Electric Theatre

The earliest documented account of an exhibition of projected motion pictures in the United States was in June 1894 in Richmond, Indiana by Charles Francis Jenkins.

Jenkins used his Phantoscope to project his film before an audience of family, friends and reporters. The film featured a vaudeville dancer performing a Butterfly Dance. Jenkins and his new partner Thomas Armat modified the Phantoscope for exhibitions in temporary theaters at the Cotton States Exposition in the fall of 1895. The Phantoscope was later sold to Thomas Edison, who changed the name of the projector to Edison’s Vitascope. With the Vitascope, Edison began public showings of his films at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall on 34th Street in New York City on April 23, 1896. However, the first “storefront theater” in the US dedicated exclusively to showing motion pictures was Vitascope Hall, established on Canal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana July 26, 1896—it was converted from a vacant store.

The first permanent motion picture theater in the state of California was Tally’s Electric Theater, completed in 1902 in Los Angeles. Tally’s theater was in a storefront in a larger building. The Great Train Robbery (1903), which was 12 minutes in length, would also give the film industry a boost.

In 1905, John P. Harris and Harry Davis opened a five-cents-admission movie theater in a Pittsburgh storefront, naming it the Nickelodeon and setting the style for the first common type of movie theater. By 1908 there were thousands of storefront Nickelodeons, Gems and Bijous across North America. A few theaters from the nickelodeon era are still showing films today. In 2008, the owners of the Korsør Biograf Teater in Korsør, Denmark, discovered that they were operating a movie theater that opened in August 1908. They were accepted by Guinness World Records (to appear in the 2010 edition of the book) as the oldest still-operating movie theater in the world. A similar claim is made for L’Idéal Cinéma in Aniche, France, which first showed a film on September 23, 1905, but it served another purpose for a few years, was closed for many years, and was rebuilt in modern style in the 1990s.

In 1912, the Picture House, in Clevedon, England, opened with a charity film performance to raise funds for the victims of the Titanic disaster, and has been showing movies continuously since. The 1913 opening of the Regent Theater in New York City signaled a new respectability for the medium, and the start of the two-decade heyday of American cinema design. The million dollar Mark Strand Theatre at 47th Street and Broadway in New York City opened in 1914 by Mitchell Mark was the archetypical movie palace. The ornate Al. Ringling Theatre was built in Baraboo, WI by Al Ringling, one of the founders of the Ringling Bros. Circus, for the then-incredible sum of $100,000.00. Los Angeles showman Sid Grauman continued the trend of theater-as-destination with his ornate “Million Dollar Theater”, using the same design firm as Ringling. It opened on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles in 1918.

In 1915, the tremendous success of The Birth of a Nation helped to establish the supremacy of feature films, which forced the owners of five-cent theaters to increase the ticket price to ten cents or more, then either remodel to provide a more comfortable and pleasant environment or relocate to a bigger and better auditorium, bringing the nickelodeon era to an end.