to The History of American Film: Primary Sources
Nickel Madness,” Barton W. Currie, Harper's Weekly,
August 24, 1907
article provides a vivid first-hand description of early movie
theaters at a time when the movies were just beginning to become
Crusades have been organized against these low-priced moving-picture
theatres, and many conservators of the public morals have denounced
them as vicious and demoralizing. Yet have they flourished amazingly,
and carpenters are busy hammering them up in every big and little
community in the country.
The first "nickelodeons," or "nickelet," or
whatever it was originally called was merely an experiment, and
the first experiment was made more than a year ago. There was
nothing singularly novel in the idea, only the individualizing
of the motion-picture machine. Before it had served merely as
a "turn" in vaudeville. For a very modest sum the outfit
could be housed in a narrow store or in a shack in the rear yard
of a tenement, provided there was an available hallway and the
space for a "front." These shacks and shops are packed
with as many chairs as they will hold and the populace welcomed,
or rather hailed, by a huge megaphone-horn and lurid placards.
The price of admission and entertainment for from fifteen to twenty
minutes is a coin of the smallest denomination in circulation
west of the Rockies.
In some vaudeville houses you may watch a diversity of performances
four hours for so humble a price as ten cents, provided you are
willing to sit among the rafters. Yet the roof bleachers were
never so profitable as the tiny show-places that have fostered
the nickel madness.
Before the dog-days set in, licenses were being granted in Manhattan
Borough alone at the rate of one a day for these little hurry-up-and-be-amused
booths. They are categorized as "common shows," thanks
to the Board of Aldermen. A special ordinance was passed to rate
them under this heading. Thereby they were enabled to obtain a
license for $25 for the first year, and $12.50 for the second
year. The City Fathers did this before Anthony Comstock [the Purity
Crusader] and others rose up and proclaimed against them. A full
theatrical license costs $500.
A eloquent plea was made for these humble resorts by many "friends
of the peepul." They offered harmless diversion for the poor.
They were edifying, educational, and amusing. They were broadening.
They revealed the universe to the unsophisticated. The variety
of the skipping, dancing, flashing, and maching pictures was without
limit. For five cents you were admitted to the realms of the prize
ring; you might witness the celebration of a Pontifical mass in
St. Peter's; Kaiser Wilhelm would prance before you. reviewing
his Uhlans. Yes, and even more surprising, you were offered a
modern conception of Washington crossing the Delaware "acted
out by a trained group of actors." Under the persuasive force
of such arguments, was it strange that the Aldermen befriended
the nickelodeon man and gave impetus to the craze.
Three hundred licenses were issued within the past year in the
Borough of Manhattan alone for common shows. Two hundred of these
were for nickelets. They are becoming vastly popular in Brooklyn.
They are springing up in the shady places of Queens, and down
on Staten Island you will find them in the most unexpected bosky
dells, or rising in little rakish shacks on the mosquito flats.
Already statisticians have been estimating how many men, women,
and children in the metropolis are being thrilled daily by them.
A conservative figure puts it at 200,000, though if I were to
accept the total of the showmen the estimate would be nearer half
a million But like all statisticians, who reckon human beings
with the same unemotional placidity with which they total beans
and potatoes, the statistician I have quoted left out the babies.
In a visit to a dozen of these moving-picture hutches I counted
an average of ten babies to each theatre-et. Of course they were
in their mothers' or the nurse-girls' arms. But they were there
are you heard them. They did not disturb the show, as there were
no counter-sounds, and many of them seemed profoundly absorbed
in the moving pictures.
As a matter of fact, some mothers--and all nurse-girls--will tell
you that the cinematograph has a peculiarly hypnotic or narcotic
effect upon an infant predisposed to disturb the welkin. You will
visit few of these places in Harlem were the doorways are not
encumbered with go-carts and perambulators. Likewise they are
prodigiously popular with the rising generation in frock and knickerbocker.
For this reason they have been condemned by the morality crusaders.
The chief argument against them was that they corrupted the young.
Children of any size who could transport a nickel to the cashier's
booth were welcomed. Furthermore, undesirables of many kinds haunted
them. Pickpockets found them splendidly convenient, for the lights
were always cut off when the picture-machine was focused on the
canvas. There is no doubt about the fact that many rogues and
miscreants obtained licenses and set up these little show-places
merely as snares and traps. There were many who thought they had
sufficient pull to defy decency in the choice of their slides.
Proprietors were said to work hand in glove with lawbreakers.
Some were accused of wanton designs to corrupt young girls. Police-Commissioner
Bingham denounced the nickel madness as pernicious, demoralizing,
and a direct menace to the young.
But the Commissioner's denunciation was rather too sweeping. His
detectives managed to suppress indecencies and immoralities. As
for their being a harbor for pickpockets, is it not possible that
even they visit these humble places for amusement?....
But if you happen to be an outlaw you may learn many moral lessons
from these brief moving-picture performances, for most of the
slides offer you a quick flash of melodrama in which the villain
and criminal are always getting the worst of it. Pursuits of malefactors
are by far the most popular of all nickel deliriums. You may see
snatch-purses, burglars, and an infinite variety of criminals
hunted by the police and the mob in almost any nickelet you have
the curiosity to visit. The scenes of these thrilling chases occur
in every quarter of the globe, from Cape Town to Medicine Hat.
speed with which pursuer and pursued run is marvelous. Never are
you cheated by a mere sprint or straightaway flight of a few blocks.
The men who "fake" these moving pictures seem impelled
by a moral obligation to give their patrons their full nickel's
worth. I have seen dozens of these kinetoscope fugitives run at
least forty miles before they collided with a fat woman carrying
an umbrella, who promptly sat on them and held them for the puffing
The popularity of these cheap amusement-places with the new population
of New York is not to be wondered at. The newly arrived immigrant
from Transylvania can get as much enjoyment out of them as the
native. The imagination is appealed to directly and without any
circumlocution. The child whose intelligence has just awakened
and the doddering old man seem to be on an equal footing in the
stuffy little box-like theatres. The passer-by with an idle quarter
of an hour on his hands has an opportunity to kill the time swiftly,
if he is not above mingling with the hoi polloi. Likewise the
student of sociology may get a few points that he could not obtain
in a day's journey through the thronged streets of the East Side.
Of course the proprietors of the nickelets and nickelodeons make
as much capital out of suggestiveness as possible, but it rarely
goes beyond a hint or a lure. For instance, you will come to a
little hole in the wall before which there is an ornate sign bearing
the legend: FRESH FROM PARIS Very Naughty.
Should this catch the eye of a Comstock he would immediately enter
the place to gather evidence. But he would never apply for a warrant.
He would find a "very naughty" boy playing pranks on
a Paris street--annoying blind men, tripping up gendarmes, and
amusing himself by every antic the ingenuity of the Paris street
gamin can conceive.
This fraud on the prurient, as it might be called, is very common,
and it has led a great many people, who derive their impressions
from a glance at externals, to conclude that these resorts are
really a menace to morals. You will hear and see much worse in
some high-priced theatres than in these moving-picture show-places.
In some of the crowded quarters of the city the nickelet is cropping
up almost as thickly as the saloons, and if the nickel delirium
continues to maintain its hold there will be, in a few years,
more of these cheap amusement-places than saloons. Even now some
of the saloon-keepers are complaining that they injure their trade.