Thank you.

    Reply

    • Yes! I can. I read a lot of books about film history. However, one stands tall above the rest. It’s ‘Movie Made America’. by Robert Skylar. It’s easily readable, very informative, and engaging.

      I also agree with you on the acting part. Acting is a combination of both physical and verbal imitation. If you can pull both off, then you’re talented.

      The evolution of film is a very interesting subject as films reflect the times they were released in. The book I recommended explores that in detail going from the very start all the way to today.

      Best Regards,
      Wael Khairy

      Reply

  7. Hi, I like your writing on this Film History article.
    I think it’s interesting and also informative at the same time.
    Looking forward for your next smart postings.

    Thank U 🙂

    Reply

  8. […] built by Lucien and Clarence Oakley, who made of the Oakley the area’s first movie theater and vaudeville house. Opened in 1924 with the astronomical cost of $150.000, the Oakley Theater boasted an equally […]

    Reply

  9. […] push the boundaries of entertainment. As films grew in stature and popularity, propelled by the emergence of nickelodeon theaters and deluxe picture houses solely designed to show movies, the popularity of […]

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