Silent Films... Or Were They?
Updated: May 4
Silent films and the era in which they were popular (approx. 1891-1927) have fascinated many. But have you ever wondered what it would be like to sit in a movie theater in 1910, watching these films—especially in the heat of summer? The answer to that question is what inspired me to write Dear Maude and, eventually, the remaining books of The Dear Maude Trilogy.
What did these theaters look like inside and out? What was it like to visit one, and what kept the viewers coming back? Let's unpack our senses and go on a tour of the movie theaters of a bygone era.
Some of the first movie theaters, called "Nickelodeons" because of their five-cent admission, were converted storefronts displaying, often on painted signs, the movie price and the type of entertainment people could expect once they entered. A phonograph played at the entrance or within the lobby to help attract movie-goers.
In today's world, even when outside temperatures reach 117 degrees Fahrenheit, I have to bundle up in a sweater and smuggle in a cup of cocoa to keep from freezing if I want to watch a movie on the big screen. But that wasn't the case when silent films were the rage.
Inside most Nickelodeons, the "spectators" would find themselves in a dark, poorly ventilated room filled with hard, wooden seats or folding chairs. These early theaters typically sat less than 200 people, leaving some standing. Fortunately at first, many of the films were short, lasting about ten minutes, and some ran continuously, allowing patrons to come and go. And in the summer? You guessed it, no A/C. Many considered these theaters a health hazard because of the stuffy conditions for the people packed into such a confined space. And propping the doors open wasn't always an option if traffic noise and daylight were just outside.
Grabbing a bag of popcorn and a large pop before finding a seat wasn't an option in these early theaters. People either brought their snacks or, in later years, bought popcorn and peanuts from vendors who paid for the privilege to walk the theater aisles. Soon restaurants and shops sprang up around the theaters to offer movie-goers more meal and snack options.
Once in their uncomfortable seats, spectators would view the movie on muslin screens or a white wall, if they could see around the feather-embellished hats or bowlers of the people sitting in front of them. In advertisements shown on the screen before the films, people were encouraged to remove their hats and to refrain from talking and smoking.
With or without a clear view of the screen, spectators would have quickly realized that watching these supposedly silent films wasn't a quiet experience. From talking patrons to piano or organ music accompanying the movie, the only thing silent about these films was the movie dialogue, shown on the screen between scenes. Unfortunately, about 7.7 percent of the adult population in 1910 was illiterate, so some couldn't even get the full experience.
So why did they bother? Simply put, moving pictures were novel, affordable, and, most of all, entertaining.
And the entertainment didn't stop with the audience members or the movies and accompanying music. Between the films, live vaudeville acts performed in the Nickelodeons. "Illustrated songs," or short slide shows, of sorts, that "illustrated" song lyrics, also were shown between the films and while film reels were changed. As films became longer and more popular and could stand alone without other entertainment between shows, venues called "movie palaces" replaced Nickelodeons. Starting later in the 1910s, these larger, ornate theaters housed larger audiences in more comfortable seating.
In The Dear Maude Trilogy, would Emily Stanton have visited a movie theater in 1910? Probably not. Emily was a lady, more likely to attend the opera than a nickel movie in a dark, stuffy theater. Aside from that, Emily wasn't living in the past to be entertained, rather she was there to be an asset to Evergreen Research Corporation, collecting data on others that could eventually be used against them. Her life was a horror classic in the making with nowhere to escape, including a Nickelodeon.
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Further reading on the silent movie era: